Friday, September 18, 2009

Fort Worth Blues

Saw some musicians tonight who left me so disappointed that I'd planned on writing a screed about bad music. (OK, technically, this first paragraph is very much a screed of that sort, but I'd planned on something much longer and with more of a George Will style of overly practiced righteous indignation.) The second set tonight was by a bluegrass band whose singer (a woman, which, for some reason, remains fairly rare for the genre) had a great voice; otherwise, the band seemed to have little else going for it: bluegrass is made for musicians of pretty phenomenal talent whereas these folks were simply bland, and bluegrass can be many things but it should never ever be boring. But they were far better than the guy who played the first set. The guy might be a decent guitar player if he slowed down; instead, he tries to show off what I guess he thinks of as his "chops" (and I'd bet $10 that the guy uses that very term), but what he ends up creating is just a loud, fast mess. Worse, the song choices were mostly predictable for a slide blues guitar set (the couple that weren't predictable -- "Come Together" and "Hey Joe" -- just plain didn't work), and he sang/shouted all of them in the same style, which he might not be able to help because he certainly looked the part of a white, 40-year-old, balding desk jockey in 2009 Raleigh who wanted to roleplay as a 50-year-old black former sharecropper from Mississippi playing the blues in a smoke-filled Chicago bar of 1950. I wasn't having any of it.

So I came home tonight and was going to find a video of Kelly Joe Phelps playing slide blues. Phelps is phenomenal and can absolutely play traditional blues, but he does it with enough of his own style that he's not simply covering other artists or trying to sound like someone he's not.

While searching for such a video (and they certainly exist), I happened upon this one, in which KJP is supporting Steve Earle on "Fort Worth Blues," a tribute SE wrote for Townes Van Zandt shortly after TVZ's death in 1997. Not at all what I had in mind, but it's quite a nice find. "Fort Worth Blues" is an amazing song in itself, but this is the first time I've heard a slide accompaniment -- in fact, I'd never even known that Earle and Phelps had ever crossed paths -- and Phelps' contribution adds quite a lot to the beauty. It really is a stunning song, and this performance might be the best I've heard over the years.

In Fort Worth all the neon's shining' bright
Pretty lights red and blue
They'd shut down all the honky-tonks tonight
And say a prayer or two if they only knew

You always said the highway was your home
But we both know that ain't true
It's just the only place a man can go
When he don't know where he's travellin' to

And Colorado's always clean and healin'
And Tennessee in spring is green and cool
It never really was your kind of town
But you went around with the Fort Worth Blues

And somewhere up above the great divide
Where the sky is wide and the clouds are few
A man can see his way clear to the light
Ah just hold on tight that's all you gotta do

And they say Texas weather's always changin'
One thing change'll bring is somethin' new
And Houston really ain't that bad a town
So you hung around with the Fort Worth Blues

There's a full moon over Galway Bay tonight
Silver light over green and blue
And every town I travel through I find
Some kinda sign that you've been through

And Amsterdam's always good for grievin'
And London never fails to leave me blue
And Paris never was my kinda town
So I walked around with the Fort Worth Blues

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