Madcity 2016—Corky Siegel & Howard Levy, Le Fete de Marquette, Otis Redding, Ben Sidran, sudden death and Bernie Sanders


I was at the Delta Terminal at LaGuardia early morning July 14 waiting for my nonstop to Milwaukee when I saw that fellow music writer Joe Bosso Facebooked how he loved Grand Funk Railroad growing up, and how he couldn’t understand how the critics hated them.

I laughed out loud.

I had hated them, too, at the beginning, when me and the guys sat around smoking pot, guzzling beers and sniffing glue nonstop to “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home).” But everything changed when they started having hit singles like “Bad Time,” “The Loco-Motion” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soul.” A million years later I was privileged to write the booklet notes to the box set Thirty Years of Funk: 1969–1999 and become big friends with frontman Mark Farner. Joe, who rightly called GFR “a total kickass band,” had just interviewed Mark, and drew an ambiguous response from the esteemed Ira Robbins-co-founder of the late, great Brit-rock/new wave-oriented mag Trouser Press-who observed that 150 music writers had been invited to meet the band at the beginning at New York’s Gotham Hotel.

“Exactly six journalists showed up,” Ira tallied, then cited the famous block-long billboard in Times Square promoting the Closer to Home album, at a cost of $100,000. He seemed to be suggesting that Grand Funk’s success was due much to marketing; for sure it wasn’t press adulation. Not wishing to cause my usual Facebook firestorm, I merely stated, “I wrote the notes for the box set. Mark is a sweetheart and great as ever,” prompting Ira to kindly reply, “You’re a midwestern partisan, you are!”

“On my way back to Wisco as we speak!” I wrote back, and it was now time to board.

It was my third annual July trip to Wisco, as I call it, to visit my ninetysomething mother in Madison. I didn’t plan anything when I went back two years ago, but I got lucky: My high school buddy Andy Linderman, now the renowned blues harmonica player Westside Andy, had a gig on July 4 at Waupun–a tiny town 50 miles northeast of Madison mostly known for being the site of the state prison–and I tagged along. The annual Celebrate Waupun festival had two stages–the blues stage, that Andy was part of, and of all things, a Cajun music stage, the big name being Feufollet, a Lafayette band I’d first seen there in the late 1990s when they were all kids. They’re young adults now, after personnel changes including the addition of Kelli Jones-Savoy, the hugely talented wife of my dear friend and huge Cajun music talent Joel Savoy from nearby Eunice, The Cajun Prairie Capital.

It turned out that Feufollet was playing one of my old Madcity haunts, the Crystal Corner bar, a few days later, so I got to see them twice while I was in town. But also playing the Cajun stage was of all people, Jim Schwall, guitarist for the Siegel-Schwall Band, one of the main reasons I got into writing about music in the mid’70s in the first place.

I’d first seen Jim at The People’s Fair rock festival in Iola Township some 140 miles north of Madison, which took place in late June of 1970, when Siegel-Schwall played sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. Saturday morning, the second day of the weekend festival. As I’ve written here elsewhere*, it was life-changing. I think Andy was at the fest, but I know he’d originally turned me on to them and I instantly became a devotee, turning everyone I knew onto the band and seeing them again scores of times throughout the next decade. I wrote about them extensively when I began writing about music, and continued after moving to New York in the early ’80s, eventually positioning myself to oversea the CD reissue of their entire Vanguard catalog.

Jim’s Siegel-Schwall partner Corky Siegel became one of my closest friends, but I never knew Jim that well. After moving to New York he moved to Madison, so I missed out on getting to know him better there. So I was thrilled to get to see him and hang out a bit during the day at Waupun, where he was playing bass in Madison’s Cajun Strangers.

“There’s a theory that there are 35 blues bands in Madison, and 28 blues musicians!” Jim told me, by way of explaining how and why he and so many other Madcity blues players end up playing regularly or sporadically in so many local blues bands. I can’t remember what band Andy was playing with, but I know it wasn’t his, and that like Jim, he played in a number of local blues bands as well.

I was smarter last year in planning my trip, but that’s because I knew well in advance Elvis Costello was playing in Madison with The Imposters–their own gig during a couple days off from their tour opening for Steely Dan. I wrote about the show—and it’s significance to me and my career—here last year*; another high point of last year’s trip was getting to hang out again with Jim, at the Atwood (Avenue) Fest.

This year I was hoping maybe Jimmy Liban was playing somewhere. Jim Liban, another great blues harmonica legend, from my hometown Milwaukee.

Of all the artists—and they probably number in the hundreds if not thousands—whom I saw and loved and supported in my writing career who deserved and didn’t get the widespread mainstream recongition they deserved, none ranks higher in my estimation than Jimmy Liban. Luckily, he put out a record a couple years ago, I Say What I Mean, and I made it my Album of the Year in He hadn’t had a record out in God knows how long, and wouldn’t have had not a young (relatively) guitar player named Joel Paterson, who had played with Jimmy when he was cutting his own musical teeth in Madison, decided, now that he was well established in Chicago and had started his own indie label, to put out an album of Liban originals.

