Live Review: Pete Johnson and Jus’ Blues, Baby at the Belly Up, December 2, 2011

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After spending some time on a trip to the Mississippi Delta, I came to a clear understanding of the difference between what type of blues the average consumer hears and the authentic article. The “real stuff” has more grit than polish, more angst than emo, and there’s a deep appreciation for sincerity in every note. And, like so many wonderful things that come from that area, it’s also nearly impossible to find outside of the Delta.

Pete Johnson and Jus’ Blues, Baby have a tough line to walk as a blues act in Southern California. Blues aren’t ingrained in the culture, as they are in the South. Most Californians are only familiar with high-profile (and mostly white) blues musicians like Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn, with a smattering of some B.B. King or Muddy Waters now and then. Which means if a band wants to keep the public’s interest, they have to play what an audience is comfortable with and likes to hear.

A crowd of about 150 on an early Friday evening came down to check out Pete Johnson and Jus’ Blues, Baby at Belly Up (not bad for 6 p.m.). I walked in to hear them finishing up a version of a blues classic, “Sell My Monkey,” made famous by Junior Wells and B.B. King. There’s a long tradition of covering other artist’s songs in the blue community, and their take of this silly blues standard was punchy and danceable.

Next the band moved into one of my favorite arrangements of the night, a classic Tracey Chapman tune, “Give Me One Reason.” Lead guitarist Brian O’Keefe showed off his versatility by adeptly playing this as a slide guitar piece, with little to no drums, and Pete Johnson showed off his harmonica skills in a soulful, slow style between verses.

There were two other high points of the evening. First, a classic blues standard, “Hootchie Cootchie Man,” made famous by Muddy Waters. The crowd clearly enjoyed this touch of authenticity, and the positive response was strong and swift. A song or two later, Cat Jefferson put in her performance of the evening with a deeply soulful version of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.”

Pete and company also moved through several more mundane choices, covering ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” The Temptations’ “Get Ready,” and The Fabulous Thunderbirds one-hit wonder, “Tuff Enuff.” When they launched into a riff of country songs (albeit perfectly socially acceptable riffs by the likes of Johnny Cash) they essentially cleared a dance floor that had been populated with up to twenty couples. Once they launched into Elvis Christmas music, I admit it…I had to go.

The good news is, it’s clear that Pete Johnson knows the blues and runs a tight ship. The players are all tuned in to his lead, and when the band allows for moments of Southern sincerity, rather than SoCal showmanship, they shine. Pete knows his audience and gives them a nice smattering of this and that to keep them entertained. If you’re looking for a fun Friday evening warm-up, they’re a good place to start.

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