The Leon Waters Blues Band with Madison Slim, & other guests dvd in private circulation/trade Reviews

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“ The Leon Waters Blues Band at The Empty Glass,...”


written by on 15/02/2011

The Leon Waters Blues Band at The Empty Glass, Charleston, WV
January 6, 1991 with Madison Slim, Spurgie Hankins, Billy Hambleton
and other guests (mono audience video, approx. 75m)

by Gopher (George B. Rollins)

Simply "The Leon Waters Band" would sometimes have been a more apropos name for this group of veteran Charleston, West Virginia area musicians. While they undeniably purveyed blues as their calling card, the band did not necessarily play with reverence nor were they limited to the idiom. All but one hailed from various rock, or psuedo-blues backgrounds.

Raymond Wallace, whose skill at interpreting the songs of Leon Redbone and Muddy Waters, in particular, provided the band's name (coined by fellow guitarist Terry Lowry) was certainly immersed in blues. The band easily would abandon it, though, for excursions into related Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley rock & roll, pop, etc., when mood or necessity required.

If they did not always present themselves as a Chicago blues band by style or definition, The Leon Waters Blues Band could indeed play with such distinction when they preferred to do so. By choice or circumstance too rarely did that occur. Other than ballads in respect to their tempo, they tended to approach any sort of blues with a boogie attitude (the exception being Raymond, who seemed oblivious to semantic concerns other than his own) and a surprising disregard for attention or detail. The band almost never rehearsed.

"It's just blues," one member attempted to explain.

Usually, fans didn't seem to mind. Some came just to watch the quirky Wallace, with ever-present fedora, sunglasses, and goatee, display biting and remarkably precise slide work, as they listened to his affected blueshound growls and shouts. The varying quality of the band's performance may have been noticeable from time to time, but was of little concern.

Sometimes, when Raymond would zone out in a stoned haze and strum a random chord while forgetting to sing throughout a song or break yet another string (he was a serial string breaker, and often he'd wander offstage for lengths of time while attempting to fix a string rather than replace it) the band carried on without him, working its way around the tunes as best it could. The group's considerable improvisational skill might be called upon when least expected. One way or another, Wallace always kept the band on its toes.

The Leon Waters Blues Band, as recorded here, consists of Terry Lowry, lead guitar; Mike Baker, harmonica and vocals; Tom Fountaine, drums and vocals; Doug Vermillion, bass guitar; Raymond Wallace, slide and rhythm guitar, vocals. At the time they were regulars on The Empty Glass stage. It was a fairly routine gig, you might have assumed.

On that Sunday, in the afternoon, legendary Chicago blues guitarist Jimmy Rogers (heard most famously as a sideman on classic early to middle Fifties recordings by Muddy Waters) and his band appeared on Mountain Stage, a public radio program which originates from the Cultural Center in Charleston, a few blocks from the small club. Rogers' harpist and singer, Madison Slim, harmonicas in hand, stopped by during the evening to check out the scene. A number of local musicians and their instruments were already in the house, as an opportunity to participate was often likely.

I was there, too. At the time, with the exception of guest appearances, I don't remember noting that the show was particularly special. I must have been having too much fun. This video document clearly proves that if my recollection is accurate, I obviously hadn't been paying enough attention to the bandstand.

The video is shot at a steady, close range (there's minor audio distortion at peak volumes here and there, when the camera's condenser mic overloads) by a good friend of the band, Dr. Michael Romeo, dentist by day, blues fan by night. He does a very good job following the players, providing solo closeups and capturing group performance. Only the poorly lit sides of the stage suffer visually. There is little peripheral information, the camera almost always stays squarely onstage.

Really just a snapshot, the footage is excerpted from the course of several sets, beginning with the opening number of the first, which is quickly faded out after a verse and chorus or two... apparently "Small Town Boy" wasn't the Doctor's most cherished tune. It's hard to say whether the songs recorded were favorites, or simply those which happened to be convenient during the evening. Regardless, the nine LWBB tunes here comprise a fair amount of the band's core material.

