Four blues legends graced the stage at the Cambridge Performing Arts Center. The night's shows were divided into two two-hour sets with the DBC Gangsta Band doing a few numbers before bringing out the stars. 91 year old Henry "Mule" Townsend led off with what he called a "no name song," showing a smooth piano style and strong, raspy vocals. Mule is an excellent player and the years have not diminished his skills. Mule also played some nice, slow, Delta blues on guitar before going back to his baby grand piano. He tickled the ivories with enthusiasm on "Now That My Baby's Gone." While the DBC Gangsta Band played softly in the background, Mule played crisply and sang with passion. He urged the DBC band on, had the crowd clapping to the rhythm, and generated an enthusiastic crowd response at the end. Mule introduced the Roosevelt Sykes Depression Era song "All My Money Gone" by wryly observing about the bank closings: "It didn't bother me because I didn't have none." At the end he doffed his gray fedora as the crowd stood to cheer and applaud enthusiastically.
"Homesick" James Williamson then took the stage and started out with some deep, hearty slide guitar . Homesick achieves a rich, bell-like slide sound punctuated by piercing chords. He slowly built the volume and tempo with drawn-out notes he held and bent. The DBC band then joined him on "I Got the Blues" where Homesick displayed a great, picking slide with the notes rippling off his guitar. Picking up the tempo, Homesick gave the crowd strong, hollering vocals in his strong tenor as he played heavy, picking slide chords broken up with sharp, quick notes as he tapped both feet to the rhythm. He slowly brought the tempo and volume down, let his slide fade, and pointed skyward to indicate where it all came from for him. The crowd, quiet and respectful as he played, stood clapping and cheering.
David "Honeyboy" Edwards came out next playing deep down Delta blues on acoustic guitar as he sang a in his very husky voice. Honeyboy played sharply all night, breaking up his steady-strumming beats with jangling guitar licks. The DBC band then joined Honeyboy as he sang and played with enthusiasm, the crowd clapping along, on "Don't Say I Don't Love You." He played some impressive, stinging slide by picking the strings, shaking the whole guitar to enhance the sound, and moving it up and down on repeating notes. Honeyboy played two faster tempo songs, singing and hollering passionately on "We Gonna Make Everything Allright." Here he had his guitar and vocals in synch, his jangling guitar licks punctuated quick, sharp chords, supporting the emotions of the song. Once again the crowd clapped and cheered wildly as Honeyboy made his way off stage.
Robert Lockwood Jr came out next with his own bass player. Playing a gorgeous jazz-toned, 12-string guitar, he played beautiful, rich chords and sang in his strong, clear voice on "When the Sun Goes Down." Lockwood's chords flow off his guitar like rippling notes from a stringed harp. Lockwood hit some nice high vocal notes on the steady blues of "Stop Breaking Down." He also demonstrated the rich, high pitched tones achieved by sliding his fingers up and down the frets on his guitar. Lockwood delivered a great, authentic version of "Sweet Home Chicago," played in the manner and phrasings that were undoubtedly faithful to the original. He closed with beautiful, finger-picking playing on "Gonna Get Me a Gambling Woman." Lockwood coaxed rich, jazzy chords out of his 12-string with ease and style. Wildly applauding and cheering, the crowd stood and let Robert feel their appreciation.
The four blues legends then all joined together with the DBC band to achieve a great ensemble sound on Homesick's "Dust My Broom" with Homesick playing a wicked slide, Robert providing the vocals and the rich tone of his 12-string, Honeyboy adding rhythm, and Henry rounding things out with enthusiasm on piano. This was a perfect finale for the first show.
The second show followed the same format as the first, with the DBC band warming up, each artist doing a solo number or two and then being joined by the DBC band. Each artist performed different numbers the second show. Before playing, Mule gave the crowd his appreciation, saying "You make me what I am by accepting me for what I am." Mule played crisp and clear piano notes on the slow, mournful song "Tears Come Rolling Down," singing in his husky voice. Mule demonstrated some nice, gently rolling keyboard on "You Promised Me." He gave the crowd some nice, ringing guitar licks on "I'm So Sad." Homesick contributed jangling slide and shouted vocals on "Kansas City" and then smooth, soft, slide on "I Can't Afford a Gun."
Honeyboy highlighted his second set with strong picking on his solo "Further on Down the Road" along with the rising and falling chords, stinging notes, and his husky vocals on "Pretty Baby." Lockwood, accompanied by his bass player, gave the crowd silky smooth chords and smooth, drawn-out vocals on "Come on Baby." Lockwood changed things up a bit with the heavy yet still smooth guitar licks on "Tell What You Want Me to Do," singing in his warm, rich voice with a little burr. For the finale, everyone came out again to join Lockwood in doing "Sweet Home Chicago" with Honeyboy providing some great picking, Homesick his wicked slide, and Mule his piano. The crowd gave the entire group a loud and long standing ovation.
In a nice touch, which helped to boost CD sales, Michael James, the DBC manager and emcee for the evening, announced early in the evening that after the second show all four artists would be available to sign as well as be greeted by their fans. Many of them took advantage of this, some just to shake the hand of a blues legend and thank them for a great show. This was just one more example of the great job the friendly staff at the Cambridge Performing Arts Center did. Their 700 seat theater has great acoustics, excellent lighting, comfortable seats and good sight lines.
The combined experience of the Delta Blues Cartel members adds up to nearly 300 years. Henry "Mule" Townsend first recorded sides in 1929 and accompanied Roosevelt Sykes on guitar. "Homesick" James Williamson first recorded in 1937, taught Elmore James and Albert King (Homesick's drummer at the time) how to play guitar. David "Honeyboy" Edwards began his career at the age of 14 with Big Joe Williams in 1929, toured and played with Robert Johnson, and cut his first sides in 1942. Robert Lockwood Jr was taught guitar by Robert Johnson and played with him. He began his career at the age of 15 accompanying Sonny Boy Williamson II and first recorded in 1941, and went on to teach Muddy Waters and B.B. King. It was his idea to have King backed by an eight piece band which gave him his distinctive sound.
Even the DBC Gangsta band has solid blues history behind it. Skee Pryor on bass is the son of Snookie Pryor. Kenny Smith on drums is the son of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. Jon McDonald played lead for the DBC Gangsta Band. Gene Schwartz played bass for Lockwood. If you ever want to hear and experience the history of the blues, be sure to catch the DBC when they come into the area next time.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Rich Benson, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.