Monday, July 18, 2016

Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat's "Live at the Kessler"

I'm an expat Noo Yawk Yankee, but I've loved Texas blues-rock ever since I was a snotnose trying to cop Johnny Winter licks back on Lawn Guyland in the early '70s. Back then, all the black people I knew hated blues, and all the white people I knew thought it was Led Zeppelin. Imagine my surprise and delight when I moved to Dallas in '78 and everyone I met -- old or young, black, white, or brown -- loved Jimmy Reed and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Then I moved to Fort Worth, where the New Bluebird Nite Club was as close to Utopia as I'll experience in this life: local folks from the Lake Como neighborhood, soul-patch-and-shades-sporting white blues freaks, hipis, punks, TCU frat/sorority kids and their parents (who might have gone to the Skyline Ballroom to see Jimmy, Bobby, and Howlin' Wolf).

The Fabulous Thunderbirds played stripped-down blues and R&B without the hipi bullshit, and T-Birds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan's little brother Stevie was as aggressive and fiery as a young white amalgam of Albert King and Hendrix when I heard him in a 6th Street dive down in Austin, fall of '79. Then there was the legion of hot axe-slingers who played their way out of the Cellar clubs in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston, and into the stadiums: Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, John Nitzinger, Bugs Henderson.

Jim Suhler's a muso in that grand tradition, active since the '80s, fronting his own band Monkey Beat since the early '90s, concurrently touring as Delaware Destroyer George Thorogood's guitar foil since '99. That's around the time he gave me one of my favorite live music experiences of all ti-i-ime, when I took my oldest, guitar-slinging daughter (then in her goth phase) to the Dallas guitar show, where she wanted to see Radish and Kenny Wayne Sheppard. She got her ears opened up when we stuck around to hear a Suhler set that opened with a cover of "Are You Experienced?" on wah-wah dobro and continued with the pacing of a revue. Kirby Kelley played slide, Mike Morgan and Alan Haynes took turns going toe-to-toe with Suhler, their improvisational flights taking off into Butterfield/Allman Brothers territory at times. "Now that's the way you do it," I told her.

I had the same reaction on my first hearing of this new shiny silver disc, recorded a block from where I used to live in Oak Cliff at my pick for the best listening room in the Metromess since the demise of Fort Worth's late, lamented Caravan of Dreams. With able support from a solid rhythm section (Christopher Alexander on bass and Beau Chadwell on drums) and the versatile Shawn Phares on keys and accordion, Suhler leads Monkey Beat through an all-original set that includes blues-drenched rock ("Panther Burn") and down-and-dirty boogie ("Tijuana Bible"), flavored with a soupcon of Louisiana spice ("Deja Blue") and a pinch of self-deprecating humor ("Doing the Best I Can," which includes the repeated refrain, "I can't play like B.B. King / When I try, I break a string").

Suhler's an appealing singer with a roadworthy rocker's voice, and his slash-and-burn slide guitar is a signature strength. On the tough, taut shuffle "Scattergun," he manages to conjure the spirits of both Johnny Winter and Duane Allman, while the closing tour de force "Restless Soul" includes a snippet of Rory Gallagher's trademark "Bullfrog Blues." Some surprises: On "Across the Brazos," Monkey Beat skirts Little Feat territory, while on "Sunday Drunk," Suhler cuts loose with a soaring, swooping modal breakdown, buoyed by Phares' rockin' piano. This is the kind of music that's best heard where you can feel your clothes being moved around by the air from drum heads and speaker cones, but Eric Scortia's mobile recording puts you right in the middle of the action. Dig it!


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