Photos by Arnie Goodman
Roots rockers the Mike Eldred Trio hit the famed Café Wha? on MacDougal Street and treated New Yorkers and world-traveling tourists alike to a rockin’ great set and some very funny patter that probably went ’way over the heads of the Eastern Europeans sitting next to us. After we ran into an early glitch at the club, manager Graham went out of his way to make sure we were happy and comfortable, demonstrating how one stays in business for 50 years.
Vocalist and guitarist Mike Eldred, formerly with Stray Cat Lee Rocker, joined with two like-minded souls, bassist John Bazz from the Blasters and drummer Brian Fahey from the Paladins, for a roots/rock supergroup. The trio’s touring behind their fourth album, Baptist Town, which is getting rave reviews and just hit Number Two on the Blues Charts. The band’s earlier 61 and 49, [or 61/49, depending on the outlet] was voted one of the Top Ten CD releases of 2011 by the Los Angeles Times. Legend has it that the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 is where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in return for his musical talent, and Baptist Town is the Mississippi neighborhood where Johnson was murdered in 1938.
The guys may have been taken aback by the intimacy (read “small size”) of the club that helped make Bob Dylan, Allan Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground, Peter, Paul & Mary, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and a hundred others household names—after all, the Trio will open for George Thorogood to thousands, not a joint that packs in 250, at best. Once they got over the 20- or 30-foot sightline from the stage, however, the guys loosened up and gave us ten blistering songs, classics like Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready,” and the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and a number of tunes from the new album, including a lowdown, greasy “Papa Legba,” where the rhythm section claimed at least half of the song’s brilliance.
Fahey and Bazz really have it going on, as connected as any rhythm section this writer has ever heard, and all three soloed and dueted throughout the night, sliding back into their threesome seamlessly, just as they also segued seamlessly from song to song.
Eldred clearly has a good time playing. Acknowledged as one of the best blues/roots guitarists in the business, Eldred also has terrific vocals, plus he knows how to connect with the audience through self-deprecating humor. “We almost got lucky last night,” he told us. “Then they turned the lights up, and those girls, they ran.” Talking about having CDs available after the show, he said, “Christmas is around the corner…just see the look on her face when you give her our CD and she’s expecting something from Jared’s Jewelers….And we’ll sign them; we’re not proud, we’ll sign them with any name you want and you can sell it on eBay.”
The whole show was a treat, but the last tunes, off the Baptist Town album, really made the night extra-special. The slow, hot and heavy “Money Can’t Buy Me Love” completely reimagined the Beatles in the best possible way, taking an over-familiar pop tune and turning it into a heavyweight all their own. The encore, “Hunder Dollar Bill,” allowed Fahey and Bazz to present Eldred’s superb guitar work like a diamond in a spectacular setting. Go tell that to your girl when you give her their CD for Christmas.