“. . . What’d the devil give you for your soul, Tommy?”
“Well, he told me to play this guitar real good.”
Blues musician Chris Thomas King, also known for his role as Tommy in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, plays electric and acoustic guitar with supernatural prowess. King performed at Clementine last Friday with bassist Danny Infante and drummer Jeff Mills. From quick, driving chords to bluegrass plucking, his versatile playing style kept the crowd cheering for over two hours.
When I walked into Clementine at 8 p.m. to eat dinner before the concert, I was directed to a man handling ticket sales. There was a stocky guy in a black suit and fedora who brushed me on his way to the back. After a minute, after other patrons pointed and whispered, I realized that it had been Chris Thomas King.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” came out when I was seven, and it has been my favorite film ever since. I had expected to see Tommy Johnson: lean, younger, dressed in Depression-era clothes and speaking in a stereotypical Southern black accent, not someone who looked like a Smartphone user. I was shocked to see King as a modern person, rather than a period movie character; however, in one short night, King won over my loyalty.
“I expected chilled out jazz, and got full blown harmonies that made me sway and smile,” said Junior Lani Prunés.
When King picked up his acoustic guitar and slider to play his original song, “John Law Burned Down The Liquor Store,” chills ran down my spine. This is what I had come for, and King’s tastefully twanging, dirty blues and bluegrass eclipsed my expectations. Mills’s face contorted from frown to scrunch to smile as he whipped out drum solos. Infante’s intense plucking improvisation drew raucous applause and whoops.
Sophomore Bryce Yoder also attended the concert. “All I had really heard from this guy prior to the concert were his parts in ‘O Brother.’ So, in that respect, I guess I expected a lot of more old-timey blues. And by old-timey, I mean like just a man and his wailing guitar. Although I didn’t expect the back up band, they definitely added to the experience.”
The addition of Mills and Infante complemented King’s alternation between electric and acoustic guitar. Regardless of style, many of their songs address a current or former lover. One jazzy number with lilting guitar riffs pleads, “Don’t Wake Me If I’m Dreaming. Just Kill Me Before You Go.” King introduced one song by inviting the crowd to New Orleans, where people had been singing it since antebellum times. With a soulfully slinky voice and a few beautiful caterwauls, King described his girlfriend’s death, followed by his own. An upbeat, early rock/blues tune channeled Ray Charles, whom King worked with for the 2004 film “Ray.”By now, the crowd was even more enthusiastic, and two hippies were getting drunk and fervent as they danced seductively and yelled out encouragement to the band.
During a break between songs, King instructed the audience, “put [my music] in your car and blast it. Don’t just put it in those ipods, you know? It’s meant to be shared!”
“Hydrate these men!” one of the hippies bellowed when King asked for a round of water. Later, King explained the origins of blues as the antebellum New Orleans, rather than 1920s. The song “Sketched Of Treme” evoked an African jungle mixed with psychedelic rock and a gumbo kitchen. King’s ululating birdcalls punctuated mysterious, whispery vocals. “Red Mud” was a grungy swamp song about a voodoo woman, whose first two husbands disappeared before she set her eyes on the singer, and received a standing ovation.
“Who can rock? These men can!” the other hippie screamed. The crowd cried for an encore until King returned for a solo rendition of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and a driving, modern jazz piece with Mills and Infante that had band members and audience dancing alike.
“It went long, but only because so many people wanted to never end, and I understood the feeling,” said Prunés. “Why stop something that sounds that brilliant?”
My prediction of watching an old-fashioned bluegrass concert was surpassed by seeing an idol combine the roots of blues and modern jazz and rock into one stunning performance.
Randi B. Hagi, Co-Editor in Chief