I Say What I Mean did get Jimmy a gig in Europe, and also took him to Memphis for the Blues Music Awards. But remember: This is the blues, so there wasn’t much else. When I called him a few weeks before booking my trip, he told me that he was in the middle of a one-year hiatus from playing—though he had promised a friend that he’d play his wedding, and was honoring that commitment. When the year was up he’d decide if he’d want to play again, but for now, it just wasn’t any fun any more, essentially playing the same Milwaukee haunts for the same Milwaukee people. I shared his frustration, and added it to my own.


That left Corky. I went to his website and sure enough, he had a gig on July 16 in Fort Atkinson, a 45-minute or so drive from Madison, at Cafe Carpe. I booked the trip, flying to Milwaukee and taking the Badger Bus to Madison. That first night, it turned out, was the start of the four-day Le Fete de Marquette festival, in of all places, Madison’s Central Park. I didn’t even know we had a Central Park in Madison, and that it was a walk from where I used to live on South Hancock Street a few blocks back of the State Capitol. I went there with my old pal Jeff Laramie, owner of the booking agency SRO Artists, who used to be second in command at Mountain Railroad Records, home of artists including Jim Post, Steve Young, a pre-Timbuk3 Pat MacDonald and Spooner–which was fronted by Doug Erikson, later to become Duke Erikson of Garbage, and had on drums Butch Vig, also of future Garbage and Nirvana production fame.

It being Madison, I smoked some pot, followed Jeff and wife Terri around and was blown away by the music (like the festival name suggests, it focused on French-related music), and the one artist I remember seeing is Cyril Neville. I only wish I remembered the conversations I had with Jeff and Terri because I know I had at least five ideas for great stories/commentaries, and I was too high to take down any notes, none of which likely would have made sense had I done so. I at least remember one thing that I think Jeff said, that echoed my thoughts on pre-Democratic Convention Bernie Sanders.

I of course supported Bernie’s positions, but I didn’t support Bernie. He lost me from the beginning on vocabulary ,three words in particular—the first being revolution. I don’t care what he meant, revolution connotes violence. If it doesn’t scare a lot of people to death outright, it puts them way the fuck off.

Bernie’s second bad word was obvious—socialism. Again, even though I doubt most people can correctly defin it, socialism scares people and puts them off, especially since it still widely and wrongly connotes communism. Maybe America is ready to elect a socialist, not to mention a Jewish socialist. I just didn’t want to bet the Constitution on it.

The third word was establishment. Bernie kept railing against the establishment, much as I did when I was a teen high school radical in the late ‘60s. Except this ain’t the late ‘60s, and now I’m the establishment—and I’m not ashamed of it. I always love President Obama’s line from the 2008 campaign, “We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for!” And I’m proud of who I was in the ‘60s in Madison, when there was an awful war going on and a Selective Service draft and a generation gap, and to suggest, like the Bernie or Bust people, that now Obama and Hillary Clinton and I are essentially the same as Nixon, well, I’ll have none of it.

And now I’ll add a fourth word, one that has to do with what Jeff or I did or didn’t say: rigged. Yeah, Bernie, like Trump, riled up his followers by claiming that the “system” is rigged, when he was losing a good fight fair and square. Here he only reinforced a main paranoid tenet of American culture since the JFK assassination, that everything that happens that’s bad is a conspiracy, then, with Trump, helped extend it by giving his followers free reign to believe that winners are corrupt and therefore win unfairly, hence their victories are illegitimate. This breeds cynicism, incivility, unwillingness to compromise, a belief that if you don’t get everything you want, nothing is preferable.

Now by no means an I saying that Hillary is spotless, or that I like her, though it turns out that I do, very much–having in fact hated her eight years ago when she ran against Obama, having been a Clinton hater long before then. But she earned my respect and eventual admiration for sucking it up after losing, campaigning for Obama, serving as his Secretary of State and now winning the nomination fairly and handily as the candidate far and away most supportive of the President–which Bernie was to a lesser extent, his chief supporters to a far lesser one. Again, I support Bernie’s positions, which are closer to mine than Hillary’s, and I recognize her weaknesses and shortcomings as a candidate–but in relation to Trump, they’re virtually nonexistent, and the differences between her and Bernie are likewise truly miniscule. All this said, I do hereby salute Bernie for doing the right thing at and since the convention, and am relieved that the bulk of his followers do appear to have similarly sucked it up.

I just wish I could remember the other stuff we talked about, but that old Madison Green—not to mention a new addition in the Madtown Mule—a beer infused with lime and ginger made by Capital Brewery, that I drank an entire mule team of—-made me forget everything except the sight of people as old as me who still lived in Madison and still went out to hear music, and that it was such a great setting in a park in the middle of the near East Side with the majestic State Capitol building visible in the sunset, the Capitol that you can see from miles away as you near Madison on the Badger Bus, that I used to walk through on my way to State Street and the University-area music clubs when I lived there and wrote for The Madcity Music Sheet and was a stringer for Variety before moving to New York.


