Billy Gibson

Billy Gibson
The Prince of Beale Street - Live at the North Atlantic Blues Festival

A North Atlantic Blues Production

By Georgetown Fats
July 2008

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My first exposure to the Billy Gibson Band was when my editor sent along a copy of Live at the Rum Boogie Café. The reaction to it caused me to scour the Internet for cheap flights to Memphis. The Billy Gibson Band is not a band I want to see live, The Billy Gibson Band is a band I have to see live.

When provided the opportunity to review the Billy Gibson Live at the North Atlantic Blues Festival DVD, I took the task on with a little bit of trepidation. Live at the Rum Boogie Café set the bar so high I was concerned I would be disappointed by the DVD. Also, I am not one for a live concert DVD, I would much rather be a part of the live experience rather than dissect the live experience.

Needless to say, those concerns were absolutely foolish. Filmed at the 2007 North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, Maine, the DVD is a phenomenal representation of Billy & the band.

Once again accompanied by Cedric Keel on drums and vocals, David Bowen on guitars and vocals, James Jackson on bass, and special guest Charlie Wood on keyboards/organ and vocals, the Billy Gibson Band proves it has the ability to make every live setting its own.

The first track, the Gibson-penned “Down Home,” is a screamer. The song is a fast, funky piece that whips the audience into a dancing frenzy. From watching cuts to the audience I am sure several members of the audience had to be treated for heat exhaustion, as Billy Gibson’s music has an infectious feel. A feel that a listener just has to move their body and dance, no matter if it looked to be an 80-plus degree day

The second song is a David Bowen-penned track titled “Keep Doin’ What Ya Doin.” The band locks into slow and funky groove that allows Billy to sing some deliciously lustful lyrics about lusting for a special woman. After a few verses, he effortlessly switches over to some lead work on his Mississippi saxophone. After coaxing a vast assortment of notes from a Hohner Golden Melody diatonic harp, he closes out the tune with another chorus.

In between the second and third tune comes time for some banter with the audience. As Billy himself states, it is not actually part of “the Show” – he’s just trying to catch his breath. After dropping his blazer and getting a little water, the Billy Gibson Band kicks into a scorching rendition of “Bad Boy.” Written by Eddie Taylor, it’s another fast, funky and infectious tune. It is loaded with more magic on the harp, with Billy sharing the spotlight with Charlie Wood by shifting focus to Wood’s work on the Hammond, plus some time for Cedric Keel.

When recording Live at the Rum Boogie Café, a member of the audience screamed: “Give the Drummer some!” Now, live renditions of “Bad Boy” include drum solos. Keel assaults the skins with a barrage of fills and grooves, and then gives into the Rockland heat with a deep exhale and a chuckle. He counts off the tempo again, and the band kicks right back in without ever missing a moment.

After whipping the crowd into a mass of sweaty dancing bodies, the band throws a change-up to the crowd. Paying homage to one of his favorites, Gibson offers up a funky version of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” to the approval of the festival crowd.

After easing up the pedal for a brief period, it is time for some more infectious dance music.

With a melody based around Mose Vinson’s “Tell It like It Is,” the band starts with a jam band feel over a Beale Street boogie. Bowen’s fingers glide up and down his six-string in an extended solo right before Keel and Gibson break it all down and go “old school” with a renditions of “Oh Susanna,” “Skip to my Lou,” “This Old Man,” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.” Clearly the “Beale Street Bad Boy” has got a funny bone connected to his Mississippi saxophone. The rest of the band kicks back in during “When the Saints Go Marching In,” as Billy encourages members of the audience to sing with him. That’s always a risky proposition, but it does prove not all people can carry a tune.

To close out the show, Billy passes lead vocal responsibilities over to Bowen in an attempt to play the harmonica as hard as he can - to make himself pass out. Having listened to Live at the Rum Boogie Café repeatedly, and now witnessed this ball of energy visually, attempting to play the harmonica as hard as he can in order to make himself pass out is not an idle threat. It is a distinct possibility.

Just like the live album, the show is closed out with the Tony Joe White tune “Polk Salad Annie.” Billy once again takes an extended solo on his diatonic, each time coaxing a ridiculous amount of notes from an instrument which technically is only supposed to have ten notes delivered through drawing in air, ten more notes delivered by blowing out air, and a limited amount of notes reached through a technique called bending. What makes these fantastic runs even more mind-blowing is the fact that harmonicas are notorious for clogging up or going out of tune when just pushed too hard.

After the first harp solo, Gibson mugs in front of the crowd before grabbing the mic and assuring the crowd “Rock and Roll isn’t dead.” Following the brief intermission, Bowen finishes off the tune.

It goes without saying that after my next trip to Memphis, the Memphis Tourism Board is going to owe the Billy Gibson Band a commission. While others navigate the lines at Graceland, I will be awaiting the first note of the first set at The Rum Boogie Café repeating the mantra “Eat. Drink. Boogie. Repeat”

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