Photos by Mark Smith
I have been trying to catch Jon Cleary’s show at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans for quite a few years now, and for one reason or another I missed him every time I was there. For that reason and many more, I was thrilled that he made it to Philadelphia in support of his new, Grammy winning album, Go Go Juice.
Following in a long line of excellent New Orleans piano players like Professor Longhair, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, Cleary plays his version of New Orleans R&B a.k.a. New Orleans Funk. Traveling from his home in England, he came to New Orleans with only the address and phone number of the Maple Leaf Bar… so he headed straight there. This is where he painted (the exterior of the building), practiced and absorbed the sounds of the Big Easy. When he finally got his chance on stage, the boy from the UK passed the only test there was: he showed them that he could play.
While playing with a number of well-known names over the years, he has also been a member of the Absolute Monster Gentlemen for twenty years alongside Cornell Williams on bass, Derwin “Big D” Perkins on guitar and A. J. Hall, who’s a great fit on drums even though he’s only been with the band for a couple of months.
Cleary opened the show with his take on Sam Cooke’s “Soothe Me Baby.” He then went through a set list from older albums, like “So Damn Good” and “Port Street Blues.” He also broke away from his set list and played his take on Professor Longhair’s take on Junkers Blues “Tipitina.” Wow!
Cleary and the band then proceeded to rock the house with that New Orleans funk, and he got the audience up and dancing to a lot of the songs from his new album, including “Bringing Back The Home,” “Frenchmen Street” and “9-5, 9-99.” He told us he picked up a lick from his uncle and asked if he could use it to open Boneyard. Leaving no one in their seats, Cleary kicked it into an extended version of “Pump It Up” to end the show. With everyone still standing, those Absolute Monster Gentlemen encored with some wild soul, playing “Mo Hippa” to what was now a wild audience.
So, if you’ve got soul and love that gumbo, head on down to the Maple Leaf to catch Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen live. You will love it.
– Mark J. Smith