LIVE: Lonnie Shields @ The Linda, 1/11/2020
Lonnie Shields has been walking a tight rope across the Grand Canyon of blues since he was a child and couldn’t get past the red-light blinking “On Air” to see hometown blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson perform live on King Biscuit Time Radio Show in Helena, Arkansas. He’s still working to get to the other side of that canyon, but at 63 years old, after decades of personal and professional struggle, he has a safety net that permits him to dance his way across that yawning abyss.
And dance he did at The Linda Norris Auditorium Saturday night, (January 11) in a performance that turned his personal pathos into a celebration of his recommitment to a genre of music that’s become as basic to him as breathing. Twice during his two-hour set, he walked into the audience of about 200 people, pirouetting as he anointed the crowd. His cordless guitar threatened to cut out several times but stayed connected as he did, cementing an intimate embrace and transporting us all to nirvana.
“I love you guys,” he shouted from the stage. “You just made my night. Thanks for coming out.” And we all just knew he meant it. Shields’ “safety net” is a band fronted by Jesse Loewy, a 21-year-old guitarist and second vocalist who began playing with Lonnie as a young teenager. On a road of creative highs matched by countless professional potholes, Lonnie was ready to throw in the towel and concentrate on his barbecue business in Pennsylvania when Loewy, who still “looked like a baby,” entered his life and convinced Shields to keep on keeping on. Loewy became Shields’ manager, his bandleader, and second guitarist. A child prodigy, this amazing youngster has Shield’s back. Born and raised in a devout Southern Baptist home, Shields has always put everyone other than himself first in line. In Loewy, he’s found someone who gives back.
Shields put on an exhaustingly exuberant performance of classic blues, soul and funk Saturday night backed by a crack four-piece band: Mike Whren on bass, drummer Neil Simpkins, plus sax and keyboard player Steve Hoke under the direction of Jesse on second guitar and occasional vocals. There was no weak link in this ensemble. That they loved what they were doing was palpable. And watching the looks on their faces as they played was like experiencing kids doing their own first make your own sundae at Stewarts.
It’s not like Shields’ music is in the collective consciousness. Nevertheless, he held his crowd for two hours with a repertoire that was mostly originals. His performance was classic urban blues that took me back to a show I saw with Bobby Blue Bland and B. B. King at Louie’s Lounge in Roxbury in 1966. He defines the genre!
“Let’s get away from politics and have some fun,” he told the crowd as he introduced an original he said was inspired by his friend B.B. King that included the lyric “I’d like to live the love I sing about in my song.”
In a December interview, he offered an anecdote about B.B. that is a microcosm of the struggles he’s had a career of highs and lows not atypical of African American blues artists of his generation. It was hearing B.B.’s “3 O’ Clock in The Morning” on a jukebox that first made him want to sing the blues. Later, He would meet B. B. who let him go on his bus. “Just take what you want,” The King of the Blues told Lonnie. “Drink what you want because I can’t drink anymore.”
When B. B. finally asked him up on stage it was just after Lonnie’s equipment had been stolen, and he didn’t have a guitar. “He called me up (and said), ‘I forgot what his name is, but you can come on out here, and he’s ok. I just forgot what his name is.’ When I came out on stage, he was throwing picks out at people, and people were grabbing them.
Lonnie walked out, waved and walked away. “I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to sing right after he got through singing “The Thrill Is Gone.” That’s one of the songs I really love of B.B.’s. So, I said, ‘I’m not gonna go and do that because I didn’t think it would be right to just grab the microphone and start singing,’ and I just wished I had my guitar at the time.
“Oh, and it was on my birthday.
“And I wanted to tell him someone had stolen all our equipment, but I was too shy to say that to him ’cause I knew he’d have given me a guitar if I had told him that.”