Some might question the connection between broken vacuum cleaners and blues, but to local bluesmen Near Blind James and Harmonica Bob, it’s a natural fit. Just call it blues that don’t suck.
James, Bob and a couple of their friends will pay tribute to the 20th anniversary of Chapel Hill’s Vacuum Cleaner Hospital. More than 18,000 invitations have been mailed for the extravaganza, dubiously dubbed the Woodstock of vacuum cleaner gatherings.
To prepare for such a high-power event, the pair has been busy flipping through blues archives for appropriate tunes, tossing around titles like “Dustbunnies on My Trail,” “Lint Suckers Blues,” “Dust My Wand” and “I’m a Hose Bag For You Baby,” and the hospital’s least favorite blues: “Stop Breaking Down.”
The anniversary party is billed as a family show, which should prevent the group from using their vacuum-and-sex, double-entendre material with titles like “I Love My Daddy’s Great Long Hose,” “Daddy, Put Your Long Pipe Under My Bed” and “Chrome Pipe Papa.”
“Oh, but we will,” says Harmonica Bob. “We go for the nasty, for sure.”
That will come as no surprise to vacuum hospital owner Tom Proctor, whom Bob has known since they were Boy Scouts some 36 years ago.
“He knows exactly what he’s getting with us. “We show up sober. We don’t leave necessarily that way,” Harmonica Bob says. “They don’t have a keg. That’s the only downside.” The hospital doesn’t sell alcohol at the show for fear fans would begin carting away vacuums by the truckload.
As Harmonica Bob, Robert Waldrop has been playing with Near Blind James since they were kids in Greenville, gigging at the Rathskeller under a different name every other week.
“People came to see what the name would be,” says James. “The best one was Cool Papa Bell and the Soul Duprees.”
For the last anniversary, when James and Bob played with former Squirrel Nut Zippers bassist Stu Cole and Jett Rink drummer Tony Stiglitz, they called themselves the Whippersnappers. This year the line-up is the same, though there is nothing special happening name-wise.
As names go, Near Blind James, also known as James Shoe, swears his alias is accurate. Friends have urged him to have corrective laser eye surgery, but he’s afraid he’ll lose his identity. James played with the swing dance outfit The Rutabega Brothers and the Lemon Sisters in Greenville before moving to Durham and playing bass for three years with local jump-blues outfit 5 Guys Named Moe. After Moe dissolved, he and Bob, with whom he had played on the side, made the blues their constant thing. They’ve been at it ever since.
Bob insists that he and James are responsible for Cole’s musical success as a Zipper, based on the fact that Cole’s only appearance with Near Blind and himself have been the last two five-year Vacuum Cleaner Hospital anniversaries. “That was just before he went to work for the Zippers and started getting a regular income,” Bob says. “So we take claim to launching his career.”
Now others have come asking for help. Even Stiglitz is hoping the gig elevates him into the big-time, Bob jokes: “He’s ready to be a star. You know–Letterman, Leno, local access cable, The Arthur Smith Show.”
“It’s the perfect gig,” Harmonica Bob says. You get the best medical care for your ailing vacuum, filthy blues and free food.
“And, it’s ultra low pressure,” the harpist says. “We love to do it.”
Near Blind James, Harmonica Bob, Tony Stiglitz and Stu Cole play Saturday, March 18 from noon to 2 p.m. at the Vacuum Cleaner Hospital, 300-A S. Elliot Road, Chapel Hill.