I do remember one other thing, part of the Bernie discussion, that I myself came up with and gave to a girl that we were talking to, a friend of Jeff’s, that I know she never acted on, that I should have—a t-shirt slogan: “Vote conscientiously–not your conscience.” If anyone who reads this is so inclined to print up and sell some shirts, honor compels you to cut me in.


I returned to the festival the next night to meet up with Rockin’ John McDonald, my friend of over 40 years—as long as he’s had his beloved I Like It Like That oldies radio show every Saturday night on Madison’s listener-sponsored WORT-FM. I thought I was cool wearing my orange New York Public Library t-shirt, but RJ topped it with his vintage blue Dr. Bop and the Headliners entry. That day, by the way, I returned for the first time since leaving my third job with the State of Wisconsin in either 1978 or ‘79 to the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson, overlooking Lake Monona, where I worked two blocks south of the Capitol.


I needed a birth certificate, as I was suddenly thinking of fleeing to India and didn’t have a passport. I walked into the building and thought I’d stepped into The Twilight Zone: Not everything was the same—there was a security station in the lobby that wasn’t there in the ‘70s. It all looked brighter outside, too. But the institutional flooring and hallways were the same, and it was a step back in time that I recently depicted here.

I can’t remember, but I think my office was on the second floor; I think my second job with the State, a file clerk at the Division of Corrections, was on seventh floor, and the first, where I was a reader/typist for a blind man at the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, was also on an upper floor.

The clerk at the Bureau of Records, of course, was my age 40 years ago, modified in the passage of time and mores by arms full of tattoos. When I was done I walked out and got to the lobby and stopped, giving in to the stupid impulse to go back and tell her that I used to work in the building 40 years ago. She feigned interest.

Since I worked there, and long after I left Madison, they built a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center, the Monona Terrace, behind the State Office Building, on the Monona shore. They put in a plaque on the terrace in memory of Otis Redding, who died when his plane crashed into Lake Monona on Dec. 10, 1967. I was with my friend Beth, whose husband Tim Onosko, the renowned futurist/author, was one of my dearest friends and supporters, an older brother/mentor. Tim died of cancer a few years ago. Pancreatic. I thought he’d beaten it and will never forgive myself for not knowing he hadn’t, though Beth assures me it was okay, he didn’t want anyone to know. Except I should have known and it wasn’t okay.


We went out on to the terrace, and I sat on one of the benches surrounding the Redding plaque and looked out onto the quiet, still waters of Lake Monona, silently wondering what might have been. What might have been had Otis lived, and Tim. Had I stayed in the Madcity.


Saturday mid-afternoon I took my mother’s car and drove to Fort Atkinson with my 21-year-old niece Ariela to see Corky and Howard at Cafe Carpe. We got there while they were doing soundcheck. I hadn’t seen Corky since he was in New York four years ago to play Lincoln Center Out of Doors with Dr. L. Subramaniam. I don’t remember the last time I saw Howard, but it was probably at one of his gigs at the Association of performing Arts Presenters (APAP) some 10 years ago, maybe.


Corky and Howard play together a lot, but this was the first time I’d see them—and I was bringing along my niece Ariela, 21, who’s a classical piano student at New York’s Mannes School of Music, who was also in Madison visiting her mom (my sister). After greeting Corky, his wife/manager Holly and Howard, Corky echoed my excitement over her getting to see Howard (as well as Corky), who does things on a 10-hole diatonic harmonica—i.e., play it chromatically by conceiving an “overblowing” technique–that no one else knows how to do, let alone articulate. You really don’t need to be a musician, let alone understand music, to know when you hear Howard play that he’s doing something that sounds great, but makes absolutely no sense technically speaking.

Howard tried to put it in piano terms for Ariela–but even that was ridiculous.

“I make my mouth do the stuff my fingers would do,” he said. I doubt she understood him. I certainly didn’t.

“I’m not really thinking about this,” he added, speaking, I supposed, of his harmonica. “I visualize the piano.”

He might just as well have been speaking in tongues.

It was at Café Carpe, a wonderful little café/bar/listening room—-maybe 50 seats–in a century-old brick building on the Rock River with a screened porch overlooking the water, owned and operated by regionally renowned folkie Bill Camplin and Kitty Welch. Holly raved about the pumpkin pie; the carrot cake was definitely the best I ever had.

On the wall of the music room was a bumper sticker that read, “I may be old but that’s okay…I got to see all the great bands.”

Bill introduced the show with a Hitchcock like “Good evening,” then asked how many in the SRO room were musicians. At least half raised their hands. I can’t imagine any of them understood what was going on with Howard, either, other than it was, using Bill’s words, “absolute magic.”

Comedic, too. Corky walked to the stage from the back while playing harp, Howard doing same a few paces back in a goofy processional. On stage they tried to out-footstomp each other while Corky played and sang Little Walter’s classic blues “Mellow Down Easy,” leading into a blues harmonica battle between the two.

They went on to trade solo pieces, both on piano and harmonica and sometimes both. At one point Corky laughed out loud at a Howard harmonica solo, which was entirely appropriate considering he was essentially defying all science, such that all one could do was laugh out loud. Howard said that the harmonica is the only instrument that you can pick up upside-down when you’re drunk and not know it. That sort of made sense, but really, it was like listening to Albert Einstein’s feeble attempt at relating with the village idiots.

