Fire up the blues with enough drive and railroad locomotion and you’ve got boogie woogie, a musical feeling that’s joyful and danceable and flexible enough to wrap around pure country, jumping jazz or rock ‘n’ roll. Rockabilly music is 90% boogie woogie and so was our show this week, a show celebrating Sun Records and the magical ears and monumental work ethic of the late great Sam Phillips. A week after we offered one of our most diverse shows ever, this Wednesday night’s lineup, produced in partnership with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, made for one of the most thematically and musically cohesive bills in our history. I wasn’t surprised by the intensity, beauty and truthfulness of the performances. These were all renowned masters and icons of deep American roots. But it was curious that show opener Colin Linden came on stage singing “I wanna boogie” and that the four artists who followed did just that.
Peter Cooper performed the first music of the night with a crafty, lyrically twisty song custom written for this occasion about the Sam Phillips philosophy, called “Perfect Imperfection.” What a gesture and what an example of bright creativity on deadline! Then Colin Linden not only commanded the stage himself with a mix of original songs and fresh takes on blues standards, he introduced us to the night’s house band, which rehearsed and sound checked all day and would play behind everyone on this three hour epic. (Merit badges please for Linden, plus keyboardist Kevin McKendree, bass player Dave Roe and drummer Gary Craig.) Colin’s “Saddle My Pony” had irresistibly irregular meters in its verses. “Milk Cow Blues” had more thrust than its oft performed swing feel, with a stylin’ slide solo by Colin. He then invited Jerry Phillips (Sam’s son) out to the stage to perform “My Babe.” Jerry and Sam Phillips biographer Peter Guralnick joined me next in the chat room for at least a glimpse of the Sam/Sun story.
Sleepy LaBeef took the stage, all six-foot-five of him in a wide brimmed hat, shiny black jacket and his oversized Elvis glasses, and he too (after an opening monologue) assured us that “we’re gonna boogie woogie tonight.” Then he was into a set list-free ramble through sturdy Americana standards. He sang “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” rockabilly style and a deeply country “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” with a tasty, chord leading guitar solo. He offered the Sister Rosetta Tharpe song “Strange Things Happening” which Guralnick had coaxed into his repertoire years ago. Then Sleepy free associated through “In The Jailhouse Now,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I’ll Fly Away” to close. The band had to stay on its toes through this medley but nobody flew away.
The pivot point of the five-artist show brought Luther Dickinson to the stage, along with his divine bass player of the evening, MCR Alum Amy LaVere. He rolled into vintage Memphis rockabilly with more Carl Perkins flavor than I’ve seen from him before. He and Colin Linden ripped it up in traded guitar solos on a high energy version of Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” (boogie woogie’s cousin?). But the highlight of the set and one of the most heart stopping stretches of the night came in a trance-inducing thrum on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Moanin’ At Midnight,” one of the earliest songs recorded at the Sun studio. Luther’s vocals borrowed from Wolf in just the right ways. The music lifted off like the flying saucer rock and roll that is the name of the Sam exhibit at the Hall of Fame. It was spooky and spectacular.
We needed a straight shot of Elvis at some point in the evening and that came courtesy of the bluegrass Elvises themselves, Billy Burnette and Shawn Camp. But it wasn’t bluegrass this night, with Billy playing a driving Les Paul electric and Shawn downstroking his acoustic guitar with rockabilly panache. They opened with Billy taking lead on “That’s Alright” because that’s Sun #209, the big bang, the stem cell (and the A side to Mr. LaBeef’s “Blue Moon” B side). Shawn channeled Johnny Cash on “Big River,” and then keyboardist McKendree took a star turn with his fast hands on “Great Balls of Fire” while Shawn sang with just the right Jerry Lee fervor. If the show had a boogie odometer, it would have flipped over that this point. Set closers were that great Shawn/Billy co-write and standard “My Love Will Not Change” and Billy’s homage to his Memphis rockabilly dad on “Tear It Up.” That they did.
The last time Bobby Rush played MCR, he brought his big showy road ensemble and his James Brown inspired stagecraft. This was a more intimate affair, starting with Bobby seated with a blue electric guitar that matched his amazing blue and black jacket with rhinestone fleurs-de-lis on the back. But he didn’t stay down for long. After a thumpy “Ride In My Automobile” he stood up, pulled out a harmonica and delivered one of the most remarkable a cappella performances I’ve ever seen. The witty “Garbage Man” seemed like a relatively lightweight vehicle, but Rush’s focus and phrasing was anything but. Bobby’s face can glow with joy and be steely serious almost at once, and as he alternated sung verses with harmonica fusillades that spelled out the song’s harmonic changes, maintaining an implied but unmistakable sense of time, he achieved some kind of cosmic blues unity. With the humblest of instruments and the voice God gave him, he made mesmerizing art.
The band chimed back in on the rest of the set, which included both restrained yearning on another homage to Howlin’ Wolf and the slippery, double-entendre laden funk of “Night Fishing.” It was a grandmaster performance, but then as Bobby said “When you’re 83, you know a little something.”
The finale was another flip side. Sleepy had performed “I Forgot To Remember To Forget” and I’d forgotten that Sun 45 was backed with “Mystery Train,” whose only mystery is why the title includes the word mystery. That said, Keb Mo made a mysterious entrance out of nowhere to join the band on guitar. It proved the perfect vehicle to take the night home, a night of fellowship, appreciation and a whole lotta shakin’.