John Nemeth at Biscuits and Blues. December 12, 2011.
Kathy was listening to Noel Hayes’ great radio show “Wednesday Blues with Noel.” It’s on radio station KPOO, 89.5 FM or online at KPOO.com. She won tickets to see a show at Biscuits and Blues! We would see John Nemeth.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is a strange one in San Francisco. Many people are out of town, but The City is still a tourist destination. It’s not deserted, but there are less people out at night. Many people have the week off. It was easier to find a parking spot, but we were still a short walk away from the club.
We turned down Post. On the corner at Taylor is a bar called The Owl. It was one of the last “old guy” bars in San Francisco. The owner opened when he wanted to and served customers at his whim. The place was decorated with owls. The old owner passed and his son injected new life into the place. It’s been renovated, but still has The Owl theme.
We were on another historic block of The City. The Bohemian Club was in the building on the corner. It had started as a haven for newspaper workers, artists and entertainers. Artists and especially actors were despised by society then. Businessmen and other more successful members of society were later invited and eventually took over the club. World leaders gather every summer at the Bohemian Grove. It’s supposed to be a relaxing week off. There’s a plaque near the corner with an owl and the motto: “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here.” It makes you wonder if the deal goes down inside this red brick building covered in ivy. The owl is the symbol for The Bohemian Club.
We passed The Olympic Club. It’s a long time athletic and social club for San Francisco’s upper crust. It’s entrance has long columns and two classical male nudes facing the doors. People were leaving what looked like a family Christmas party. Gifts were being loaded into an SUV by some well dressed people. There were holiday goodbyes. An older couple in evening dress left the party group and walked ahead of us.
We’re not in The Tenderloin, but we’re close enough that the radar should be on. It would be hard to miss this. I spotted him from almost a block away. He’s one of those San Francisco characters. I call him Glitter Guy. He shows up at many big events in San Francisco. He’s tall and covered from head to toe in a costume of glitter. He wears huge high heels. The high heels and the angel wings make him taller. He’s a surreal apparition.
He walked up to the older couple, “You’re looking great tonight!” A metallic voice boomed from an electronic voice box in Glitter Guy’s chest. The couple stopped in their tracks. They nodded and were friendly, but they couldn’t believe their eyes. “San Francisco,” the husband said as they walked away, as if that explained everything.
Why was Glitter Guy wandering the downtown streets on a Thursday night? Maybe he was headed to the nearby Furthur concert at the Bill Graham Civic Center. I had seen him at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Even the locals will flock to get a photo with him.
We were going to the 10:00 show at Biscuits and Blues. People leaving the 8:00 show were filtering out. They were buzzing about the show. That’s certainly a good sign. A few people were raving about how they couldn’t believe how great it was.
Nemeth gets great word of mouth publicity. Older Blues stars say he could be the future of the Blues. We had seen him at the lost, lamented San Francisco Blues Festival. I remember he played great harmonica. He played in a harmonica tribute to some older Blues harmonica icons. It was a historic retrospective. He may have gotten lost in the great lineup and events of the day.
The Chicago Tribune had just run a story on “The Twilight of the Blues.” The first time I remember hearing about the death of the Blues was around 1971. The Blues is still a big tourist attraction in Chicago, but the article points out that the Blues is separated from the mainstream now. There are few young artists. Blues is not played on the radio much. (We’re lucky in the Bay Area with KPOO’s Noel and Bobby “Spider” Webb.) The future of the Blues doesn’t look good, but when did the future ever look promising for Blues players?
Some people do stay for the second show. It’s not a big crowd tonight. After a couple of songs I count 38 people in the club. It’s a small crowd, and it is Thursday night, but the spirit of the Blues is still alive tonight at Biscuit and Blues.
We did get in for free. I had to wonder if today’s economy was part of the Blues problem. Even people who are regularly employed have to hesitate at paying a twenty dollar cover charge. Most people have to be careful what they spend money on now. We wouldn’t be here without the free tickets.
We’ve been to Biscuit and Blues enough times that this club is familiar territory. It’s not like the old nights in North Beach at The Grant and Green and The Lost and Found, but we have gotten to know this place in visits over the years. Most of the floor is covered with small tables. Old shutters are on the wall behind the stage. The bar is in the back and you can see the stage from there. We got a table not far from the stage.
A young woman is standing on stage modeling a John Nemeth tee shirt. She gets some cheers for modeling the tee shirt. She’s sitting with a guy at the first table right in front of the stage. They seem to know Nemeth.
The band starts playing. They all look young. Guitar player Bobby Welsh is a young guy who looks a bit like Joe Strummer. All the band can obviously play. The drummer is Nick Fishman. He has very short crew cut hair and looks serious. The bass player, Smokey Davis looks young. He has a goatee and wears a grey porkpie hat.
The band plays a long introductory song on which Welsh shines on guitar. Nemeth comes onstage. He’s wearing a Panama hat. He can sing! He stares into the crowd with intense blue eyes. His hair is light, almost red. It’s real blue eyed Soul!