Then Howard did a Beatles medley including “In My Life” and “Michelle,” his chording so complex that melodies were sometimes barely decipherable, as if he were somehow blowing into a kaleidoscope. “America the Beautiful,” with harp in right hand and left playing piano, segued into “This Land is Your Land,” then he shifted to both hands playing piano and Corky returning, playing harmonica before they sat together at the piano bench duetting—or more accurately, practically crawling over each other while changing hand position, Corky’s at first in between the taller, lankier Howard as he wrapped around him from behind, then the two with their hands alternating before Corky picked up a harmonica, then Howard did the same, each now playing harmonicas with one hand, piano with the other, in left-right-right-left hand mirror image. They also handed off solos on harp and piano and back and forth to where it became dizzying to follow the dazzle.

But that wasn’t all: Howard also played a bass harmonica, penny whistle and on an encore, an angklung set of tuned shakers. But when he doubled the melody on harp and piano simultaneously, well, mouths were agape, and at least in my case, still is. He and Corky walked off together to Siegel-Schwall’s “Hey, Billie Jean,” each finishing the other’s phrases.

The first half of the trip now done, the rest would focus on the few friends in Madison I have left who are still alive, our conversations invariably concerning our respective cancer treatments, except that in Robin’s case he added a new wrinkle to the medical history in having dropped dead at the Minneapolis airport a few months ago—luckily within short distance from a defibrillator. Of course I asked the expected question, i.e., Did you see anything on the other side? Rob’s answer, of course, was no.

Tom, whom I worked with at the State Office Building (same with Rob), seemed to be coming along great after intensive treatment for throat cancer. He was skeletal two years ago, and now he’s playing soccer and drumming in a band.

I had lunch with Chuck Toler, who was partners with Ken Adamany back when I first started writing. The money they made managing Dr. Bop & the Headliners went into developing Cheap Trick. We called Ken, who sounded great. Ken owned The Factory, the nightclub Otis was going to play the day his plane went down in Lake Monona.

Next day was my last—Tuesday, July 19–and I’d end it with some old-time club hopping starting at Otto’s Restaurant & Bar, near my mom’s, where Westside Andy and the Glenn Davis Duo are playing every Tuesday evening during the summer outside on the deck/patio at 5:30 p.m. I’d checked Andy’s schedule before flying out and saw that he was playing every night I was there, all out of town gigs except for this one. He recognized me immediately in his side view mirror when I snuck up on his car after he parked.

It was the second week in a row that an old friend had surprised him, the first being a gal we knew from high school whom he hadn’t seen forever—whom I haven’t seen since—who looked great, who had married the brother of another high school friend, but the husband had died—death being more and more the operative word in these kinds of conversations. Back from a recent Stockholm swing if I heard right–alwasy a 50-50 proposition at best–Andy was still playing with any number of local blues groupings, this one being with Davis, who plays guitar and kick drum and sings. Like Corky and Howard, they turned to Little Walter with “Just Your Fool” while I was there, which was about an hour or so before heading downtown, Andy’s latest album Blues Just Happen in hand, to the Cardinal Bar. I used to hang out there a lot 40 years ago, when it was my corner bar and a straight-friendly gay disco with the best dance music in town.

Tuesday summer early evenings at the Cardinal now are turned over to Ben Sidran’s “Salons for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Free Thinkers,” in which my old friend Ben, Madison’s renowned jazz pianist/author/composer who cut his teeth in The Ardells, a Madison band made up of UW students in 1961 that also included Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs—and Jos Davidson, who would go on to play bass in an early Siegel-Schwall configuration. Ben also played in the Steve Miller Band in the late ‘60s.

He was on break when I got there and ran into Stu Levitan, president of WORT-FM’s board of directors and head of the Madison Landmarks Commission, whom I’d hung out with at the Marquette fest when I met up with Rockin’ John. He told me that Ben was at the front of the bar. Sure enough, Ben was sitting by the window, engrossed in a conversation. So I stood nearby waiting for him to look at me, though I wasn’t sure he’d recognize me, it had been so long since I’d seen him in New York. I know the last time I saw him in Madison was at a Dr. Bop gig, since we both would be called up to sit–and drink–at the ultimate oldies show band’s famous onstage Celebrity Bar.

So I stood there waiting, then noticed a familiar looking woman looking at me like she’d seen a ghost—which would have made sense had she recognized me. Except who’s going to recognize me here now? I thought, and usually people who think they recognize me are soon disappointed when they find out I’m not who they hope I am.

Except that now this woman was smiling broadly and seemed certain it was me, and suddenly it dawned on me that she was right! It was Lynette Margulies, frontwoman pianist/vocalist of jazz-pop group Four Chairs No Waiting back in the day, whom I hadn’t seen since back in the day. I have no idea how she recognized me, but really, I should have recognized her right off.

