Henry Qualls and Kinny Abair
McGonigel's Mucky Duck
Thursday, February 2
A "blues" performer usually calls to mind a solo act, most often male and black, playing guitar to illustrate personal stories. That traditional profile lives on in the person of Henry Qualls of Elmo, Texas, the latest in a long-standing fraternity of rural musicians who spent decades playing front-porch music before being "discovered" and thrust into the spotlight by city folks, many of them young and white.
Though overbilled as "the last true bluesman," Qualls has an engaging storytelling demeanor perfect for a venue like the Duck. Folksy anecdotes paved the way for elaborate, complex fingerpicking and haunting lapslide in the style of the Black Ace. Accompanied by sideman "Hash" Brown -- an obvious devotee of the Excello swamp-boogie tradition of using the top three strings to carry both bass and rhythm lines -- Qualls demolished the artificial barriers between blues, country and folk. Like the Bad Livers, Henry Qualls left the impression that he would be a hell of a lot of fun around a campfire, with a jug and one of them-there kerosene guitars that's just like an electric one except you have to pump it up first.
Opening for Qualls was Kinny Abair, a Third Ward guitar virtuoso who is highly regarded by fellow musicians and underexposed to the general public. His set ranged from sexual boasting in the Robert Johnson tradition on "Let Me Love You Tonight" to observations on the crack culture in "All Night Long." Drawing from an impressive repertoire of vocal tricks, Abair accompanied his precise licks with inspired scat singing and hilarious harmonica mimicry before moving from original compositions to excerpts from his eerie one-man tribute to Lightnin' Hopkins. Performers who claim to channel Elvis on-stage could learn from the transformation that occurs when Abair calls up "Sam."
-- Jim Sherman
Thursday, February 2
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After I recommended Gil Scott-Heron's rare Houston appearance in a Critic's Choice last week, I quickly found out that more than a few folks around town felt I had overemphasized the concert itself and underplayed the fact that said concert was organized as a benefit for the legal defense fund of death row inmate Gary Graham. One good friend, and no friend of Graham's cause, went so far as to leave a sheath of papers purporting to establish Graham's guilt outside my door, with a cover sheet reading: "White Slackers -- what's a little murder and robbery next to some groovy music? At least be informed ...."
And after the high-on-rhetoric, low-on-music evening the benefit provided, I've got to agree that my recommendation was premature. I've also got to admit that I can't claim access to the God's Honest Truth about Graham's guilt or innocence of the murder charge that placed him on death row, but after sitting with a crowd of people who showed up at 8 p.m. to get the $2 early-bird discount, waited until 11 p.m. for Scott-Heron to come on-stage, and then watched in disbelief as he left the stage to hawk his books and sign autographs after a mere four songs, I know someone got robbed.
After the promoter's interminable call to arms about the racial injustice of Texas' death row, Scott-Heron came on for half an hour of standup comedy and then sat down at his Roland and, backed by a single percussionist, played "Winter in America," "The Other Side, Part III" and two other tunes I can't remember in my disappointment. Then he left. Maybe some money was raised for Graham's cause, and maybe that's a good thing, maybe not. Either way, a lot of us left feeling like we'd been had.
-- Brad Tyer