Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Kathy won two tickets from radio station KPIG to see Ron Thompson at The Union Room. It’s a bar above Biscuits and Blues. We had seen him twice this year on our free festival tour. He was a presence at “The California Blues Festival” at the Golden Gate Park Bandshell on Memorial Day. We saw him again at The Redwood City Blues Festival. We’ve seen him many times over the years in North Beach. He’s played the San Francisco Blues Festival. Winning the tickets was a good excuse to go out.
It was the Tuesday night after Labor Day. It would probably be a slow night. Biscuits and Blues has a video screen in a window on the street. You can see what’s going on onstage. Michael Burks would be playing in the big room downstairs. We went upstairs and the bartender and his assistant seemed surprised to see anyone tonight. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?” The free tickets seemed to be enough of a reason for them. They were charging ten dollars at the door.
A silent replay of last year’s Super Bowl played on a couple of TVs. Ron Thompson came in. He’s short and wore a white pork pie style hat. He had a tiny goattee, a “whiff.” The bartender looked half Thompson’s age. They talked about cars.
It’s a great little room for music. The last time we were upstairs it had been a thriving Irish restaurant. That was over ten years ago. The Internet boom was still going on. We’re a long way from that. Tonight we were the only two sitting at the bar. On one side of the room there were couches with cushioned seats and tables for nightclub lounging. Two other couples sat at table. I assumed they were tourists. I had to wonder how they found the place. The total attendance all night, counting us, was ten.
Thompson started playing on a portable Roland keyboard. He started with an old doo-wop song, “Ain’t Got No Home.” It had been a novelty song with the deep croaking voice of Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Ain’t got no job, no home, no woman, etc. Doesn’t seem to matter with Thompson rocking the piano. The song was a good match for his voice.
Then he did Ray Charles “I Believe.” Thompson would play everything solo tonight. He didn’t have a great voice, but he was pouring his heart and soul into it. He’d take a very short break between songs. He kept things moving. He threw out a lot of sound for one guy. Crunching Boogie. He played a few very old songs on mandolin. It wasn’t a night for scribbling notes, so I don’t have all the titles of this one man cavalcade of Blues and American Roots music.
He played an acoustic, but it was wired. He just kept blasting. He played a few more old tunes and then switched to electric guitar and belted out some old Boogie numbers. He did “Little Red Rooster” and other old Blues songs. He really lets it rip during “The Devil Has 99 Women.” “But there’s room for one more.”
It was time for a break and he joined us at the bar. He’s a little guy, a bit hyper and friendly. We started talking. We shook hands. His hand was calloused and rough. He’s played a lot of guitar. He was curious about why we were there. We told him we’d seen him many times. Where? North Beach! We talked a little about the North Beach Blues scene of the past. There were three bars on Grant Street cooking just about every night. Some nights sets would alternate between The Grant and Green and The Lost and Found. The Saloon was just up the street.
We talk about seeing him at Redwood City. He seems surprised. We explain that we try to go to as many free music events as we can. “Marin City was good,” he tells us. They have a Labor Day “Blues, Jazz and Soul Party.”
There was some non-musical chit chat. Where did we live? How long have we been in the Bay Area? Kathy has lived in San Francisco since ’73 and I arrived in ’76, so our credentials were impeccable.
Thompson talked about living in the Ingleside in the early Seventies. “It was rough.” He was one of the few white people living there then, “And I didn’t have a car!”
The only white guy around, “And I used MUNI!”
Kathy played interviewer, “Where was his first job?” He hesitated and had to think about it. “Fremont! That was pretty bad. The Fremont was bad.” “The old Black guy hired me because I knew the songs.” I realized later “the old Black guy” might have been John Lee Hooker. Thompson was born in Newark. He’s an East Bay native.
The other two couples had left, so we were the only ones there. It really was a private show. He wondered if he should go back onstage. We told him we didn’t mind just talking at the bar. He didn’t have to start again for us. It’s rare that we get to talk to the musicians we’ve gone to see. It can be disappointing. Thompson was personable and seemed to enjoy talking to us. He had another Grand Marnier. I knew he had played with a lot of the greats. He must have some good stories.