Lynette immediately interrupted Ben and told him who I was, and he practically fell on the floor. “It’s old home week!” he said when he regained his blance and composure, and sure enough, he’d been locked in conversation with another old Madison journo friend who also lived in New York and was in town visiting. As for Lynette, she remembered when I reviewed Four Chairs when I was stringing with Variety just before splitting for New York—and will never let me off now for not recognizing her right away.

(Photo: Lynette Margulies)

As for Ben’s second set, it really was fabulous—almost all new music by him and and his guitarist Louka Patenaude, bassist Nick Moran and drummer Todd Hammes. Loved the song “College,” especially the line “that’s the place…where I went wrong”–that is, if I read my notes correctly—always a 50-50 proposition at best.

“Who didn’t go wrong in college?” Ben asked when it was over. “And if you didn’t go wrong in college, you missed a huge opportunity!”

“Too Much, Too Late,” he said, was “in the spirit” of his “guru” Mose Allison, which made me think of how I always look at Corky as my guru, though I should add that Simon Burgess is my actual guro, or teacher, in Filipino martial arts.

“It’s the ‘singles’ show!” Ben joked, “just the hits tonight!”

Again struggling to decipher my notes, I can’t tell if someone asked about Steve Miller, or if Ben brought it up on his own. He did say how everybody asks him about Miller, and observed how Miller’s been playing “the same 12 songs for 40 years,” no doubt because of the big bucks he gets paid to do them.

Here Stu, who later explained that he was just quoting Ben from one of Ben’s books, called out something on the order of how those big bucks also paid for Ben’s graduate education so he should shut his mouth, and for sure, Ben’s stint with Miller included his lyrics to “Space Cowboy.”

“At least write a song!” Ben continued, speaking directly to the absent Miller. “It seems like such a waste.”

At least Ben sure made it seem that way from his end, considering the quality of his new songs. I’d been sitting with Patenaude’s proud mom, and he sat with us for a few minutes after the show.

It’s like learning,” said Patenaude, a youngish cat who’s played with Ben since the mid-2000s. “It’s really loose and fun. He tries something out and sees if we feel it and if it works.”

Ben then told me that he rarely makes it out to Manhattan any more.

“There’s no reason to come to the city any more,” he said, though he does get to Brooklyn, where his son Leo, also an esteemed musician/composer who co-produced the Oscar-winning song “Al Otro Lado Del Rio” for the soundtrack to the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, lives. And while he’s working on a new album—and Stu said that the whole first set was new songs that were also great—Ben said that he realized there was no point to it, at least in terms of today’s record companies, airplay and traditional music business marketing.

But what are you going to do? I asked. You’re a musician, and a musician makes music. I’m a writer, and a writer writes—even though I just lost, my main outlet, that barely paid. I still have this site, that I have to pay for. But what am I going to do?

Stu, meanwhile, is working a on a book about Madison in the ‘60s, and I again ask you, Stu, to mention that I was one of the Memorial 101 who were suspended from James Madison Memorial High School for protesting Kent State. Before closing out the night—and trip—down the street at the Essen Haus to catch a little of jazz concertina player Brian Erickson, I walked over to where the cigarette machine used to be next to the front door, where I picked up a copy of The Madcity Music Sheet the night I got back from a week’s vacation in Nashville on Memorial Day in 1977-—my first time there—when I dropoped by the Cardinal to hear folk legends Malvina Reynolds and Rosalie Sorrels. There was a stack of giveaway papers on the cigarette machine and I picked one up and paged through it—then just a single sheet of newsprint folded over twice–saw an ad for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes (with guest Ronnie Spector) appearing in town at the Stone Hearth, and went because I was a huge Ronettes fan and understood where Southside was coming from musically.

I met Gary Sohmers, the Sheet’s publisher at the Southside gig, and not knowing anything about me other than that I’d come to the show after seeing it highlighted in his paper, he asked me to write for it. I told him I flunked out of high school. “It doesn’t matter!” he said. And that’s how my career began—and now, some 40 years later, it still doesn’t matter. The only difference is that there was no cigarette machine now at the Cardinal.

I told Stu and his girlfriend how great this night had been, indeed, the entire trip–in terms of seeing so much fantastic music. She said maybe I should move back to Madison–the perfect setup for one of my favorite Sandra Bernhard lines, Sandy, of course, being from Flint, Michigan.

If you can make it in New York, says Sandy, you’ll be a failure everywhere else.

The persistence of John Mayall

The first time I saw John Mayall had to be at Bunky’s in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late 1970s, and I’m pretty sure Harvey Mandel was with him. I don’t remember the last time but it had been a while, so long, I’m afraid, that I came dangerously close to embarrassing myself when I walked into City Winery Monday night (Mar. 21) and almost asked the old man at the merch table if Mayall might be hanging out after the show–said old man, of course, being Mayall himself, getting in a few pre-show CD sales.

Compounding the near embarrassment was the fact that even at 82, John Mayall looks pretty much the same as he did at Bunky’s, hair shorter and whiter perhaps, but that’s about it. He definitely sounds as good, even without Mandel; here he had a couple other excellent Chicago players in bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport, and ace Texas guitarist Rocky Athas. He also retained his unusual set-up of two keyboards–Hammond organ on his right, Roland electric piano on his left-lined next to each other horizontally in the middle of the stage as he stood behind them facing the audience, alternating between them when not playing guitar or harmonica, or in some cases harp with one hand, keyboard with the other.

