Big Jack Johnson | 10.10 and 10.11 | Mississippi
Words & Images by: Andy Ross
Big Jack Johnson :: 10.10.08 & 10.11.08 :: Red's Lounge :: Clarksdale, MS
As far as music venues go, Red's Lounge is about as real it gets. To enter this dark, cramped little juke joint on weekends is to enter a bastion of fringe Americana. Here the drink of choice is an ice-cold tallboy. There are BBQ ribs smoking on the grill out front and lightweights passed out on couches inside. Soundless cable television movies play from the tube in one corner, and buckets on the floor alternate between collecting tips for musicians, and on rainy nights, water from the leaky roof. In fair warning, you better put on your who gives a fuck" hat if you come here, for there is no telling how the night will end - swilling off a jar of moonshine with a local blues legend at 3 a.m., breaking into some bizarre, gravity defying jig on the dance floor or just bullshiting with the owner, Red, about days long gone. All are equally plausible scenarios. Like it says on the t-shirts for sale on the wall: The Game's For Life at Red's."
This particular weekend was juke joint prime time as the club's favorite son, Big Jack Johnson, played a rare two-night run. Johnson, aka the Oil Man," is a Clarksdale native who in his spare time has been rocking Red's with his brand of blues since it first opened around 30 years ago. By the way, long before it was Red's, the building was Levine's Music Center where a local musician named Ike Turner apparently bought his first instruments. Johnson initially hit the national scene in the early 1960s with the blues trio Frank Frost and the Nighthawks, later known as The Jelly Roll Kings. Consisting of Big Jack on guitar, world-renowned drummer Sam Carr and now deceased keyboardist-harmonica-player Frank Frost, the group is considered by some critics as one of the best blues trios of all time. In more recent days, one might recognize Big Jack's name from headlining major blues festivals or from tracks off the soundtrack to the 2006 film Black Snake Moan.
Although I first saw him perform at Red's during the Juke Joint Festival this past April, it was impossible to truly take in what he was doing through the mass of sweating bodies packed into the club like sardines. This time I was sitting five feet away. With his guitar propped upon his barrel chest, and massive hands gripping the instrument like a kid's toy, my first impression was how extremely fitting the dude's name is. Sitting in his own little corner beneath signs bearing his name, Big Jack rarely moved from his chair during the course of the night, instead holding down his space with the commanding presence of a general. In between the three blistering loud sets, local friends and tourists would casually stroll over for a few words, leaving the bluesman grinning with amusement as he looked out over his familiar stomping ground.
This performance turned out to contain a lot more traditional and up-beat blues than I expected from the way longtime fans here describe his shows. Slowed down covers of When Things Go Wrong (It Hurts Me Too)" and even The Twist" were blended in with some soulful love songs and straight-up, raw blues numbers. As enjoyable a show as it was overall, the sheer loudness and tempo of the night compelled me to dip out during the final hour with the knowledge I could catch the tail end of Jimbo Mathus playing just up the road at Ground Zero Blues Club.
Saturday night's show blew me away. This was the sound I had heard from Big Jack back in April. Tranced out, driving grooves kept emerging throughout the night as the Oil Man's thick hands and fingers furiously slapped the strings of his electric like that of a bass. At no time was this more the case than after a fan from Ohio presented the musician with a special three string cigar-box guitar she had handmade for the occasion. Smiling with his new present in hand, Johnson tore into a number of extended wordless jams echoing with an indescribably twisted and primeval combination of joy and sorrow. At one point chills shot up my spine as I became lost in a dark, thumping rhythm which nearly stirred me to the point of growling into the night like a pissed off bear.
Towards the end of the last set, ridiculously good drummer Cedric Burnside (grandson of the late R.L. Burnside), his bandmate Lightnin' Malcolm and local Clarksdale bluesman Big T casually strolled in to join the party and take over the reins from Big Jack, who obviously was ready to take a load off. Although Cedric was content just observing the scene with a cold one in hand, Big T and Malcolm handled the rest of the music with a few other local guests, and were still playing when I opted to leave in deference to keeping some recollections of the night intact.
The degree to which music, and specifically rock n' roll, has evolved since the days of early bluesmen is a beautiful thing. It is pretty mind-blowing to imagine just how far the boundaries are going to be pushed as some of these musicians reared on advancing 21st century technology really get their footing in coming years. Yet, as this happens, isn't it more important than ever to take pause and look over our shoulders at the stuff that started it all? If you answered yes, then it's places like Red's Lounge that you should check out while you still can.