Roomful of Blues
At Misquamicut Beach, RI, August 1, 2018
Bear with me a moment.
In September, 1980, I found myself sitting in line at an ungodly hour at UMass, waiting to buy tickets to see the Grateful Dead at Radio City. The chatter among the other line-sitters was of past shows.
If you’ve never suffered through one of these sessions they offer their own special pain. This one was no different and I gave up listening when one of the stoners launched into a tale of how “The band started playing, and they were on and so powerful the clouds parted and the sun started shining as we danced.”
That bit of conversational ephemera resurrected itself this past Wednesday on the Rhode Island shore as I made what seems to have become my annual pilgrimage to Westerley for their beachside summer music festival. The 4-week series offers one show and one jam session a week. I tend to pick a headliner I want to see.
This year, I conferred that honor on Roomful of Blues, a band fast approaching the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. Given that last year I saw one of the band’s founders, Duke Robiilard, on the strand, it seemed only fair to see the original outfit.
I went through some of the band’s history in last year’s review, so I won’t repeat myself. I should note,though, that the band originated in Westerley and Robillard worked, for a while, at the Guild Guitars factory, which briefly returned to the area after Fender tried to move it to California.
Over time, the band has changed personnel more than my 7-year old changes socks. Only Rich Lataille remains from the original line-up, but its worth looking at the list of former members to get a sense of how many names from the non-arena blues scene have passed through its ranks. (I have to confess, I missed the Lou Ann Barton and Fran Christina eras, and I hadn’t realized Preston Hubbard died in 2016.)
So, the show.
I’m reasonably certain this is the first time I’ve ever seen a third of a concert standing in saltwater up to my waist. But the kids wanted to swim, Atlantic Ocean temperatures peak around August 4 in these parts and I saw no reason to be a stickler. The band may be on the dunes; the tunes travel.
Even with the surf beating a counterpoint the band was as tight as ever. They’ve always played a mix of older covers and originals and the covers were more predominant in this set. I’ve often wondered if that has to do with the writers of the originals having departed the band but my curiosity is not so strong as to make me find out.
Playing covers is not, by the way, a bad strategy for a beach party. There were enough couples my age and older doing the Shag to fill the available space on either side of the bandstand and even send people down to the water’s edge. Perhaps the moony momma dancing by herself in the Siesta Key tee-shirt was what triggered my Dead recollection. Either that, or the setting sun emerging from low dark clouds at mid-set.
Phil Pemberton, the current vocalist, does an adequate job. My points of comparison are Robillard, Curtis Salgado and Greg Piccolo and only the last is bested by Pemberton. Rusty Scott has added a Hammond B3 to the keyboard selection and that was a nice addition, adding a bit of Greg Rolie-era Santana and Jimmy McGriff to the mix. It sounded great down in the water.
Roomful has been an incubator for at least a couple of great guitar players so I paid particular attention to Chris Vachon‘s playing. Everyone plays better than me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t hear the difference.
Vachon is not a flashy player nor is he a speed-demon in the way the arena-blues crowd requires. He has a distinct style that works well with the current lineup and repertoire and it’s characterized by something I always find unusual among guitarists: he keeps it low on the neck.
For non-players, what that means is he focuses on the first five frets or so–fertile territory for the blues keys of E and A and not bad for handling the B- flat of so many jazz standards, either.
That yields a noticeably growlier sound that’s a far cry from the waling notes high on the neck so beloved by the arena blues fans. It made me listen more closely. (Also, I hear lower tones better than higher ones so I have a better sense of what he’s doing.)
The most unexpected moment came close to the end of the set. All of a sudden the horn section lined up and belted out the theme line of Moanin‘, the great jazz standard written by Bobby Timmons and immortalized by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. It was completely unexpected; I’d never heard the band get jazzier than T-Bone Walker or Gatemouth Brown before.
A friend opined that this one had been added for the horn section and there may be some truth to that. It certainly wasn’t for the dancers, who didn’t recognize the song and sat it out until the band got back to brass tacks and roared toward set end with Johnny Adams‘ ‘Body and Fender Man’.
It was a spectacular moment. Sure, the horn section was reveling in their moment as the front line. But the rest of the band was right there with them, swinging along in a glorious celebration of uptown blues.
Musical life doesn’t get much better than that.