Music Maker Relief Foundation Homecoming Celebration
Old Murphy School, Durham
Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014

It was a homecoming celebration for seasoned vets fighting a domestic war on age, infirmity and economic downturns. The uniforms were a bit flashier than you’d find among standard service branches, and there was no designated rank insignia on display. Still, these troops performed their duties with discipline and expertise, demonstrating skills that had not waned in spite of time or health issues. For its 20th anniversary, the Music Maker Relief Foundation honored their battalion of musical warriors with a long gala at Durham’s Old Murphey School. Although 50 artists were scheduled to appear, the final tally came up short of that figure, though there was still plenty of entertainment to fill the afternoon and early evening.

Even if you ignore the signage, you can always tell you’re at a Music Maker event: The artists are having as much fun as the audience. There’s no fourth wall at Music Maker shows. The artists mingle freely with the crowd before, during and after their sets. For this event, there was a media room where you could sit in relative quiet and interview the artists or take their pictures. But you could also visit with the idols while waiting in the chow line just across the hall or, if you were uninhibited enough, dance singly or as a couple with a select few still spry enough to hit the floor.

In his opening remarks, Music Maker founder Tim Duffy noted that the school, built around 1900, was also used as a concert hall where Bill Monroe and Dolly Parton had performed. Duffy’s speech before the program was a short one. “We’re here to play music,” he said, “and we’re gonna play as long as you wanna hear it.”

The show kicked off with Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic version of the “Star Spangled Banner,” performed with the original fuzz and feedback courtesy of Cool John Ferguson. Algia Mae Hinton was to be the opening act, but she was one of the afternoon’s first no-shows, replaced by guitarist Harvey Dalton Arnold, formerly of the Southern rock group The Outlaws and winner of the Triangle Blues Society’s 2011 band competition. Arnold performed “King Cotton,” from his 2013 Music Maker-release Outlaw, on a National steel.

Due to the length of the program, each artist was only allowed to perform one song. That changed as the afternoon wore on, but it was a shame Pink Anderson only got to do one. His rendition of Marshall Tucker’s “Can’t You See,” from the Music Maker compilation, Slavery, Prison, Women, God And Whiskey, was mesmerizing. His groans transformed the song from Southern rock to heartfelt soul, backed by Cool John Ferguson’s fluid licks.

Lil’ Joe Burton, the show’s emcee, had plenty of wit but was a bit lacking in enunciation skills, a fact he readily acknowledged. “My ebonics get in the way every once in a while,” he said. “Bear with me: It’s gonna be a very long night.” It didn’t matter so much, as Music Maker has showcased these artists so well over the years that most everybody knew them by sight and reputation, anyway. Boo Hanks got an additional introduction from Duffy, who explained that the 86-year-old Hanks had started his blues career at 80. He performed in a smooth, Piedmont style, reminiscent of Blind Boy Fuller on “Keys To The Highway.”

Although he’s not technically a Music Maker member, Tad Walters is a longtime friend of Duffy and associate of the foundation. He has often performed with John Dee Holeman. He also toured the world with Bob Margolin and Pinetop Perkins. For his first appearance on Saturday, he was solo. As usual, he turned in a performance that focused every eye and ear on him. Walters looks fresh-faced and innocent until he starts to sing, when the blues demons come tumbling out. He played pretty and sang rough on “Cold Blooded Murder,” the tale of a man behind bars for a murder about which he has no regrets. “I’ll be 127 when I get outta prison,” Walters sang. “Then I’m gonna dig you up and murder you again.”

Formerly a female gospel duo until the death of Ethel Eliot in 2004, Raleigh’s The Branchettes now consist of pianist Wilbur Tharpe and and vocalist Lena Mae Perry. Winners of an 2005 Folk Heritage Award, the duo’s presentation was stunning, with Perry belting out “How Great Thou Art” with the bravura and bombast of Mahalia Jackson. It was a window-rattling, soul-stirring message appropriate for an altar call or a show closer—a hard act to follow, too. Captain Luke Mayer’s mellow baritone recalled Brook Benton. A Music Maker stalwart since 1991, and again backed by Cool John Ferguson, Mayer turned in a version of “High Heel Sneakers” that wallowed along the music’s swampy bottom.
Lakota John and Kin are part of Music Maker’s Next Generation Program, which encourages young artists performing Southern traditional music. A Native American of the Lumbee tribe, Lakota John (Locklear) and his five piece band include sister Layla on vocals and dad John on guitar. They were the first band of the day to play more than one cut. For Jesse Lone Cat Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues,” they glided along smoothy. Layla took over, turning in a country gospel version of “Just A Closer Walk” that dripped Southern soul.