The first song is “Love Me Tonight.” Then “Turnaround” and “You Were Wrong.” Some of these song titles are approximations.
The first three songs sound Bluesy, but have a Pop feel. The band sounds great. Nemeth pulls a large harmonica from a stand behind him onstage. The sound is definitely more aggressive for “Let My Woman Be.”
There are definitely some Nemeth fans in the house who have seen him before. They cheer him on. He recognizes some of them. There’s a couple from Minnesota at one table. He gives them a shout out, mentioning their home town. Nemeth introduces the guitarist, Bobby Welsh: “He’s travelled the world and still wants to live in Fresno!”
It’s a small club. Nemeth wonders what happened to the drinks that the band ordered. They had been delivered to the far side of the stage. “They’re right over there!” someone yells. They play “Gone Too Long.”
Nemeth tells us he’s from Boise, Idaho. “I know more about potatoes than you could ever want to know.” “It’s better there now. Back then, they couldn’t fill a Catholic school ... It was for devout Catholics and troubled children.” A couple to our left are greatly amused. “Yeah Catholics! Hail Mary!” the woman yells. “I said too many of those,” Nemeth says.
It’s an intimate club. Maybe too intimate. Nemeth can carry on a little conversation with the crowd between songs. Some people who had stayed from the first show are drifting out. Most are content to sit and listen at the tables. A couple dances in one corner. A woman dances near the bar. Many of those left in the club yell loud encouragement. It’s well meaning. They are fans cheering Nemeth on, but sometimes between songs the dialogue comes close to heckling. Nemeth handles it all with wry humor.
The woman in the lively couple to our left makes sure to introduce herself and her boyfriend. He’s “a stand up bass player.” Nemeth suggests we consider the alternative. She also makes sure that everyone knows it’s his birthday. Will Nemeth sing him Happy Birthday? Nemeth stalls and it looks like he’s off the hook, but then he does sing it, “much to the chagrin of the band.” Nemeth gives us a short, surprising, almost operatic version. He’s been pounding Rhythm and Blues most of the night.
Nemeth’s mother often told him to forget the Blues and get into a more financially secure profession. “It’s Thursday night in San Francisco and I’m playing the Blues. Paying the bills.” The next song is about his parental conflict: “My Future.”
A waiter hands Nemeth a martini with four olives. The couple from Minnesota bought it for him. The guy at the first table in front of the stage cheers alcoholic excess. Nemeth encourages him to move on to the hard stuff. “You’ve got two glasses of water in front of you. That’s not going to work.” Nemeth acknowledges that the guy and the woman at his table drank a bottle of champagne during the first show. They’ve been cheering Nemeth along all night.
“We’re going to do an Irish Blues for you now.” Nemeth had thought it was a Sonny Boy Williamson song, but Irish tourists at a gig in New Zealand told him it was an old Irish song, with the lyrics slightly changed. It’s the old mule kicking in the stall song. The narrator comes home to find a mule has been in the stall that belongs to him. “What’s going on?” he asks his wife. This guy isn’t a chump, “I’ve been around the world!” he yells at his wife several times in the song, but there has been a mule in his stall.
“Too Good To Be True.” Some guys marry a woman that is just too hot. The inevitable occurs.
“She Belongs To Me.”
The band is really cooking. There are great solos all night from the guitar player. It’s tempting to compare Nemeth to Van Morrison. It’s an unfair comparison, but Nemeth is really belting out the Blues tonight.
“She’s My Heart’s Desire.”
“Don’t You Lie”
Nemeth tells us that the drummer with the close cropped hair and serious demeanor is the grandson of Mr. Clean, the kitchen cleaner icon. It brings a rare smile from Nick Fishman.
Before the next song, “Mad About You,” there is some talk of butt shaking. The woman to our left with the bassist birthday boyfriend goes onstage and with her back to the audience shakes it and displays her wares.
A special guest is brought onstage to play sax. I think I heard that he was Chris Colson, but I’m not sure of the name. “He was in the Elton John band, but quit when he announced the Red Piano tour,” Nemeth says. He quickly admits that, “I made that all up.” He plays a great sax with the band for the rest of the night.
Nemeth tells us that last year at this time he was ill with pneumonia. He heard how bad his voice was on an answering machine, so he wrote “Pneumonia Blues.” I’d expected more covers of old Blues songs tonight, more of a Blues historian thing. “Is it original?” someone asks during the introduction to a song. “They’re all original,” Nemeth says.
We’re regretfully informed that it’s time for the last song. Those that have stayed are having a blast. Nemeth reminds us that CDs and tee shirts are still available. The guy at the front table starts to leave. “I bought two shirts for two women I don’t even know.” They finish with a Wilson Pickett hit from the Sixties: “She’s Looking Good.” It’s a great finish to a night at Biscuits and Blues.
Thanks to Noel Hayes and radio station KPOO!