LIVE: Magic Dick & Shun Ng @ Caffe Lena, 8/17/18
Review by Don Wilcock
Photograph by Glenn Kaplowitz
In concert at Caffe Lena recently their version of Miles Davis’ “So What” from Kind of Blue had a presence equal to the original in its mood, texture and smoothness but delivered with only harmonica and guitar. It was a transcendental magic trick. The whole room was enveloped by a kind of adult version of a comfort blanket, not releasing its hold until it was over. I thought, wait a minute, what we’ve just heard is impossible. No one can pull this magic trick off on a wind instrument that was once considered little more than a toy and an acoustic guitar that doubles as bass and percussion. Is this some kind of Milli Vanilli hoax? Are there hidden tapes augmenting the sound? They have just accomplished the musical equivalent of sawing a woman in half. But on top of that, the emotional flood they unleashed was way more transfixing than a mere “trick.” It works on a level as deep and satisfying as Miles’ original.
Released in 1959, “So What” opened an album largely recognized as the best jazz album ever. The original featured Miles Davis on trumpet, Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Bill Evans on piano, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass and drummer Jimmy Cobb. What kind of balls does it take for two guys, ages 73 and 28, to try and pull off a “cover” of that song on a chromatic harp and an acoustic guitar?
The whole night was a “spiritual” experience to quote Caffe Lena manager Sarah Craig, who told the sold-out crowd that this show was representative of an expanding purview of a venue already iconic for its heritage going back more than half a century as THE coffeehouse in American culture.
I’ve been attending shows there since the mid-’60s and witnessed shows by Dave Van Ronk, Don McLean, Loudon Wainwright III and hundreds more, but never have I felt in that venue an energy level as palpable and electric as there was for this show. The sparks that transformed that small room embodied the kind of shock waves I’ve only felt at Rolling Stones concerts in Boston Garden or from Magic Dick’s J. Geils Band performances at the Palace Theatre and SPAC.
The back story is almost as interesting as the concert itself. Originally slated for The Egg, Peter Lesser, manager of that facility, realized early on that as powerful as Magic Dick’s legacy is, he would not be able to fill even the smaller of The Egg’s theaters. So, he called Sarah Craig at Caffe Lena and asked if she wanted to take over the show. Even three months out, for Lena’s to have an open Friday night available in August was unheard of. Miraculously, she had an opening and took the show.
Two hours before show time, the club lost electricity during a thunder storm that caused a fire at Saratoga City Hall. An hour before the show, rain was slapping sideways in tapestries that made it impossible to see 20 feet in front of my windshield. A half hour before the show I walked to the club down the middle of Phila Street with water streaming down the hill up to my ankles. I figured the Caffe would be empty, but in fact, the line ran down the stairs and almost out the door. Can you say hardcore?
The thing that set the J. Geils Band apart from others at the dawn of the ’70s was a driving energy and simplicity that had been present when Elvis combined blues and country and western music in 1956. But Motown and the white rock bands of the British Invasion and psychedelic era lost the urgency of Elvis’ hybrid – at least on the songs that made the hit parade.
Geils broke the music back down to basics and reinvented the style that, at first anyway, combined the sources of the original hybridization of blues and country, but this time with more of a hardcore Detroit blues/rock/soul feel of such seminal Motor City acts as John Lee Hooker, Bettye LaVette, The MC5, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and Funkadelic. But even though Geils had a hit with ”Detroit Breakdown,” they were a Boston-based group with original lyrics that captured the sense of fun of ’50s R&B/rock and roll. Magic Dick’s harp playing was as important to the creation of that sound as percussion was to James Brown. And the Geils band was all white. No other white band besides the Stones and perhaps Aerosmith had been able to do that.
With Shun Ng, Magic Dick has found a new extension cord that he can plug in to get the same buzz he got in 1971 when he first recorded his signature harp tour de force in “Whammer Jammer,” which closed the duo’s second set at Caffe Lena.
In a pre-concert interview, Shun told me, “Sometimes we may write something more delicate or something like “Mixology,” which is more harmonically interesting, but I think mainly even if we wrote more originals, our set is geared toward that R&B, funk blues, but more modern. We’re not traditionalists in that sense. We want it to
have the format of old school guitar and harmonica, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, that kind of harmonica duo, but we want to do it for the 21st century, real but respectful to the music, but fresh at the same time. Not a walk through the songs, but a new honest take on it. That’s what we’ve always tried to do, and we love that funk stuff and blues stuff. That’s our go-to, I would say. Right, Dick?”
Magic Dick: Yeah.
Don Wilcock: You’re basically redefining authentic.
SN: You could say that.
DW: I could say that. You can’t.
SN: We can’t say that.
Shun Ng plays guitar with his whole body, and he thinks about music in unusual ways. “I always felt musicians discover music through their instruments. An instrument is like slightly different maps of music. It’s almost like the earth. When you see a map of the globe, it’s never accurate because sometimes Africa is smaller. It’s like made out of a circle. So, when you straighten it out, it’s all wrong.
“With music, there’s no one way to see it. Every instrument shows a different side of the mechanism of music. So, when you use different instruments, you can understand music more globally and keep it so the music stays a constant, and then whatever you play, you already understand music. So, the music is there rather than
discovering the music solely through your instrument.”
So, when the duo does Miles Davis (“So What,” “4”), Sonny Boy Williamson (“Peach Tree), Big Bill Broonzy (“Keys to the Highway”), James Brown (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”), Stevie Wonder (“Superstition”), and Aretha Franklin (“Respect”), throws in Andy Williams’ “Moon River,” and several originals as they did in Saratoga, nobody feels a negative jolt when they switch gears.
“A mistake is the seed that grows a tree that becomes an idea,” says Ng.
Magic Dick: “I learned that Shun couldn’t care less if I make mistakes or sound bad because he totally understands what it takes to do this and where it’s all coming from, which I kind of organize around it.”
This duo is amazing on so many levels: their extension of the limitations of the guitar and harmonica, the driving force of their presentation, the chemistry between the two, and their total disregard for staying within the box of any one format.