Monday, August 21, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #048: Paul Rishell and Annie Raines: Step It Up and Go

Growing up in the North Shore suburbs of Massachusetts, I didn’t know how well-off I could have been for music. I’ve written in other posts about how close I came to some great music scenes (Boston/Cambridge post-‘60s folk community, South Boston Irish music community, Chicago Irish music community, etc., etc), but as a kid, before I encountered a lot of these musics, I grew up in the suburbs. It was an old fishing & manufacture town, in the process (in the ‘60s) of being gentrified and moving up the economic scale. I went to junior high school with the kids of fishermen and the kids of yacht salesmen—and didn’t really get along with either bunch: the blue-collar kids tended to beat the crap out of us, and I knew, even at 13, that the yachtsmen were a bunch of vacuous materialistic twits. But generally speaking, the ‘60s and ‘70s, people in the suburbs just didn’t give a shit about music—and they definitely didn’t give a shit about giving their kids access to music. The great Zen Buddhist writing teacher Natalie Goldberg has written very movingly about growing up in the ranch-house shag-rug sunken-living-room-with-hi-fi culture of Long Island—I’m here to say that it wasn’t that different on island peninsulas north of there. If you came from a family that didn’t already have music, you weren’t likely to find it in the suburbs. The year I entered my high school, they cut the music program—that was my musical inheritance.

So the folk clubs, and my revered first guitar teacher Dory Latta, who took me on when I was 10, more-or-less saved my musical life. The coffeehouses I’ve written about, and I’ve thanked Dory elsewhere, but this time I want to talk about a source I didn’t discover ‘til later.

I heard the great bluesman Paul Rishell at Bob Franke’s Saturday Night in Marblehead, one of a string of acoustic blues-revivalists Bob booked including Paul Geremia, Martin Grosswendt, Geoff Bartley, and Bob himself, but I was stupid about Rishell. Because he was reserved, and kind of “inward,” and because he only played there a couple of times, I didn’t really understand his music. I dug other people more—or maybe I just didn’t get it.

A little later on, when I had moved back from Texas (the first time), I was sharing a place with my friend Larry in my home town, and working as the night manager of a bookstore in Harvard Square. That was actually a great gig (though the sprint from the Haymarket T stop to the last bus north was always hair-raising, and I sometimes didn’t make it, in which case I’d take a bus halfway there and walk the last 6 miles—sounds like a bullshit old-fart story, but it’s true).

But I also wanted to learn to play the blues, the real electric blues, which lived a long, long away the suburbs. I’d heard the real shit in the clubs on the South Side of Chicago during my brief, angry UC career, and I’d worked at it in Texas (the first time), but when I found myself back in my own home-town, 3 years after I’d left at age 17, I had a clearer sense of just how much of a musical desert it was. And I wanted to learn to play the blues (this is just weeks before Larry and I wandered into the Guitar Workshop and found Dharmonia and all the others).

So sometimes I’d stay in town, and make my way from Harvard to Inman Square, and eventually crash at my elder brother’s place. Inman Square was an amazing place, less picturesque (or dirty) than Harvard Square, less artsy than Porter Square, less “street” than Central Square, but what Inman had, more than any of those others, was the clubs: Ryles’s (where Randy Roos and Pat Metheny held court), the 1369 Jazz Club (where most of the other Berkeley cats played, and where the indomitable Fringe had the regular Sunday night gig), and Jack’s, where there was a regular blues jam. Rishell held down that gig. He was 5-foot nothing (I’m 6’5”), dressed all in black (as Charlie Musselwhite said, “black clothes are good for a bluesman, ‘cause they don’t show the hot-sauce stains,” a lesson I’ve taken to heart), with his hair slicked back and a battered old Telecaster. He wasn’t like some of the folkier bluesmen I’d earlier met in the safe and comforting environs of the coffeehouses. This was a real South Side greaser, and that’s how he played and sang: in a wonderful slurred whiney growl, and his Tele playing was like sheets of ice sliding. And I was scared of him. Mostly because what he did was so great and I was so convinced that I couldn’t learn to do that. I was too scared to go talk to him, so it wasn’t til years later that I discovered what kind and gentle person he is. ‘Course, he was from Brooklyn and I was from the ‘burbs, a nd the bastard almost never smiled—no wonder I was intimidated.

In the early ‘80s, in New England, the blues was in a funny place. There were a few remnants of the Boston/Cambridge folk scene still playing the coffeehouse scene that I had grown up in, and the venerable Roomful of Blues, led by the great Duke Robillard, was a regular fixture in the clubs, but it was too early for Stevie Ray and the ‘80s blues revival. But I got it into my head that I needed to get out in the clubs and start sitting in—Larry Guitar insisted too (well, what he actually said was “I’ve taught you what I can teach you; you either need to get out there and sit in, or you need a dime bag and a cheap hooker”). I’d go down to Jack’s on a Saturday night after work, or to the Sunday blues jam, and I was usually too scared even to walk in with a guitar case.

I did get to hear Rishell a bunch of times, playing on the electric side of things. And I certainly had to acknowledge that he was a great player and singer. But it wasn’t ‘til I heard this record that I realized not only how great he was, but how expressive he was and how moved I was by his music.

Partly it’s Annie, who’s a good singer (great harmony singer) and a house-on-fire Little Walter-style harp player: there’s a great interaction between all voices: his National-steel and her harps, his voice and hers, but really it’s, I think, because I grew up—and maybe he did too. He’s only about 9 years older than me, but he sounds ageless (he looked ageless at 27, too). There’s a magnificent version of John Henry and another of JB Lenoir’s Mama Talk to Your Daughter, hard-rockin’ versions of Step It Up and Go and my favorite 8-bar blues, Keys to the Highway, and some great original tunes too.

But the one that really slew me, the one that finally turned the key in my brain and helped me understand how great and how powerful this music was—the way it could heal you—is their version of the old gospel spiritual I Shall Not Be Moved.

It’s played at a really-quite-slow pace, just Rishell’s National fingerpicking, and Annie’s sittin’-round-the-campfire harp, and Paul’s lead vocal and tapping foot. But it’s so naked, and so simple, and so understated, and so certain, that it doesn’t matter if you’re a a person of faith or not: you listen to this recording, and you believe. I’d put this record up there with those of Blind Willie Johnson and Son House—two other bluesmen who understood that it’s the sinners, not the “do-right" people, who need the saving. And the faith.

I finally got it. I’m glad that Rishell, and Annie, and their blues—and the music of all the bluesmen that went into theirs—were willing to wait for me to catch up.

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