Kathy asks him what his first instrument was. I’m surprised he has to think. Piano! Somehow the subject of unions comes up, maybe because we had been talking about North Beach. He talked about two guys he knew that worked for the union. He said you didn’t see them until it was time to collect union dues or some other fee. Local 510. “They probably pocketed the money.”
“I played with a lot of people. I played with Mick Fleetwood.” He waited for signs of surprise. “Believe it or not, they were a Blues Band at first.” I had seen Fleetwood Mac back in the day and always thought they were a great Blues and Rock band before they were ruined by commercial success.
He met and played with Peter Green. “He was crazy! He’s still crazy!” I wanted to draw him out on that one. What “crazy” things did Peter Green do? He moved on without further comment. I’m sure he was aware of the cult of Peter Green. Any tales would probably be repeated.
So, he must have played in Chicago? He did, but he can’t remember where. What part of town? Can’t remember. It’s understandable with all the gigs this guy has done over the years. He did remember Wise Fools, “where everybody went to drink.” Wise Fools did have a lot of great Blues acts.
He talked again about living in the Ingleside. He reminds us, “Without a car.” Mark Naftalin picked him up from the airport and when Thompson told him their destination, Naftalin couldn’t believe it. “You can’t live there.” Thompson claimed a visitor from Chicago told him the Ingleside was worse than the South Side. (I had to express my doubts on that one.)
He played with John Lee Hooker for years and said he met a lot of the old Bluesman through him. He met Lightnin’ Hopkins through John Lee Hooker. (He later did two Hopkins songs.) “I met Eddie Taylor through him!” He must have told these stories hundreds of times, but obviously liked telling them again. He subtly mentioned playing with Jimmy Reed. I jumped on it, “You played with Jimmy Reed?!” Yeah, he sure did. He mentions playing with Homesick James.
How did he like being a solo act? He loved it. There were definite advantages. He liked playing in a band, but he could play whatever he wanted when he was on his own. He also didn’t have to worry about other people showing up. “If you make a mistake, then it’s Jazz!”
A couple more tourist couples came in and it was time for Thompson to go back to work. “Anything you want to hear?” Kathy suggested “old stuff.” Probably what he was going to play anyway. He pumped out more Blues history. Some great slide guitar. “Love in Vain.”
I noticed a Black man standing near the back of the bar. It wasn’t too hard to notice anyone entering or leaving tonight. It was Bobby “Spider” Webb. Thompson said hello from onstage. Would he join in? No, just a look in tonight. Thompson plays a couple more songs and takes another break.
A place he did remember was Kiko’s on Broadway in North Beach. It still had Rock and Blues acts there when I first came to San Francisco. Thompson played there and somebody told him the owner, Kiko, was in “The Flower Drum Song.” This was a setup. Thompson asked her about being in the movie. Apparently she was not in the movie. The guy who had clued Thompson in knew she hated hearing the story. She wanted to kick Thompson out of the club. It took her a while to calm down and allow Thompson to stay.
He must have played Merced, Kathy’s home town. Highway 99 had many Blues Clubs on it’s route through the Valley. “Of course.” He thought for a minute. “The Blue Notes! They were a great band!”
Kathy mentions seeing Dan Hicks at Yoshi’s. Thompson is a bit surprised he played there. We discuss Dan Hicks unique sense of humor.
Thompson says he hasn’t travelled across the country much this year because he’s recording. He’s working on what he thinks will be a great song. Later he does “Ocean of Tears” Which I think is the song he mentioned.
He tells us that lately he’s been driving to San Jose for a gig on Friday night then drives to Fresno for a Saturday night gig. Then he drives to Point Arena. (On the coast, far North of San Francisco.) He may not be traveling across the country, but he’s sure covering some miles every week.
He goes back for the last set. He does some more standards: “I’ve Been Loving You.” He did two Elmore James songs in a row. “It Hurts Me Too.” More great slide. He does a couple of Lightnin’ Hopkins songs including “Mojo Man.
The free tickets saved us each the $10 cover. They made up for it at the bar. It wasn’t the greatest of deals, but the SF Blues Festival is cancelled this year, so we hope to make it up on nights like this. Back in the North Beach days I’d have a night like this about once a week. It's a rarity now. Have to wonder how “The Union Room” can survive.