An Evening Of Surprises

Well, Sunday evening, I got to listen to Honeyboy Edwards sing the blues. But the Texas Gal got to hug him.

Shortly after the end of the two-hour performance by the Big Head Blues Club at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, as we were making our way to the lobby, I stopped in the men’s room. When I came out, the Texas Gal said, “You missed it! Honeyboy Edwards just came through the hall, and I got to hug him!”

I stared at her. (She said later, “I have never seen your eyes so wide. I thought they were going to fall out!”) And I looked around. No sign of Honeyboy Edwards. She said that the ninety-five-year-old bluesman had chatted for a few moments with the departing concertgoers in the hallway and then sat down in a wheelchair and was wheeled away. “I kept looking at the door, hoping you’d come out,” she said. “And there was no way I could go get you.”

I sighed as we headed up the ramp to the lobby. I would have loved to have met Edwards. His presence was the main reason I’d wanted to see Sunday’s concert to begin with, as I mentioned last Saturday. That’s not to disparage Big Head Todd & the Monsters (billing themselves for the “Blues at the Crossroads” tour as the Big Head Blues Club). Nor is it a knock on the other featured guests: guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm, drummer and guitarist Cedric Burnside and guitarist Hubert Sumlin.

But Edwards is living history. It was his presence that directly connected the concert Sunday with its purpose, which is to celebrate the centennial of the birth of bluesman Robert Johnson. (Sunday’s show was the next-to-last in a nineteen-show tour that started in late January in San Francisco and ends tonight in Urbana, Illinois.) After all, Edwards knew Johnson and traveled and played with him in 1930s Mississippi. And Edwards – along with Sonny Boy Williamson II – was with Johnson at the Three Forks Store north of Greenwood, Mississippi, on the night in August 1938 when Johnson was poisoned with tainted whiskey.

So as we walked up a short ramp to the lobby after the Texas Gal got her hug from Honeyboy Edwards, I consoled myself with the joy of the show I’d just seen. Edwards had been on stage for eight or so numbers during the show. Looking a little frail as he made his way on and off stage, he’d played well and been in good voice, particularly on the blues standard “Goin’ Down Slow” toward the end of the evening. He’d also done well on “Sweet Home Chicago,” one of the blues standards written by his one-time traveling companion Johnson.

Here’s a video shot from the audience Sunday of Edwards performing “Sweet Home Chicago” with Malcolm and a harp player whose name I sadly did not catch.

Sumlin had performed well, too, his stinging guitar riffs leading the band – the other musicians traded off all evening, performing in various configurations – through some of the Howlin’ Wolf classics on which Sumlin played in the 1950s and 1960s. Chief among them were “Smokestack Lightnin’,” “Killing Floor” and “Sittin’ On Top Of The World,” on which Sumlin – now seventy-nine and using an oxygen tank – took the vocal lead.

It was an evening with some surprises: Count among them the performances of Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside (the grandson of well-known Delta guitarist R.L. Burnside). Malcolm’s quick guitar and Burnside’s muscular work on the drums helped knit the evening’s music together. I’d not heard of the two before I saw the ad for the concert around Thanksgiving, but I’m going to have to look up the two albums they’ve recorded together.

Another surprise was how well Todd Park Mohr did as a blues singer. No disrespect intended, but there is a stylistic gap between the Monsters catalog and the catalog of Robert Johnson’s blues. But from his solo opener with a steel guitar – Johnson’s “Love In Vain” – to the closer, when everyone was on stage for “Dust My Broom” and an audience sing-along of “Sweet Home Chicago,” Mohr did well, even handling adroitly the keening vocal parts in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.”

But the biggest surprise was hearing that the Texas Gal got to meet and hug Honeyboy Edwards. I was musing on a missed moment as we made our way to the lobby. And there at a table, sat Honeyboy Edwards, signing autographs and posing for pictures. The Texas Gal got us a place in line as I dashed to the nearby sales table and bought a copy of 100 Years of Robert Johnson, the album released in conjunction with the tour.

When I got to the head of the line, Edwards gladly signed his picture in the CD booklet. But not until he gripped my hand, and then looked first at me – with eyes that so long ago looked at Robert Johnson – and then at the camera the Texas Gal had brought with her. I can still feel his strong grip – the grip of history – this morning.

(I hope to post the picture of me with Edwards later this week.)

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6 Responses to “An Evening Of Surprises”

  1. Jeff says:

    Nice moment, nice piece.

  2. Paco Malo says:

    “….his strong grip – the grip of history …” Your post swept me away in your excitement. Thanks for sharing this moment of a lifetime.

  3. Yah Shure says:

    I kept thinking that there had to be a happy ending, and was glad to see that there was. Am looking forward to the pic of you with Honeyboy. Are you *sure* that there is no money shot of the bug-eyed whiteray? 🙂

    Congrats on having had a wonderful time with your Christmas gift.

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  5. […] guests in a concert celebrating the centennial of Robert Johnson’s birth. When I wrote about the evening and its surprises, I didn’t write about our drive […]

  6. […] was lucky enough to see Sumlin in concert last March as he and Honeyboy Edwards and a few others joined the Big Head Blues Club to celebrate the […]

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