By Michael Cryer
When Paris James took the stage Tuesday night at the Musical Instrument Museum's "I Am AZ Music" Acoustic Blues show, a collaboration with the Phoenix Blues Society, and bid everyone "good evening," the audience said "good evening" in turn with a tone that was more "peace be with you" than hearty hello.
Shows at museums can sometimes feel a little like church. Audiences are on their best behavior and are very polite. Too polite. This kind of atmosphere must be perfect for a performer, though, all hushed appreciation and concentrated attention. It's not always the best for an awkward audience member who's not sure if you're allowed to hoot and holler. Luckily the crowd loosened up as the blues marathon warmed up.
Six different Arizona blues acts performed: Jimmy Pines & Washboard Jerry, Paris James, Dirt Music Express, Leon J, Nina Curri, and Hans Olson and Chuck Hall closed the show together. That's a lot of blues! More than four hours of it to be precise.
Things got somewhat off track when Paris James played a little too long. Not a big deal, but there were four more acts following him. A snippy, "That's it" from behind the curtains ended Paris' set. The terse ending reminded this reviewer of Dave Chapelle's send up of Oscar-speech-ending music -- Chapelle created a "Wrap it up!" machine you could play when certain situations drug on too long. James just lost track of time, that's all.
Otherwise, James' set was great. He mostly played originals, adding standard covers such as Ma Rainey's "See See Rider" to fulfill the evening's billing. Most notable of James' songs was a retelling of original sin, turning Adam into a "rolling stone" after his first night with Eve. Jimmy Pines and Washboard Jerry's witty "The Perfect Woman" echoed the sentiment of John Prine's "In Spite of Ourselves" and provided even more levity to a show promising songs mostly about heartache and loss.
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The Dirt Music Express is an excellent throwback trio. These guys work well together and channel old-time without going over the top and becoming a parody of themselves. Each player took turns at the mic, providing a diverse approach to their work. Harmonica player Keith Roger's dramatic Elmore James' "Talk to Me Baby" was offset by bassist Jeff Farias' Lurch-like baritone "Mother Earth" -- the dude is super tall... Scotty Spenner's slide guitar on Muddy Waters' "Honey Bee" is timeless -- or time-travelling depending on how you look at it. The Dirt Music Express is worth a listen wherever they play.
After intermission, Leon J and his polar opposite Nina Curri kicked off the second half of the show. Leon J isn't entirely bluster and bombast, but his bluesman affect can go a little too far. He's a great historian, revealing the background of his originals and adaptations of source material. All in all a powerful performer.
Nina Curri once again asked us to join whatever dream she is having on stage. What's most interesting about a Curri show, besides those soulful, soulful pipes, is her timing. She used the silence of MIM's auditorium to its full potential, drawing out segments of songs and allowing the wicked Dan Rutland to accent quirky pauses with jazz-inspired guitar solos. Not quite Thelonious Monk in their timing, but still fun to hear something that challenges the imagination of its audience.
Did you know Hans Olson owned the infamous Tempe Sun Club at one point? That's news to this reviewer for some reason. Olson and Chuck Hall closed the show as two old blues pros would, playing songs by Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins. Olson and Hall are the real deal. There's no question. Olson has earned that sad baritone, and, to mention another legend, his harmonica might rival that of all-time harp badass Little Walter. Just saying... Both in presentation and musicianship, these dudes capture the "calamitous loss," as Robert Crumb put it, that is at the heart of the blues -- heart that can't be faked.
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Olson closed with his apropos original "Sun Club Jump," memorializing a specific time in his life and the life of Arizona music. A fitting, nostalgic end to an evening devoted to our state's best blues musicians.