Immediately following the abbreviated opener comes the band introduction, time for each player to step out a bit. With typical schtick, Raymond announces each member as their movie star counterpart. It's both funny and generally accurate (Mike Baker does resemble Warren Oates; Doug Vermillion as Danny DeVito might be a stretch). More importantly, the accompanying untitled instrumental is a real highlight. As a unit, they are seamlessly powerful here, handing over each solo with spirited ease. It's an uptempo blues, and the players compliment and drive each other in a fashion West Side crowds heartily applaud. Only the bass ventures from the fold. I doubt if Bob Stroger, for example, has ever tossed anything akin to Mingus into his signature portion of a tune.

Wallace wastes no time establishing his credentials with a sly, vocally understated but intensely dynamic "What Is That She Got?" featuring tough, yet beautifully nuanced slide licks calling Baker, who responds thoughtfully, pacing the tune well and creating an excellent tension. Meanwhile, Tom and Doug walk the blues along, underscoring the motif. Lowry brightens the melody as his guitar gives Raymond cues to solo. The South Side school has not been forgotten.

It's been awhile since I've heard Butter's original, I confess, so I really don't remember. Maybe it is similarly furious as the version of "Born In Chicago" offered next. I doubt it. A Baker showcase, he almost always seems to boogie it to the max (the residual effect of having been in the hard rockin' early to middle Seventies group, Kristina, perhaps?). Nothing different tonight. If Madison Slim walked in during this number, he may have thought: "Just another coked-up blues band..." Nevertheless they handle the breakneck speed well, even if Vermillion has to play clusters of notes you'd be lucky to find on a Primus disc. Mike absolutely has the tune down, and he surely tears into it, giving a hint of his vocal chops in the process. If I'm wrong about the tempo being overdriven here, forgive me Mr. B. In any event, the performance is a yeoman's effort.

"Wait On Time" follows. Although it's a Texas shuffle, as if to demonstrate how blues forms can get along with each other, Lowry rips a killer solo that is hardcore West Side, then past it (Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Luther Allison meet someone from the British Isles). Tom sings with both conviction and an almost laconic amusement, in a voice with intriguing character. It's a shame he couldn't find more room to move in this band, vocally.

Raymond brings the South Side back around with "Blow Wind." He's deadly serious, and you better know it. It's hard to duplicate, much less improve, Muddy's original version. Wallace provides a fine reading. Though harmonica carries the tune primarily, Terry weighs in with another tightly focused guitar solo. The old trophy is dusted off and returned to its shelf.

"Driftin" finds Baker in the spotlight agaun, and well up to it. Easily his most impressive vocal to be found on this videotape, Mike unleashes the clarity and strength of a classic blues voice. He's singing as well or better than when I first heard him with Lowry in Quiet, some twenty years earlier. Throughout these performances Baker's harp work has, for the most part, been of a more tempered nature than the Cottonesque business which can attend his playing. While often it's fine, a flurry of notes sometimes will obscure an instrument's warmth, or a musician's taste. Mike's restraint is hauntingly effective here, as the band follows suit. This "Driftin" is a resounding testament.

Mike does know what he's doing, after all. In fact, coincidentally, Baker was once asked to sit in with Madison Slim's previous employer, The Legendary Blues Band (in essence a reprise of the Muddy Waters band circa 1970 to 1980), when Muddy's harp man, Jerry Portnoy, still led the formidable group.

Next, the band falls into the stroll of "Born Under a Bad Sign" giving Fountaine another vocal turn while showing off its ability as an ensemble. Tempo is precise, and well maintained throughout. Having picked up sticks somewhat late in his musical life, earlier instruments being cornet and harmonica, Tom has proven himself to be an outstanding drummer. He solidly propels the band without talking over them, almost casually underlining passages while tastefully commenting on and accenting solos. As in an exciting dual one here, with Lowry firing staccato lines until Vermillion takes it for a funky walk, bringing the tune back home.

Raymond breaks a string. Wallace declares that he will be back later. Now, he says, coming up to sit in will be Don Steck (guitar, The Red Star Rockets) and Madison Slim. Guess again. The camera is momentarily fixed on stage right where the band instead welcomes Billy Hambleton, as well as Spurgie Hankins.

