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Originally Published June 9, 2004
Harmonica Masters at Chan’s Restaurant
Woonsocket, Rhode Island
By Art Tipaldi
How about this as a pitch for a Blues club: The best national Blues acts every weekend, eight o’clock shows, no smoking, free parking, and an all you can eat Chinese buffet. That’s the deal at Chan’s Restaurant on Main Street in downtown Woonsocket, Rhode Island. What began 27 years ago under the name of Chan’s Egg Rolls and Jazz has evolved into great Blues every week.
“It began as a labor of love,” tells owner John Chan. “I started booking local and regional Jazz acts. But in 1994 the tastes began to change and there was more demand for Blues shows.” Coincidentally, 1994 was just when the House Of Blues began to attract national Blues acts to Boston. Since Woonsocket is in the center of a triangle that connects Boston, Providence, and Worcester, touring bands looked to Chan’s as an essential part of the New England routing. With its proximity to Springfield and Hartford, just an hour away, bands today are setting Chan’s as the weekend show to build a tour around.
Visually, Chan’s is a Blues anomaly. Instead of Southern folk art on the walls of a faux juke joint or Blues memorabilia scattered throughout a dimly lit saloon, Japanese paper lanterns hang from the ceiling, tiny Xmas lights twinkle above the stage, and Chinese artwork adorns the walls. There are two rooms here, the normal dining room and John Chan’s personal Blues territory, a 150-seat, banquet-styled room. Once inside this Blues world, John personally seats every customer at tables, which hold up to ten people. Because Chan’s has the reputation of the Blues place to be, you might be sitting next to a Jerry Portnoy or Doug James or Troy Gonyea who, on a night off, have come to see a friend.
The room has two plusses. First, there isn’t a bad seat anywhere, even if you sit to the side of the stage, the music still sounds great. The second plus is that because of the intimate nature of the room, most bands turn the volume down to where audiences can appreciate the musical subtleties.
“Bands love coming here again and again because they know that our audiences are very knowledgeable,” says John Chan. “And they love the intimacy of the room.”
AnAnd fans love the food. Imagine watching your favorite Blues band at an all you can eat Chinese buffet where you can down plate after plate of boneless ribs, chicken teriyaki, spring rolls, sesame chicken, fried rice washed down with a scorpion bowl, and hear the Blues. First timers always go for the buffet, but after a few trips to Chan’s you’ll also realize ordering from the regular menu is just as tasty.
Because Chan’s offers two shows a night, fans can also pick the one right for their needs. There is the aforementioned eight o’clock opening show which is usually the band’s 90-minute set. After an intermission, the second set or show begins around 10 p.m. and usually lasts an hour. The first show might be $15, the second $10 or both for $18. Most diehard fans will buy tickets for both.
Though John Chan brings in all manner of Blues, March and April centered around the harmonica. In fact, it could have been titled “Harmonica Masters At Chan’s.” Starting in early March with the legendary James Cotton, Chan’s featured Little Charlie with Rick Estrin, the Kim Wilson Blues Revue, and Rod Piazza in April, and ended the series on May 3 with Charlie Musselwhite.
Charlie Musselwhite once told me of a Chicago club called Rose and Kelly’s Blue Lounge where a lot of Chicago harp players gathered. “We would sit in a line of five or six onstage and take turns playing out runs. When we were finished, we’d pass the harmonica to the next guy until it got to Big Walter. It always ended with him. He would always have some new trick to blow everybody away.” That’s what those weeks felt like at Chan’s, one harp master blowing on his night, then passin’ it off to the next. Fans like me who heard it all must have felt like being present at an all you can eat harmonica buffet.
Who better than James Cotton, the master of the Blues harmonica, Mr. Super Harp himself to begin the series? Though he doesn’t sing anymore, Cotton’s still got the massive lungpower that made him famous. With Chinese artwork behind him, Cotton rocked back and forth with every blow or draw. Add his crack guitarist Rico McFarland and vocalist Darryl Nulisch, and his show continually built upon each song. With James you always know what you’re gonna get. Cotton will always play a mixture of classic tunes like “Rocket 88″ or “Cotton Crop Blues” or his high flying “Juke”-like “Creeper” or a Sonny Boy tune like “Don’t Start Me Talking.”
When James finished, he passed the harp to Rick Estrin and Little Charlie Baty for an evening of cool, Little Walter-styled harmonica. Their shows always start and end with Little Charlie revving up the house with jumpin’ instrumentals. In between, the focus is on harp ace and cool cat singer Rick Estrin. During their set, Estrin had the restaurant singin’ along on “Dump That Chump” and “My Next Ex-Wife,” laughin’ on “Don’t Do It” and “Clothes Line,” and snappin’ fingers on “Eyes Like A Cat” and, from their newest CD, “That’s Big.” And there’s always a Walter tune or two featured in the 1950′s style of Walter and his famous Aces. In this comfortable room, fans are never far from the fun when it starts. At any moment, their on-stage craziness can take over. Anyone who went to the bar missed Estrin mock slappin’ Baty during a solo or Baty pointin’ the guitar at Estrin as if the notes were bullets. Later, bassist Frankie Randall was throwin’ the bass over his shoulder as Baty does likewise with his Strat. On another, Estrin was mock fingerin’ the fretboard on Baty’s guitar while Baty’s soloing.