Remarkably, too, Mayall still plays as good as he sounds on all instruments–spry on keys, crisp on guitar and harps. It made perfect sense that he played “Dancing Shoes,” from his 1999 album Padlock on the Blues (love that title!) that featured John Lee Hooker. Hooker, old bluesers remember, played with Canned Heat, and Mayall also performed his ode to that great blues-rock band, “The Bear,” from his 1968 album Blues from Laurel Canyon. He went even deeper into his catalog with the slow Chicago blues-styled “Have You Heard,” from his 1966 album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton–Clapton, if you don’t know, being merely one of a myriad of future legends besides Mandel who came up through Mayall blues bands.

From 1967’s Crusade (which featured the likes of future Rolling Stone guitarist Mick Taylor and future Fleetwood Mac founding members Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green and John McVie) came the train song “Streamline,” and from 1970’s USA Union came the ecology-minded “Nature’s Disappearing,” which came out, incidentally, the same time that Chicago’s Siegel-Schwall blues-rock band took a similar tack on “Do You Remember.”

Mayall introduced “Big Town Playboy” as a cut from “one of those new albums” (2014’s A Special Life, to fill in the blank), and from his latest album Find a Way to Care–from late last year–were “Ain’t No Guarantees” and the Lonnie Brooks cover “I Want all My Money Back,” for which he switched from Hammond to Roland during the instrumental break.

But he was equally impressive in switching from the Chicago blues harmonica style to rhythmic country/folk blues chording–what he termed “chicka-chicka” during the lead-in to “Room to Move” on his 1969 album The Turning Point. And he in fact ended the set with “Room to Move”–now a true harmonica classic–after noting how people call it out every night, but that he doesn’t always do it, and that he wouldn’t do it the next night (the second of two at City Winery) since it would be an entirely different set.

“There are some oldies in the house tonight! I saw you come in the door!” he had said at one point, referring to those in the crowd who went all the way back with him–and no doubt me in particular. As I took one last look at him as he signed CDs at the merch table after the show I thought of my conversation with Jennifer Warnes from a few nights earlier.

“My generation of artists has been hit pretty hard,” she said. “For those of us who survive, there’s an urgency to keep on going. Look around at all our peers who have passed like Joe Cocker [her duet partner on the 1982 hit ‘Up Where We Belong’]. The antidote to the horribleness, if you know how to be a beautiful, decent, good and capable professional, is for God’s sakes, do it–and do it on a pedestal so that young people can see you! Write a sentence, paint a beautiful painting, cook a beautiful meal–it must be done. The most revolutionary thing you can do is persist in doing things well.”

I’m not sure there were a lot of youngsters at City Winery, but John Mayall’s band members are certainly younger, and I’ve actually got a ways to go before I catch up with him. I just hope I persist as well as he clearly has.

The tone of Memphis Charlie Musselwhite

I don’t know when it was or who it was–or what instrument it was in reference to–but someone once told me it was all about tone, the player’s instrument’s tone, that is.

It’s one of the many keys to Charlie Musselwhite’s greatnesss as a blues harmonica player, but it applies to any harp player, really. Re Charlie, he has one of the richest tones, virile, robust, horn-like, smooth yet rhythmic. And like all the greats, readily identifiable.

Compare it with my pal Corky Siegel’s, though in Cork’s case, I do a shitty job describing it. All I can say is, without knowing exactly what I mean, that it’s balloon-like. Like the reeds in his harp were encased in a balloon, maybe, or some such material that expands and contracts without breaking–even when overblowing, to use a technical harmonica term out of context.

Listen to the 1970 Siegel-Schwall ’70 album track “Walk in My Mind” and the harp accents at the end of each phrase and then the fluid back-and-forth bend at the end of each verse and, please, come up with a better description.

But back to Charlie. I don’t know when I got to know him, but figure I must have met him, at least, before I came to New York from Madison in 1982. But me and my blues friends used to talk about him all the time after we got out of high school and started going to see him, and even though we didn’t know him, God knows we cared about him as if we did.

“How’s Charlie doing?” we’d ask whoever was lucky enough to see him most recently. “Oh, he didn’t look so good,” was often the answer.

We attributed it to his drinking, and for sure, the extreme introvert was a big drinker–two quarts of liquor a day, he once said, “every second I was awake,” until he tapered off (“I remember getting all the way up to noon without a drink and I thought, ‘that calls for a drink!'” he told’s T.E. Mattox)” and then quit cold after being moved by the bravery of Jessica McClure, the 18-month-old tyke who famously fell down the well in Texas in 1987 and was dug out 58 hours later. He had always felt he had to drink to play in front of people on stage, but now figured that if Baby Jessica could sing nursery rhymes to herself during her ordeal, why couldn’t he “just get up on stage and do something I know perfectly well how to do” without the alcohol prompt.