I suspect that trombone as a solo instrument is rather uncommon in a blues band, at least one of the Chicago bar band variety, but Billy's horn is now in evidence chortling along with Baker's harp, while Spurgie adds a crisp acoustic guitar to the mix. Baker is featured once more, on an uptempo shuffle. I don't know what this one is called, but Mike sure uses the word "baby" quite a lot...

Billy Hambleton is rarely seen onstage (his tenure as a Charleston jazz musician dates back at least to The King Sound Interpreters in the middle Sixties, playing with the likes of Curt Price and Kai Haynes) though listening to him here you'd believe he worked in a regularly touring, recorded blues band. If the late A.C. Reed had been a trombone player his phrasing certainly would have compared with Billy's. The Leon band really should have offered him a job. If Slim led his own outfit, who knows? Hambleton might have been unavailable by closing time.

Raymond returns as the tune ends, his string "situation" presumably "in hand." The camera then fades and cuts. Wallace is nowhere to be seen. Spurgie Hankins has taken center stage. His songs have, that is. Spurgie stays put at the far side of stage right where patrons are practically running into him, and Billy, as they enter or exit the club's adjacent front door.

Hankins has been around almost as long as Hambleton. As a teenager, in the late Sixties, Spurgie was singing with local r&b stalwarts, The Seven Seas. Even though still a sprout, he was already good enough to have been offered a position in Little Richard's band. The Seas being where home and heart was, Spurgie declined the invitation.

The Leon Waters Blues Band knew Hankins' material very well. Most, if not all except Wallace, had been playing with him in various aggregations sporadically or in the long term project, Slaymaker, for nearly twenty years. Spurgie's music is easy to appreciate, but difficult to pigeonhole. In a Graffiti feature story highlighting Hankins'artistic career, circa 2000, the most accurate description author Michael Lipton could invoke was "refreshingly unique." Some of his tunes may contain a trace element, but Spurgie's compositions are far too complex to be thought of as blues in any conventional sense. His songs are, however, roomy and smart enough to accommodate a variety of interpretations while keeping up a tightly knit pop standard. The two selections here are sterling examples of Hankins' craft.

First up is "Mumbo Jumbo." At face value a moody and trance-like tune, it sports gorgeous melody, and a crackling rhythm underneath. The song is sprightly almost in spite of itself, reminiscent of Bob Welch period Fleetwood Mac sans keyboards (it might have fit nicely on the album "Bare Trees"). Billy's trombone jumps right in, weaving its way around Spurgie's ethereal vocals and riffing on Baker's now jazz flavored harp lines. Hambleton makes winging it sound easy. Laying in mellow notes, he brings the song a remarkably new contrast and texture. For additional percolation, an unidentified conga player also sits in on the tune.

"Are You Really Sure?" is a poppin' number which would sound as much at home in the Three Dog Night catalog as it does in Spurgie's. Apparently comfortable, Hambleton reveals a tone suggesting the higher voice of sax or guitar. Oddly enough a sultry Eddie Hinton actually comes to mind when listening to Billy's playing here. The memorable tune unfortunately seems to end quickly, almost before you have a chance to enjoy it.

An abrupt edit, and whap! Better late than never, the afore-introduced Madison Slim and Don Steck appear. The Leon Waters Blues Band has been replaced with the exception of its rhythm section, Fountaine and Vermillion. The new configuration is augmented by the unknown conga player, who will switch to bass guitar on the following tune, and Spurgie's acoustic fill.

Madison immediately whips the ad hoc band into a rousing "Rock With Me Tonight." I'm guessing the title. At Slim's nod, the trombone assumes a lead guitar role in Lowry's absence. Billy wails on top of Steck's clean, fluid rhythm. Soon enough Wallace reappears, burrowing his way in, between Slim and Hambleton. Madison exhibits professional temperment as he steps deftly to the side, with mic stand in tow, to make room for the headliner. Raymond dives into a mean slide riff. Slim's harmonica takes him up on it, countering with sharply distinctive, schooled notation. A verse or so later, as Hambleton compliments both harp and slide in turns, Steck wraps it up with pointed figures. Not bad for an impromptu jam including unfamiliar musicians.

