The Duke Robillard Band
At Misquamicut Beach, RI, August 9, 2017
Every so often I’m able to deliver on what might otherwise be just a well-intentioned promise.
A short time ago, in the J. Geils post, I mentioned a band and guitar player I’ve been listening to since 1979. That’s when the self-titled Roomful of Blues album appeared, seeming to land almost immediately in the cut-out bin.
That first album (which is what it was always called by the band’s fans; someone got the message because the recent reissues call it that) featured a wide range of material sitting atop a blues foundation. You knew from a glance at the cover, which featured a band photo, that these dudes in their snappy clothes and hats were not going to rip it up like a Chicago band, say Buddy Guy‘s or Paul Butterfield‘s.
That was a mistake. Sure, there were horns but that didn’t matter. The opening instrumental, “Red, Hot and Blue” sounded like a Swing Era blues tune you could dance to. Side one progressed to a slow blues, “Love Struck,” which begins with Duke Robillard, band co-founder, guitarist and vocalist, growling, “Something hit me…,”followed by the uptempo “It’s My Life,” then a jazz/blues original instrumental, “Duke’s Blues,” closing side one with as raw a “Texas Flood” as you ever heard, despite the horns.
I was hooked before I even flipped the record. The other side contained five more gems including Big Joe Turner‘s “Honey Hush,” a tune that until then I thought was owned (if not penned) by NRBQ. It also contained “Stormy Monday” in a guise closer to T-Bone Walker‘s original than the Allman Brothers Band version I knew very well. It was probably the first time I’d heard Walker-style, jazz influenced playing with its odd 9th and augmented chords, flattened sevenths and long fluid lines of melody.
Obviously I was naive, but in all fairness I was seventeen and only just starting to get my ears on.
Duke left the band after the third record. I’m sure there’s a story, there always is, but those things never interest me as much as the music. Oddly enough, that’s when I first saw them in a club in the Back Bay section of Boston.
What stands out about that early 1980s show was the opening. The band lit into Gatemouth Brown‘s “Okie Dokie Stomp” and the then guitar player, Ronnie Earl (another under-rated great who hails from the outer boroughs of New York; I’ll have to get to him someday) walked off the stage still playing, a roadie unspooling guitar cable from a garden hose reel the way Albert Collins used to, through the crowd and out the door of the club, making a left and soloing as he strolled towards Boylston Street.
But that was 35 years ago and I’m here to talk about this past Wednesday and the concert at the beach.
The town of Westerly has been running a beachside concert series for twenty years now and although I first visited the area in the late 1980s, I missed the start of this annual fiesta. A friend bought a house nearby, though, making it possible for me to reacquaint myself with one of America’s great East Coast beaches and discover this concert series. It runs twice a week, every Monday and Wednesday, with jam sessions starting the week and ‘name’ acts appearing second, during July and August.
Many of the acts appearing here have some local connection and in little old Rhode Island, Roomful and Duke are royalty. The crowd was a little bit older than other shows and the mix seemed to include more folks from the working class neighborhoods of Providence and it’s environs and the Blackstone River Valley. The generation that grew up with Roomful is approaching seventy and that was apparent, too.
Ever the purist, Duke opened, as the ‘original’ blues bands did, with an instrumental. (I always thought that was meant as much to showcase the musicianship of the other players as to tease the headliner. All the greats did it.)
I’m reasonably sure the opener was “Jumpin’ the Bone,” from the 2009 album, “Stomp the Blues, Tonight!” but I could be wrong. I wasn’t taking notes or recording. If you want that kind of song-by-song recap you’re in the wrong place. For some reason “Stomp” was the CD being hawked, even though there are more recent records. Also typically, every band member soloed.
For 90 minutes, the man and his band played. The tight, four-piece unit–just Duke and a rhythm section–handled everything that came along. They played a mix of originals and standards and when I say standards those could as easily be from bluesmen as Tin Pan Alley. One of the things that distinguishes Robillard, for me, isn’t just that he writes–Gregg Allman and Eric Clapton write–it’s that he can write in the 32-bar form as well as the forms more typically taken by blues and pop writers.
So we heard “Avalon” and “I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me,” songs from before WWII. We heard T-Bone Walker. We heard originals that included “Fishnet,” a song sure to rankle feminists, and “Do the Memphis Grind,”which closed the show with an instrumental bookend.
Throughout, the man just stood there, smiling, in a pink shirt and Panama hat, playing and singing. Here’s another distinguishing feature of a Duke Robillard show: the guitar he starts with he plays throughout. It’s not as though, like many players, he doesn’t have a lot of guitars. The album covers alone showcase dozens of models.
This time he played a Telecaster and you’d be forgiven if you thought that was a guitar best suited to chicken picking and Collins-like raunch. There was no guitar tech running out every couple of songs with a new guitar. Hell, there wasn’t even a guitar tech. It’s the exact opposite of the rock-guitar-God nonsense that requires multiple instruments to achieve the proper sound for each song.
Wednesday night’s show proved that a lie. Jazz, blues, raunchy, clean, over-driven tube, whatever the song required came out of one guitar, one amp and one pair of hands.
The Gods should be so talented.
Here’s the band tearing up T-Bone Walker. I’m no camerman so apologies in advance.