Charlie ended up writing “The Well,” the titletrack of his 2010, about Baby Jessica. He now lives in Sonoma County, and after his gig Thursday night (Mar. 10) at City Winery, said he’s the only musician who moved to wine country and quit drinking. Too bad, in a way, because they made up a special signature bottle of wine for him.

He had walked out with his band unannounced, setting up his harmonica case on a stand next to his mic and keeping it open, facing him, throughout the show. It was covered with stickers, not unlike those of so many other touring musicians, but from where I sat the only one discernible was the “I [heart] Clarksdale [Mississippi]” at the bottom, though I’m sure the rest were good.

Born along the Mississippi Blues Trail in Kosciusko, Miss., Charlie Musselwhite, who later bought a building in the historic blues town of Clarksdale, moved with his family to Memphis as a child. He recalled running moonshine during his City Winery set (he said it was nothing like Robert Mitchum’s 1958 bootlegging movie classic Thunder Road, though it has been noted, incidentally, that he and Mitchum bear a resemblance, though a Facebook friend says recent promo shots of him look more like David Niven).

“The police wanted me to live where they worked,” he said, so he moved to Chicago and drove an exterminator truck, thereby learning where the blues clubs were and hanging out and studying with the great Chicago bluesmen, many of whom likewise moved from Mississippi in search of work.

Late in the set he spoke of busking with blues guitar legend Robert Nighthawk on the streets in Memphis, where he eventually picked up the nickname Memphis Charlie.

“We made tons of money,” he said. “Twenty-five bucks once.”

But watching Nighthawk, he also learned how to play a stinging slide guitar, as demonstrated during the set on “Crying Won’t Help You.” He also performed “Strange Land,” from his landmark 1967 debut album “Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band,” about discovering Chicago following his move and before, he noted, knowing about Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

His harmonica case, like I said, remained open. Charlie periodically fished out a different-key harp, maybe glanced at the set list or otherwise looked down into it as his phenomenal guitarist Matt Stubbs soloed. One of my favorite Charlie Musselwhite myths was that he slept every day until Hollywood Squares came on, so I was kinda hoping he was checking out some whole episodes or at least a few classic Paul Lynde bits on an iPad secreted in his harmonica case–but I didn’t ask afterward.

I also remembered two of my favorite Charlie Musselwhite response lines, one of which I use whenever the opportunity arises: Some guy once yelled out, after he took the stage at a gig, “How are you doin’, Charlie?” upon which he answered, “You don’t know, do you?” In fact, I actually used that line in a tweet just last week. The other, too specific for me, was Charlie’s understandably annoyed retort to “Play some blues!”: “You give me the blues!”

Here, though, it was, “How y’all doing tonight? We got the blues in the house tonight. You ready to hear a little blues?” and a request that the club’s “million dollar dance floor” be filled: “I see women move and I feel like I accomplished something!” he said, in his ever soft voice and droll manner.

He did “Long Lean Lanky Mama” from last year’s great live album I Ain’t Lyin’, and noted that “by pure coincidence, all the blues tunes we’re doing happen to be on that CD” after revealing that “it turns out there’s a way for you to listen to us in the safety of your own home,” copies of I Ain’t Lyin’, also by pure coincidence, being available at the table by the door.

While it’s safe to say that everyone at City Winery was blown away by Charlie’s blues harp blowing, one fan stood out, standing up in the VIP area the entire show.

“Do it the way you done it!” Cyndi Lauper commanded after Charlie called her up, upon which she sang Chicago blues harp hero Little Walter’s “Just Your Fool,” as she did on her 2010 album Memphis Blues–also recorded with Charlie–after a remarkable on-the-spot soundcheck micromanaged from the stage with City Winery’s sound man down to the precise number of hertzes.

“She really is a sweetheart, who knows her voice and range exactly,” he marveled after the show. “But you’d never want to cross her.”

I filed this last comment somewhere in my brain for future reference if needed, though Cyndi was a purring pussycat next to Charlie.

“I toured with him every night and pride myself on watching him and telling myself to remember everything,” she said, and she was typically adorable as she sang and danced like she was in some Mississippi Delta roadhouse. She was just as adorable after the show, making trademark goofy faces while posing for selfies with all who asked.

“She just killed me again!” said Charlie after she finished, adding in between his own fan selfies after the show that she was so funny on tour that he once had corn come out of his nose from laughing so hard. It might happen again, for Cyndi’s parting words were “Charlie, you should go on tour with me!”

Charlie returned for his encore while everyone was still standing.

“Did somebody say ‘Christo’?” he asked. “I wasn’t going to do it.”

His signature instrumental “Christo Redemptor” was on Stand Back and is on I Ain’t Lyin’ as well, and really, there was no way he wasn’t going to do it. He stayed long after it was over to sign copies of the album at the table by the door.

Talking to Myself Out Loud: Identifying with Rachel Dolezal

There’s a great Godfrey Cambridge line in the 1970 Ossie Davis-directed action comedy classic Cotton Comes to Harlem, “Is that black enough for you?,” which likely spawned Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough for You” 1973 follow-up to his signature “Me and Mrs. Jones”–itself sampled by Schooly D in the 1989 rap song of the same name.