Slim's harp calls. He's open for offers but only Raymond vaguely responds, with a quiet trill. Steck again puts down a solid rhythm, and Madison repeats his plea. Someone finally begins to answer but it's too late, Wallace has launched a slide attack. Slim ("throwing down gang signs" as our videographer, Dr. Romeo, would say) lets the band know that he defers.

Madison Slim is a demonstratively well seasoned performer and bandleader. From the onset of his appearance it is clear that he is keenly aware of both audience and stage (the LWBB, in contrast, generally avoid showmanship). With Raymond in his slide pocket, and the band in a walking groove, Madison gives Wallace a little space. Slim reels him in shortly, and takes off. He is using two mic's, one hand-held for the harp, another on a stand for vocals. Madison grabs his voice mic too. Somebody removes the stand, and Slim gets out into the crowd as far as he can, an entertainer at work even while just having fun after hours. The song might be called "Tomorrow Night" but I'm not sure.

"Blow your 'bone! Blow your 'bone!" Slim exhorts, obviously enjoying his time onstage with Hambleton. Billy cheerily obliges, and a blues trombone gauntlet is unquestionably established. Perhaps someone in B.B. King's band or the Danish big band Van Morrison plays with on occasion can approach him, but I wonder. Billy's horn shouts, honks, moans, and yelps. It seems to be about as much as Slim can stand, or comprehend.

Enough of this, he's gotta get back to the Marriott while still concious! Madison brings it back home for one more line or two and then, pro that he is, shuts the tune down dead in its tracks.

Good night and good luck, the blues have forsaken the building.

Songs and players

The Leon Waters Blues Band:
Small Town Boy (edit)
Band Intro Instrumental
What Is That She Got?
Born In Chicago
Wait On Time
Blow Wind
Born Under a Bad Sign

LWBB w/Billy Hambleton and Spurgie Hankins, unidentified conga*:
Baker uptempo shuffle (?)
Mumbo Jumbo*
Are You Really Sure?

Madison Slim, Raymond Wallace, Tom Fountaine, Doug Vermillion, Don Steck, Billy Hambleton, Spurgie Hankins w/ unidentified conga* and bass**:
Rock With Me Tonight (?)*
Tomorrow Night (?)**

Participant update

Several years ago members of The Leon Waters Blues Band began playing tentative reunion shows at The Empty Glass. The band returned to its original lineup generally, for what became semi-regular (every other month or so) gigs at the club. The band sometimes incorporated singer and saxophone player Charlie Tee, from The Carpenter Ants. Terry Lowry informs me that the band played its last show in 2009, and has no plans to reunite. Well, you never know. Stay tuned.

Around the same time as Leon's revival, Terry Lowry founded an alter-ego group, The Blind Terrance Blues Band, whose members include Baker and Fountaine. Terrance's bass player, Kevin Kidd, assumed the LWBB bass chair when Vermillion was unavailable. Lowry says the band was created "as a vehicle for each member to play mucic they love."

Tom Fountaine is currently involved primarily with The Diablo Blues Band, a progressive venture which features John Chick's harmonica along with a dynamic guitarist and front man, Johnny Compton. The band actively performs locally.

Spurgie Hankins disbanded Slaymaker roughly a decade ago, after recording a live album with Vermillion, Fountaine, and guitarist Mike Rutherford. The Spurgie Hankins Band was formed in its wake, with new players. His current group has a weekly residency at The Empty Glass, performing in both electric and acoustic formats. Hankins has also released several critically acclaimed solo cd's within the last few years.

Madison Slim now fronts the Milwaukee based blues band, Reverend Raven and His Chain Smoking Altar Boys. With the Reverend on guitar, they have released at least one cd. The working band tours throughout the midwest United States, Canada, The Bahamas, and elsewhere.

Billy Hambleton continues to show up with his horn at local venues now and then. It's always an unexpected treat to hear him play.

2010 George B. Rollins

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