Shortly after hearing two of his more recent recordings, 8 Hands On 88 Keys (w/ Barrelhouse Chuck, Detroit Junior and Erwin Hefler) and The Memphis Barbeque Sessions (w/ Big Jack Johnson and Kim Wilson), I was fortunate enough to catch a live performance by piano legend Pinetop Perkins backed by the ever capable road band, The Nighthawks. In a show that featured an opening set by Texas finger picking bluesman Steve James, the evening offered the best of several different blues styles.
The night opened with acoustic blues stylist, Steve James opening to a crowded room that continued to get even more crowded as the evening progressed. James set was a bit short, but extended by one song due to a clamoring by the appreciative audience when he first ended his set after about 40 minutes. The songs offered by James included originals like "Railway Station Blues" along with classic acoustic songs like "Downbound Train" and "Blues In My Bottle." James encore changed directions completely as he played a portion of a country bluegrass tune called "Bear Creek Papa." Anyone who was disappointed when James' set ended (and many were), were thoughtfully rewarded later on in the evening when James sat in on guitar with The Nighthawks after Pinetop finished his evening's work just before midnight (Pinetop does not play the blues on Sunday).
After a short break, The Nighthawks took the stage. The Nighthawks hail from the Washington, D.C. area and are led by harp player/vocalist Mark Wenner, one of the founders of the band in the 1970's. The Nighthawks have played all over the United States and have built a reputation as "The World's Greatest Bar Band." The band's ties to Pinetop Perkins go back to 1976 and include backing up Pinetop on his 1977 album, Jacks and Kings on Chess Records. The current rendition of the band has been together for quite a while and in addition to Werner includes, Pete Kanaras (guitar), Jan Zukowski (bass) and Pete Ragusa (drums). Opening with "I Made Up My Mind," the band showed the style of blues, rock, soul and rockabilly that have made their live shows legendary. On "My Babe," Wenner sounded curiously a lot like another well known harp player/vocalist, Kim Simmons. Kanaras was equally sharp on the guitar, helping to maintain the distinctive sound initiated y founding guitarist, Jimmy Thackery. The numbers preceding Pinetop's visit to the stage also included a great song entitled "99 Pounds of Soul" and "Two Trains Runnin'" with a Muddy Water's style slide guitar dominating the sound.
Pinetop Perkins' stroll to the stage immediately brought the crowded room to full attention. His piano still impeccable, Pinetop opened with "Chicken Shack" and kept the great songs coming throughout the first set. Songs included "Miss Ida B," "Little Bit," "How Long?," "Look Over Yonder Wall" and "Going Down Slow." Pinetop hammered out the tunes on the piano with The Nighthawks keeping things together behind him. "Going Down Slow" included nice extended solos by Perkins, Pete Kanaras and Mark Wenner.
The second set was as good as the first and included a number other excellent songs featuring Pinetop's legendary piano, including "Smack Dab In The Middle" and "One More Time." Promptly at 11.45 p.m., Pinetop gave the stage back to The Nighthawks, staying true to his personal ban on playing the blues on the Sabbath. It did not, however, prevent The Nighthawks from continuing to spread the good cheer and good tunes across the audience that had mostly stuck around, even though Pinetop was through for the evening. As I indicated earlier, those who stuck around were rewarded for their patience when Steve James returned to the stage, strapped Pete Kanaras' back up Stratocaster and performed with the band. James demonstrated some nice versatility on the electric guitar sharing solos on songs like Jimmy Reed's "Hush Hush" and "I Know You Don't Love Me No More, where Steve got downright funky.
I had been looking forward to this show at The BamBoo Room for several weeks and was not a bit disappointed at the quality of the show or by the skills of Pinetop Perkins, The Nighthawks and Steve James. I am sure that my feelings about the entertainment on Saturday night was every bit as good as it had been the night before and equal to what I am sure to see the next time I am lucky enough see any of these gentlemen perform in the future.
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