Review by J Hunter
Photograph by Rudy Lu
I’m with Duke Robillard: Putting blues in big halls is the wrong way to go. Sure, more people can check it out, but the over-all experience is diffused. To see this genre in its best light, you need a small club with a good sound system where the music (and the musicians) can get right in your face. The Van Dyck’s upstairs concert space fits that description like a glove. So when Robillard returned to the Electric City’s Stockade neighborhood, I had to be there.
And I wasn’t the only one: The 7 o’clock show was a total sell-out, and Van Dyck staff was packing General Admission customers into the bar at the back of the club when I took my seat for the late set. It was so busy, I didn’t even see the star of the show walk past me, smiling and exchanging words with well-wishers in the crowd. Robillard was all in black from his Homburg to his shoes as he stepped onstage without ceremony; Duke’s longtime backup band joined him one by one as he sat on a high bar stool and tuned one of his array of guitars, taking an occasional sip of red wine while the crowd continued its own conversations.
The scene probably sounds far too casual, given Robillard’s legendary status, but it actually speaks to how much of a fixture Duke has become at the Van Dyck. He’s a regular now, and we’re happy to have him. And when soundman/emcee Ace Parkhurst announced the band, rest assured that the crowd made a seriously appropriate noise. “The resident ghost is in the house,” Robillard told us, throwing a friendly grin at the SRO space up in the rafters. “So we’re gonna play something for her!” With that, Robillard counted his band into “Stoned” from his 2007 disc World Full of Blues.
The recorded version is pretty mellow compared to Duke’s usual grit-lined material, but the mid-tempo instrumental sounded more like the hollow-body guitar jazz Robillard served up on the 2012 disc Wobble Walkin’. Drummer Mark Teixeira kept a subdued beat, bassist Brad Hallen worked a sub-reference to Lambert Hendricks & Ross’ “Twisted” into his solo and Bruce Bears’ organ fills were closer to Jimmy Smith than Al Kooper. It was all good and all cool, but it did make me wonder if Duke had gone all-in on a new direction. But before the Spinal Tap metaphor could take hold, Duke called for “I’m Gonna Buy Me a Dog to Take the Place of You” (“And I did – good move,” Duke added with a laugh), and the bluesfest was on!
There’s nothing fancy when Robillard’s getting his thing on. The voice is rough, the solos are rougher, and your shoulders will be shaking whether you planned them to or not. Although Robillard returned to the hollow-body vibe for a tasty instrumental take on Les Paul’s “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You,” Duke spent most of the set carrying on the tradition of long-gone blues legends like Albert King, Guitar Slim and John Lee Hooker, and when he wasn’t playing stuff from his own voluminous songbook, Robillard happily name-checked the latter two legends: Hooker’s “Want Ad Blues” was a driving train in Robillard’s hands, and he called Slim “one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived” before hitting us with an incendiary version of “Quicksand,” which appears on his new disc Low Down and Tore Up. (“I learned this one on a 78,” Duke confided. “That’s OLD!”)
Age became a slight point of contention when Robillard called out “Any requests?” A fusillade of song titles flew out of the crowd, most of which Duke answered with a variation of, “Damn! I gotta re-learn that one…” Eventually he looked chagrined and told us, “When you got 22 albums, you should never say, ‘Any requests.’” Robillard actually did play two requests, though: He preceded Big Joe Turner’s “Midnight Cannonball” by saying, “Most guys who are famous at my age use teleprompters!” Towards the end of the show, he went back to his Roomful of Blues days for a righteous take on “My Tears.” That song marked the first time Duke stood up for a solo, and damn, did he rock it!
Some things get meaner as they get older, and Robillard is not one of them. He was an amiable host throughout the show, and took real time to talk to everyone who came up as he sold his many CDs from a massive case. Robillard’s sound, however, is another matter. Five decades away from when I first saw him with Roomful, Duke Robillard’s music is meaner and nastier than ever before, and to see it in the cozy confines of the Van Dyck was the cherry on top of the cheesecake. Mmmmmmm… MMM! Tasty!
Fred Rudofsky’s review and more of Rudy Lu’s photographs at Nippertown
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review (of the first show) at The Daily Gazette: “The band slowed the tempo for T-Bone Walker’s ‘You Don’t Love Me, and I Don’t Even Care,’ which Robillard introduced by quipping, ‘That’s right, it’s a blues love song.’ He then proceeded to tear away at his Les Paul, at times almost fighting the snaking groove laid out by his band, only to lock in for the explosive choruses. The band’s dynamics were on full display here, as the lengthy jam ebbed and flowed from a dull roar to a barely audible whisper. Robillard’s playing was matched in intensity by all the other musicians onstage, and his willingness to share the spotlight made the show something special. Bears, the band’s secret weapon, took the spotlight on the swinging ‘Blue Coat Man,’ and got in some nice call-and-response soloing against Robillard on the darkly humorous ‘You’re Just About as Welcome as a Fatal Heart Attack.’ Teixeira and Hallen also took a few solos on the jazzy ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me,’ originally recorded by Billie Holiday.”