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"Philadelphia" Jerry Ricks
w/Joel Johnson
@ The Cedar Cultural Centre, 9/11/98
by Ray Stiles

Joel Johnson
Photo © 1998 by Pete Izmirian. All rights reserved
Every time Joel Johnson leaves his home for a show he pays his respects to his mentor, Muddy Waters, with an upward glance at the tattered photo of Muddy, which hangs above his door. Johnson is a bluesman through and through and he never forgets where the roots of his blues music comes from. Joel's many roles in life are all about the blues too -- a singer, songwriter, guitar player, storyteller, flutist, disc jockey, jam leader and bandleader. In addition to leading the Joel Johnson Band he hosts the long running Lazy Bill Lucas blues show on KFAI radio every Thursday afternoon from 4 to 6:30 (90.3 & 106.7 FM). Tonight's show was a change of pace however. He was going solo for the first time in his 28 year blues career. He joked, as he looked around the empty stage, that if anything goes wrong tonight there was no one to blame it on.

Johnson was born and raised in Minneapolis and moved to the West Bank in 1966 to be a part of the vibrant music environment. There he met Dave Ray, Willie Murphy, Bill Hinkley and many other musicians whose names have become synonymous with the Twin Cities music scene.

During the show Johnson performed a set of mostly original songs with a few covers like the jazzy styled Mose Allison's "Fools Paradise." This show also served as warm-up for a recording session Johnson would be doing in October for his new solo album. Joel has one of those informal, warm, conversational styles on stage that easily enamors him with his audience and allows him to relax and play some entertaining material. He told stories between songs, talking about his experiences and providing some interesting commentary on the origins of some of his new songs. One lively tune, "Hell House Boogie," dealt with a place he lived at for 11 years on the West Bank above the Viking Bar called Hell house. He said he and his roommates probably paid the rent on time "twice" during that period. Johnson's smoky vocals and smooth rhythm playing from his large hollow bodied electric guitar served as good accompaniment to showcase his songwriting. After the show he said playing at the Cedar was a whole new world for him --referring to the very friendly audience compared to the rowdy, more demanding blues crowds typically found in the bars. He laughed as he said people are "nice" to you here in the folk world.

Jerry Ricks
Photo © 1998 by Steve Felling
All rights reserved
"Philadelphia" Jerry Ricks said he had just returned from Hell -- Norway that is (from the annual blues festival held there). He said he couldn't wait to say "I went to Hell for the weekend and survived." Ricks' whole set was punctuated with stories, perceptive humor and a conversation directly with the audience. Listening to Jerry Ricks is kind of like having Garrison Keillor, Will Rogers and Bill Cosby all rolled into one person. He carried on a friendly banter with the audience all night making this performance seem more like having a friend over to play at your house than a concert. He is a very articulate man, a walking blues history lesson and one fine acoustic blues guitar player. His playing covers a variety of finger picking styles that today we would call Piedmont, delta, country, hill country, etc. but as he said, it was all just blues to the people who originally performed it. The different styles of these bluesmen did take on a certain characteristic of the area of the country they came from but many of the musicians he learned from had traveled around and picked up on the styles of their contemporaries, incorporating a variety of styles into their own playing, just like Ricks.

Ricks has a Mississippi John Hurt quality in his vocal style that is low key and laid back. And hiding behind his shaded glasses is a mischievous glint that lets you know he sees more than he may be letting on. He did a great version of "Southbound," a song by one of his old friends Doc Watson. He had a nice sounding slide on "Riverside Blues" and played many other songs from his "Deep In The Well" album including the final cut which was also his closing number at the show -- the traditional spiritual "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."

Jerry Ricks
Photo © 1998 by Steve Felling
All rights reserved
At one point he even had a "rhythm thing" going on with his hands -- slapping his body, legs and face to make some percussive sounds. He said they used to do this as kids so he was pretty good at it and he asked us to join him by clapping along. He wanted to see how much rhythm we in the audience really had. We didn't fare too well but he was a blast to watch.

Jerry Ricks has a remarkable blues heritage, learning from a pantheon of blues masters. During the blues revival of the 1960's Jerry was booking traditional delta bluesmen into the coffeehouse where he washed dishes in Philadelphia. These performers would typically spend a month long engagement allowing Jerry to spend all day and night learning from this rich resource. They taught him about the blues and became life long influences in both his music and his personal life. Ricks learned guitar from and played with a virtual "who's who" of acoustic blues musicians during that time including Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House, Mance Lipscomb, Sleepy John Estes, Skip James, Furry Lewis, Bukka White and Brownie McGhee, among many others.

A worldwide traveler, Ricks has lived in Europe for most of the '70s and `80s, recording albums in Germany, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. With his return to the U.S. and the release of his first American recording, "Deep In The Well," Jerry Ricks has now assumed the role of master and mentor in the world of acoustic blues, passing on the lessons he learned from his predecessors. Ricks pays homage to his teachers and, within that same traditional framework creates his own songs. He comes to the blues not as an academic, a revivalist or an interpreter from outside the culture, but rather as a musician who simply plays what he feels, the same way blues legends have approached the genre for nearly a century. Born and raised in Philadelphia, on May 22, 1940, Jerry Ricks is currently living and performing in the Delta, the birthplace of the rich musical heritage he has been carrying on for the past 35 years.

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