“Lightnin’ Wells have hit the buildin’,” emcee Lil’ John shouted. “Hold on to your wig, baby!” Former MMF board member Wells opened with a mellow Piedmont blues about a woman who made him rob and steal before reaching back into the hokum archives to cover Frank Stokes’ “Chicken,You Can Roost Behind the Moon,” a fowl diatribe against feathered fiends.

Ironing Board Sam, on the other hand, puts the show in show business. Dressed in a gold space suit that covered him from throat to ankles and topped by a glitter-splattered derby hat, Sam stepped out with a full band that included Lil’ Joe on trombone, Albert White on guitar, Nashid Abdul on bass and Ardie Dean on drums. Sam slammed into a raucous boogie-woogie that crashed to a halt with him wrestling the piano to the floor for a grand finale.

Sam illustrated his songs by acting them out, too, searching one-handed underneath his piano for the low-down scoundrel he was sure had been running around his house. He got more and more agitated as the song went on, finally leaving through the stage door only to reappear in the crowd searching for the philandering stranger before flinging the mic down altogether and running outside. He came back in for a great rattly version of “Blueberry Hill.”

Usually performing as a solo or duo, John Dee Holeman made an unusual appearance with the same full band, plus Tad Walters on harp. Amid the cacaphony, John Dee remained dignified and reserved, his playing delicate and deliberate. Lil’ Joe stepped all over Tad’s harp solo at one point, but Walters waited him out and put him to bed with a harp exhibition.

“My request is ‘Chapel Hill Boogie,’” Holeman announced. Although the band clattered around him, it was clear that it was his vehicle, with Walters as the main passenger boogieing beside him but with John Dee firmly steering. Before his last song, Holeman told Walters he could hardly hear with all the electricity and brass surrounding him. After a whispered conversation with Walters, he was back in control for “Mojo Hand,” conducting smooth Piedmont blues business as usual.

Barefoot and with a blood red wig and a washboard dangling around her neck, Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen shook things up something fierce with her Koko Taylor persona during Muddy’s “Got My Mojo Workin’.” A heckler who yelled “You know what I want to hear” was quickly squashed. “I don’t know,” she said, waiting a beat before adding, “and I don’t care,” as the house rocked with derisive laughter. She delivered a long story and song about a woman who befriends a snake and is surprised when he bites her. “You knew I was a snake when you first picked me up,” he offered, which was her cue to ask the ladies, “Why do we pick up snakes? I ain’t gonna call you out.”

Eddie Tigner, a little guy with a big voice, did a ’40s style crooner version of “Route 66.” His second selection, “Stormy Monday,” was showcased several times during the concert, but with Pink Anderson back onstage playing second lead behind Albert White, the song went to another dimension. Looking like a gaunt, sinister Santa, former James Brown JB Robert Lee Coleman threw down some jazzy blues-funk that leaned heavier on the funk as the tune progressed. “If somebody don’t ask me for one more, I ain’t gonna give it up,” the red-suited funkster told the crowd before blasting out a fiery Albert Collins style ripper.

Alabama Slim then showcased some John Lee Hooker-style, down-and-dirty blues, even giving B.B. King’s “Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore” an endless boogie treatment. Little Freddie King’s first offering, meanwhile, was a very twangy version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” complete with Berry-style choreography—a modified duck walk merged with some fancy knee jerkin’ and foot twistin’. King was one of the snappiest dressers on the bill, decked out in white pants, a blue smoking jacket with an amoeboid pattern and a tie with a gold clasp. He further distinguished himself on a murky version of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” with atonal chords that suggested Chinese swamp rock.

Albert White was the closer, but he’d already been onstage for over an hour as the main guitarist in the backing band. “We’ve heard gut-bucket blues, Piedmont blues, now let’s hear some rhythm & blues,” White said, introducing The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” with a snippet of “Cloud 9” mixed in for a mini-medley. He jumped genres for James Brown’s 1967 hit “There Was a Time,” getting JB guitarist Jimmy Nolen’s signature chicken guitar down perfectly.

For a finale, White brought up every performer left in the building. “Mother Blues” Cohen dominated the herd onstage, blasting out a brassy take on Aretha’s “Chain of Fools.” The evening finally came to a close at 8:30, shutting the joint down with Little Milton’s “Hey, Hey, The Blues Is All Right.”

The show was over, but the celebration continues. The Duffys are taking their book tour cross-country with appearances by various Music Makers at each stop. There’s a Music Maker exhibit running at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro through Oct. 31, before it moves to Mississippi later this year.