May 20, 2008
Better Than: The inevitable Little Joe tribute concert.
Download: Watch the Rolling Stones' "Undercover of the Night" - Little Joe played as fully half of the crowd at Boondocks sat on the patio, oblivious to what they were missing.
Houston almost lost Little Joe Washington a while back. We didn't, this time. "The blues is a healer," the late John Lee Hooker sang in 1989, and it must be. Joe has lived about as hard as can be done, and he ain't done yet. We should all be so lucky.
His set began as a deep, penetrating, medicinal throb, audible from the patio. Some people headed inside, some didn't. Those who did found Washington in the midst of "Sweet Black Angel," seated in front of his three-piece band, teasing his guitar. "I love the way she spread her wings," he sang. If this is the way divine intervention sounds, praise the Lord.
"I asked her for a nickel, and she gave me a $20 bill." He played the next solo with his teeth (what few he's got left), then rubbed his hand over the strings to produce a scratching-like sound. He played with his beard, his dreads, his legs, leading and following the band at the same time.
He laid his guitar on the floor, massaging the strings with his thumb. "She said, 'Daddy, you can do any goddamn thing you want to... I want the real thing.'" We got it all right.
He played with his thigh, rubbing his guitar up and down in a motion that was almost too intimate to watch. He picked out the first few bars of "The Star-Spangled Banner" like Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, then stopped. "I can't do it," he said, just short of laughing. "I ain't got no teeth."
Washington left the band to navigate the languid progression he left them with, and leapt out into the crowd to thrust his floppy fisherman's hat in the faces of patrons who had paid no cover. He will haggle with a motherfucker. You better cough up. The band eased into a smooth James Brown groove, leaving Joe an open invitation to join them or not. He did, eventually.
It was "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and Joe sang, but not before indulging in some vintage Godfather footwork, aided no doubt by his ultra-sharp, steel-tipped cowboy boots. He coaxed the microphone all the way down to the floor until they were both prostrate. He didn't even glance at his guitar.
Eventually Joe got up and made his way back to his Strat, perched like a rattlesnake on his chair. He coaxed some raunchy Creedence-type swamp licks out of it, and before it got too low-down, slid into a glittering, belly-rubbing version of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." With slightly altered lyrics. "I was your cat, and your dog, and your rat, and your rabbit." Then, as effortlessly as the bartender might swipe a credit card, he played a solo that ripped the heart out of your chest, no matter what kind of animal you are.
And that was that. Delicately, Little Joe laid his guitar on his chair and once again leapt offstage. "I'm drunk," he said. That was it. Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" came up on the PA, and life resumed its normal rhythms. More or less.
Personal Bias: Little Joe is a regular at the Continental Club and Big Top, where I happen to live upstairs (and work occasionally). He's never in a bad mood.
Random Detail: Not that random, but Washington plays every Tuesday at Boondocks. Worth mentioning, because we shall not see his like again.
By the Way: Please read Jennifer Mathieu's 2001 cover story on Little Joe. You'll be glad you did. - Chris Gray