Turns out that Dolezal really wasn’t black enough, not with her disingenuous defense of her trying to pass, not without success, for African-American, which didn’t bother me so much as her over-the-top defensive birther stance that there was no biological proof of her relationship to her parents.

Then again, I’m just as guilty, if not for trying to pass myself off as black–though I often do say, when the conversation turns to race, that I’m “light-skinned”–than for co-opting black culture, as has been done by now by virtually everyone in the world.

Somewhere long ago I read or heard how white boys wished they were black, or at least certain white boys, of which I most certainly was one, once I started listening to the blues back in Madcity Wisconsin. Early Bob Dylan brought me to the Madison Public Library, Bob Dylan, who himself embraced black music and culture so tightly that he recorded with Victoria Spivey and Big Joe Williams and by himself under the blues guise of Blind Boy Grunt. And when I started listening to the blues, besides all the country and folk blues records and Chicago blues records I checked out of the library, it was the Siegel-Schwall band, then made up of three white blues players and one black, that became my biggest and lasting influence.

I make reference here to the Born in Chicago documentary featuring Corky Siegel, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Barry Goldberg, Charlie Musselwhite, Steve Miller, Elvin Bishop, Harvey Mandel and Nick Gravenities–all of whom learned the blues at the feet and amps of Chicago blues pioneers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, just as the Rolling Stones, Animals and Yardbirds were covering the same records in England.

So I can easily understand Rachel Dolezal, not to mention Caitlyn Jenner and anyone else who wishes they were born someone else or somewhere else. And as for listening to the blues and wishing I were black, well, it didn’t stop there. I went on to listen to and love country music, Cajun music, Russian, Indian, Arabic, going so far, at least in relation to country music, to affect what must be about the most blatantly phony Southern accent any guy that could never shake his Midwestern accent ever attempted, almost to the point of self-caricature.

As for being black, I always remember how I’ve enjoyed being among the few whites, er, light-skinned blacks at all black gatherings, like the first time I was in Jamaica and went to Trench Town, the Kingston neighborhood where the likes of Bob Marley gave birth to reggae, that was so dangerous and off-limits to whites that a number of residents had to be bribed to let me in. Or the first time I saw Ashford & Simpson at Radio City in 1983: It was a sold-out show, and I didn’t count more than half a dozen or so of us light-skinneds. Many years later Nick & Val’s assistant Miss Tee scolded me for not having black-eyed peas on hand for New Year’s–a Southern tradition.

“You’ve been hanging around black people so long, and you don’t have no black-eyed peas?” she asked, incredulously–then hand-delivered a big potful. It was up there with being called the “N-word” by one of the great white blues harmonica players, spoken–and taken–with great affection and respect. A fellow Rider in the Storm, he, too, had managed to leave the House in which he was born to become someone else he wanted to be.

I love how one of my dearest Facebook friends commented how race is “a social construct erected to oppress certain groups of people.”

“That is the only way in which it is a real thing–because truly at a basic atomic level there are no racial differences,” she explained. “But the social construct has made race real and has made the concept very powerful. It has been a scourge that persists too often today. Tragic and stupid….”

Dick Van Dyke stars in Dustbowl Revival video

Let everyone else rhapsodize about Taylor Swift and her glam big-star gal-pal “Bad Blood” music video avengers. It can’t hold hold a samurai sword to the Dustbowl Revival’s “Never Had to Go.”

The Venice, Cali.-based bluegrass/gospel/pre-war blues/New Orleans swing band’s first single from its fourth full-length album With a Lampshade On–due from Signature Sounds Recordings on July 21–is fine enough on its own, but it makes for a sprightly video thanks to the still spry participation of the one and only Dick Van Dyke.

Did I say still spry? The man’s 89, for Pete’s sake, and doesn’t look any older than me! And moves a whole lot better! He could probably perfectly still trip over the ottoman in the living room of The Dick Van Dyke Show and look none the worse for wear.

The “Never Had to Go” clip commences with Dick dropping the needle on a scratchy LP, then cuts to the Dustbowlers performing the lively tune on the patio. Dick turns to his wife–his real wife, Arlene, at their real house–and tries to get her to dance with him, as vocalist Liz Beebe smiles at him from outside. But Arlene is busy cooking lunch and ignores him, even as he continues to coax her by dancing with a stuffed bear, playing a toy accordion and guitar, and mugging and clowning and reminding us what an extaordinary performer he is–and what a joy it is to see him again and in such great shape. Indeed, he’s so sweetly persistent that Arlene eventually gives in and shows herself a light-footed dancer in her own right.

And while it’s such an upbeat tune and lively performance, the video is not without suspense: Dick and the Dustbowlers are interacting with each other throughout, but it’s always in quickly intercut separate shots and never together in the same one, leading you to feel cheated in that for whatever reason—cheap budget constraints, most likely-they did their work at different times and in different places. But sure enough, Dick and Arlene come outside dancing in front of Dustbbowl Revival in the last half-minute, leaving all of them–and us–thoroughly satisfied.