Every once and a while you come across an act that is not only refreshing but reinvigorating. Watermelon Slim and The Workers is one those acts. I had the pleasure of seeing them live at the Route 66 Road House in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
In case you don't know, Watermelon Slim is the Oklahoma Bluesman who, although he started playing music in the 70s, only really got started 2004 after suffering a near fatal heart attack. He is the quintessential bluesman; old school, school of hard knocks, but yet he is not so usual either. He has master's degree as well as being a member of Mensa; the social networking group reserved for members with certified genius IQs. If you want more background, fellow Blogcritic Richard Marcus has a great interview with Watermelon Slim.
The show started off at 9:30pm with Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee." You could feel it in the air. From the first notes, people were already dancing and getting their grove on. They followed with "Hard Times" from the first Workers album which climaxed in a great dual between Slim on slide and Ronnie McMullen Jr., AKA "Ronnie Mack", on guitar. "Hard Times" was the song that was up for the Blues Music Award for Song of the Year.
One of the things that made this show so great was how personable Watermelon Slim is with the crowd and how much he tried to make sure that everyone knew it was the Workers that made this band a success. Between each song he would include the audience into the conversation as well by either letting us know some history of the song that was to be played or to give credit to the influence that made the song possible.
They continued the first set with songs like "I Got News", "Ash Tray's Full" and by the time they got into "Rattlesnake" the place was almost vibrating with frenzy. They finished up the set with "Dumpster Blues" and "Drinking and Driving." What I have to say is that while they sound great on their albums. The personal experience is so much better.
By definition, for Watermelon Slim and the Workers, a break means interacting with the crowd. Some of this time was a one-on-one interaction, but a lot was with small groups. Just like going down to the local bar with the people you work with. At the Road House, it was CD Release night. This worked effectively like a book signing, but with CD's. You buy a CD and one, or all of the band will sign it. Again, just getting to know the crowd!
Giving the Workers an additional break, Watermelon Slim came back on stage and did two solo numbers on his slide guitar. The first was one that has not been recorded yet, but was written by drummer Michael Newberry who asked Slim to make it into a Cowboy blues song. Slim made it very clear that he was a Cowboy (he earned his Master's degree from Oklahoma State University; home of the OSU Cowboys) and not a Sooner. He also did a second song, of which I did not catch the name.
In talking with bass player Cliff Belcher during the break, I commented on how they can take what is traditional blues and give it a flavor all their own, and still make it so fresh. I said that what was remarkable to me was they could do it in both the live show as well as the albums. He remarked that when they do a CD, they try to get it down in as few tracks a possible and it dawned on me that that is really what makes their albums so good, is that they sound like they are playing to an audience. What makes their live show work is that they are playing to an audience.
The band came back on and commenced with the title track from their second album "Wheelman", followed by "Black Water and "Truck Driving Mama". It was here that they invited Oklahoma Blues guitarist Chebon Tiger, from the band House to sit in for a couple songs. As seems natural with this band, Ronnie Mack blended in with the crowd and watched the show and interacted with the fans. At times you could not tell the difference.
At the end of the day, what you have if you go beyond the nominations, beyond the awards, beyond the accolades, this is a group of guys that just want to make music, that want to entertain, and that really get out to meet their fans. What is refreshing and reinvigorating is the fact that they do it on their terms. They make the music that they want and from the fans that were at that show, they wanted more.
In the Kevin Costner movie "Field of Dreams", the theme was, "If you build it they will come." Watermelon Slim and the Workers are in the process of building their Field of Dreams. It is my prediction that many will come.
If you are in town on the weekend of June 16, 2007, come on down to the Brickyard Blues and BBQ Fest. which will feature John Hammond, Sista Monica, Aranda, Shane Henry, Three Legged Dog, AJ Johnson and Why Not, Dan Danger, Miss Amy and her Sho'nuf Bluesmen & Doc Blue. Then you can stick around on Sunday June 17 and down in Norman, Oklahoma, you can see Watermelon Slim and the Workmen at Lions Park for the Summer Breeze Festival.
You can also check out Watermelon Slim and the Workers on video.
Watermelon Slim was inducted into the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame on May 27, 2007.