Tail Dragger and Mississippi Heat

Tail Dragger and Mississippi Heat
Live DVDs

Delmark 1782 and 1783

By Karen Nugent
July 2006

Last November, Delmark Records released a pair of live albums on CD—Mississippi Heat’s One Eye Open—Live at Rosa’s Lounge, Chicago, and Tail Dragger’s My Head Is Bald—Live at Vern’s Friendly Lounge, Chicago. Three weeks later came the DVD editions, presented in high-resolution audio and Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound.

The DVDs document two outstanding live performances by classic-sounding Chicago blues bands. Both give you that as-if-you’re-there feeling—to the point I simply had to crack open a beer during One Eye Open. During Tail Dragger’s set on My Head Is Bald, I momentarily (in my mind) left the living room and started clapping at the end of a song. Really.

Both performances were filmed in July of 2005. The band Mississippi Heat, led by harp player Pierre Lacocque, plays an 11-song, hour-long set of mainly original tunes. There’s also a bonus track, “Moanin’ and Cryin’” (available only on DVD), on which powerhouse vocalist Inetta Visor demonstrates some Wolf-like moans over a slow, low-down and dirty groove.

Bandleader Lacocque came to Chicago in 1969, having lived in Israel, Belgium, France, and Canada. He does a more-than-passable rendition of “Juke” (called “Jukin’”) halfway through the show. Featured guest Lurrie Bell sits in with the band on guitar and vocals.

One Eye Open begins in the darkly lit Rosa’s Lounge, with customers clapping away. (Rosa herself appears to be serving up drinks at the bar.) There are lots of close-ups of Lacocque and Bell playing their respective instruments, along with keyboardist Chris “Hambone” Cameron, and Kenny Smith (the son of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith) on drums. Bassist Spurling Banks and guitarist Max Valldeneu round out the band for the evening.

Bell sings on two cuts (“19 Years Old” and “Cold, Cold Feeling”), but Ms. Visor belts out the rest while carrying on a friendly rap with the audience. Before the title track, “I’ve Got to Sleep with One Eye Open,” she asks the crowd if anyone has ever had a man who “gave you a little too much.”

This song goes out to you,” she says, with the song offering more graphic details.

Wiping sweat from her brow a few songs later, she asks Lacocque, “How’s my makeup holding up? Am I looking like Tammy Faye Baker?”

“Well, a true diva ain’t scared to sweat,” she then proclaims.

(In another “live” moment, Valldeneu pops a string in the middle of a terrific solo.)

Although Lacocque writes much of the band’s material, it comes out like good old Chicago-style blues, without resorting to the same old standards.

Then there’s Tail Dragger, a.k.a. James Yancy Jones, with an unforgettable performance at Vern’s Friendly Lounge, on Chicago’s rough West Side.

Where has this man been all my life? Apparently at Vern’s every weekend.

A real throwback to the golden age of Chicago blues, Jones clearly was influenced by his friend, Howlin’ Wolf, whom he sat in with during the early days, and who gave him the nickname right out of his lyrics.

For the 75-minute, 10-song set captured on My Head Is Bald, Jones is backed by an all-star Windy City band that includes Lurrie Bell, Kevin Shanahan, and Jimmy Dawkins on guitars; Billy Branch on harmonica; Kenny Smith on drums; Bob Stroger on bass; and former Wolf saxophonist Willie Young.

The crowd at Vern’s is a little livelier than the one at Rosa’s, but that may be because of Jones’s beautiful smile and wild antics, especially his playing to the women—even showing off his big pate during “My Head Is Bald.” With splashes of local color (Chicago Bulls and Bears logos, a “Sunday Fish Fry” sign, and a “Happy Birthday” banner still up, along with a “Queen’s Birthday Club” sign-up sheet), the club looks to be full of laid-back locals who love Tail Dragger.

With Wolf-like moaning in the background, the DVD deceptively opens with the cigar-puffing Jones insisting that, because of his age, he needs a chair for the performance. Not.

Right off the bat, he gets WAY out into the audience during, “Sitting Here Singing My Blues.”

There’s a lot of good camera work on the audience participation, including women hugging Jones, Jones checking out the women, lots of dancing, and a close-up of a set of long, painted fingernails strumming a $5 bill on the bar.

Tail Dragger doesn’t perform any Wolf tunes during the show, but his own Wolf-influenced songs, along with his magnetic style, are beyond fantastic.

“People are always trying to run your business,” Jones tells the crowd. “They can’t even run their own business, and they’re trying to run yours. That’s what’s wrong with the world.

“Tend to Your Business” is a catchy shuffle, while “Prison Blues” is a soulful, slow blues. Young belts out sax solos on “You Gotta Go” and “Jump for Joy,” and there’s a nine-minute bonus track, “Cold Outdoors,” which is another fantastic slow blues.

The 12-minute long title track allows Jones to announce: “The ladies never asked me for no hair—they asked me for money, and lovin’.”

Then he removes his hat so everyone can see that his head is, in fact, bald.

The song features a red-hot guitar solo from Dawkins, on an old Gibson that prompts an amusing exchange between Bell and Jones.

“Play that Gibson,” he orders Dawkins. “Not that Mickey Mouse,” gesturing to Bell’s guitar. Bell, grinning, takes the whole thing in stride, and fires back during the song with some great licks of his own.

About Dawkins, Jones says, “He knows what old age is about, ’cause he’s old, too.”

Well, they are getting old—although neither of them seem it—so it’s high time we got to see Tail Dragger live via the DVD. Who knew?



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