Saturday, September 24, 2016

Live at the Belly Up: Stripes and Lines, Earl Thomas and the RhumBoogies (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the latest rerun of Live at the Belly Up, the local KPBS music program paying tribute to the legendary live music venue in Solana Beach (where I’ve never been because attending late-night events in such a far out-of-the-way location would be utterly impossible for me transportation-wise) which opened in 1974 and where these shows were filmed in 2014. I was interested in this episode because one of the featured acts was Earl Thomas and the RhumBoogies, a reunion of a band that played a lot at the Belly Up in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and I was interested not only because I generally like the kind of music Earl Thomas plays and sings (he was featured here only as a vocalist, though I believe he plays guitar as well) — classic rhythm-and-blues (though the RhumBoogies’ promotional slogan, as painted on their drummer’s bass-drum head, is “All kinds of blues … All night long”), which in a brief interview segment Thomas said he and his bandmates study and take as seriously as classical musicians take the music they play — but because I knew him briefly when he came to a few meetings of a group I was hosting in the early 2000’s. I also know he’s Gay — he was once featured in a San Diego Reader article about Black Gay men (along with Jonathan Thomas, whom I also knew and who was in a wheelchair, though he was still very cute) — which made it odd, to say the least, to hear him singing lyrics about loving (or being attracted to, or having sex with) women. I’m not sure whether Thomas’s songs were originals or covers of relatively obscure R&B songs — two of his songs, “Stand by Me” and “That’s the Stuff You Gotta Watch,” have the same titles as major hits but were not the same songs. One song he did definitely was a cover — Earl King’s 1960 “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll),” which added to the confusion because there are at least three songs with that title (the others are the one by Louis Jordan which he had a hit on in 1946 and Ray Charles covered beautifully in 1959 for his The Genius of Ray Charles album, and the one by Sam Theard which was introduced by Shirley and Lee in 1956 and done to a turn by Phoebe Snow on her first album in 1975), and which didn’t make the R&B charts when King first recorded it for Imperial in 1960 but made it into the standard blues-soul-rock repertory when Jimi Hendrix covered it for the 1968 double album Electric Ladyland. (Later King re-recorded the song in 1977 and apparently incorporated some of Hendrix’ licks.)

The other songs Earl Thomas performed on his Belly Up TV appearance were “Taking Care of Business” (another oft-used title better known for a different song than the one Thomas did), “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right” (the slowest song Thomas did and the one that showed off the most soul in his voice), and “Keep On Loving Me, Baby.” The show’s closing credits designated one of his two guitar players as “lead” and one as “rhythm,” but in fact they traded off those functions and both of them played quite beautiful solos throughout the evening. The entire band, except for Thomas himself, was white — though one of the guitarists might have been Black (he had dark skin and curly hair but his facial features looked white) — and they featured a sax player who played baritone on the opener, “Stand by Me,” but tenor on the rest of the songs. This music was a lot of fun and helped make up for the opening act, a rock band called Stripes and Lines which was good but not especially “special” — their drummer is also their lead singer and they kept reminding me of U2 (especially early U2, before they started their heavy use of techno and industrial effects and The Edge started running his guitar through an effects box to make it sound like a synthesizer), probably more because of the uncanny resemblance of their singer’s voice to Bono’s than that much similarity instrumentally. The Belly Up announcer who introduced them compared them to 1970’s punk groups like Club Fugazi, but I don’t hear them that way (just as I don’t hear the resemblance between Earl Thomas and Al Green he claimed); I liked them but they didn’t move me the way Earl Thomas and the RhumBoogies did, partly because they’re a good band but they didn’t really have much to say about the music — there are hundreds of other bands out there that sound just like them — and partly because all six songs they played on this show were in similar tempi and sounded a lot like each other. The one that stood out for me was “Slave to a New Drug,” though I couldn’t make out enough of the words to be clear on whether it was intended as an anti-drug song or was just using drugs as a metaphor for an obsessive romance. Frankly, enough rock songs have glamorized and encouraged drug use that I’m always glad to stumble on one that goes the other way!