Two weeks later, Estrin handed off to Kim Wilson and his Blues Revue. The Fabulous Thunderbirds play Blues Rock to stadiums; this is the band that satisfies Wilson’s love of ensemble styled Blues. Whenever you catch this grouping, you are seeing Wilson at his best. The band featured Richard Innes on drums, Jon Ross on bass, Gene Taylor on piano, Troy Gonyea and Billy Flynn on guitar, and Doug James from Duke Robillard‘s band stopped by with is tenor for the second set. Recognize any of those names? Sounds like the T-Birds in disguise. With seven premier Blues musicians on stage at once, the music never stepped on anyone’s toes. All night long it was energetic 1950′s ensemble Blues as Kim took turns reviving amplified Little Walter and stylish Sonny Boy acoustic. It was a night of shuffles and marches as Taylor, Flynn, and Gonyea spent the night colorfully weaving in and out of Kim’s vocals and harp. There was no set list; Kim was just callin’ off everything from “Eyesight To The Blind,” “Take A Walk With Me,” “Worried Life Blues,” to newer tunes like “Hurt On Me” and “Tortured.” The best times of the night were Wilson’s acoustic harmonica, slow Blues club walk where he stopped at every table and whispered intimacies, and of course his high flyin’ 15-minute signature harmonica solo piece.
Two nights later, Kim handed the harp off to another harp master of the Blues, Rod Piazza. Whether his throat vibrato holds a note longer than it seems possible or he draws bent notes from the depths of his nearly 40 years of experience, Piazza plays his Blues with an intimate emotional emphasis. Together with Honey Piazza on piano and the Mighty Flyers, Rod treated the two sold out shows to the finest examples of West Coast Jump Blues. To follow the intertwining blend in harmonies and textures, you almost need five sets of ears to discern the individual contributions that snake in and out of any song. From Honey’s two-fisted solo piano boogie-woogie to Henry Carvajal‘s edgy Strat guitar phrasing to Bill Stuve‘s seasoned bass to a sunglassed Rod’s ultra smooth vocals and harmonica solos atop tables, the show is a highlight reel of precision. Even veterans of the show were hollerin’ “Yeah!” whenever Rod demanded it.
You never know exactly where Rod will begin his shows. Lately, he has been starting alone either blowin’ “Devil’s Foot” or “What’s Going On,” until the band joins him, but on this night, Rod surprised the house by opening with George “Harmonica” Smith‘s “Sunbird.” I’ve seen Rod well over 50 times in 10 years and this is the first time I’ve heard him pull that tune outta the bag. He pulled out the chromatic and followed it with “Love Doctor.” No Piazza show is complete without a Honey piano boogie and at Chan’s you get one in each show. Rod also blew deep tones on “Murder In The First Degree,” honored Sonny Boy on “Good Morning Little School Girl,” married harmonica, piano, and guitar on “West Coast Midnight Blues,” and pulled out classics like “Baby Please Don’t Go” and Louis Jordan‘s “Just Like A Woman.” The first set at Chan’s ended like every Piazza set ends, with Rod walking the bar blowin’ wireless on “Southern Lady.” The end of song explosion is like Chinese fireworks celebrating the New Year. After a brief intermission, the second show picked right up with “Tough And Tender” and “Love To Spare.” As he does whenever he plays Chan’s, Rod called up 13-year-old harp player Cousin Joey for a second set duet. He started the relationship five years ago when the kid was just nine and his growth has been impressive. Imagine a 13-year-old hangin’ with Honey and the Mighty Flyers as Rod claps along.
And a week later, Rod passed the harp to Charlie Musselwhite, this year’s W.C. Handy Harmonica Player of the Year. Imagine a packed house on a Monday night. That’s what the combination of Chan’s and Charlie can do. This is the harp master everyone looks to. Before, during, and after the show, people flocked to Musselwhite for either harp tips or to offer thanks for playing music that touched their soul. Remember, he learned directly from people like Will Shade, Little Walter, Big Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, and Sonny Boy. Thus, Charlie’s show is a mixture of the traditional harmonica with his newer songs. In a day when so many musicians play it from a narrow perspective, the risky musical outlook of Charlie Musselwhite always broadens the musical scope. The skillful blend of “Homeless Child,” “Burn Down The Cornfield,” “I Had Trouble,” and “Sanctuary” from his current CD with Musselwhite Blues standards like “Take A Walk With Me,” “Charlie’s Old Highway 51 Blues,” and even his Brazilian-tinged Blues made this a night to remember. Because Kirk Fletcher handles guitar and Bob Welsh piano, every song comes with generous solo time for piano, guitar, and harmonica. Whether Charlie was blowin’ slow Blues like “Black Night” or swinging up-tempo Blues like “Rough Dried Woman” or the John Lee Hooker boogie styled “River Hip Mama,” everything was cooked Musselwhite style. How about ending the night with Musselwhite playin’ his signature “Christo Redemptor” with Chinese artwork as the backdrop.
This was Charlie’s first trip to Chan’s, for the other bands however, Chan’s is a once or twice a year stop on the road. Keep tabs on upcoming shows at Chan’s.
By Art Tipaldi
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