Johnny on the go

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Detroit is so full of blues musicians that the sheer glut of talent has caused many club owners and audience members to take them all for granted. Still, only a handful have proven strong enough to ripple the waters outside Detroit. Johnnie Bassett and the Blues Insurgents share space with very few others at the top of that list.

The band has been touring steadily for the past couple of years, so I asked bandleader-drummer R.J. Spangler if I could tag along in the van and take notes.

Anybody who knows anything about musicians knows it would be foolish to report everything that happened on a road trip. Those "in the know" can fill in the blanks. As for those who don't, let me just tell you what keyboard player Chris Kodish said: "We love the IRS."

As do all musicians everywhere.


Dancing with the devil

I swear Johnnie Bassett just got the Holy Ghost up there on stage, and that's not something you often see at a blues gig.

Wearing his trademark cap and yet another sharp suit, Johnnie has his broad, sunburst, hollow-bodied Conrad guitar clasped to his right side and his head tucked down as he starts into the dance. Anyone who has ever witnessed someone get the Ghost -- or gotten it themselves -- knows it doesn't come on gradually. It grabs hold like a fist, taking possession of the body without asking permission.

That's the way the dance hit Johnnie, and that's what has me wondering; How can the rhythm some folks call "devil music" give a blues man the Holy Ghost on a Saturday night?

Later, I glance over at Chris Kodish. There's a subversively cool grin floating on his pale, gaunt face like a rumor of mischief. His long, thin fingers are pumping out these fat, Jimmy-Smith-on-a-Sunday-morning-style organ chords that bear an embarrassing resemblance to the deep-throated groans of ecstasy.

Scratch divine intervention. Whatever spirit is running rampant throughout this low-ceilinged, crowded VFW hall in Baltimore was summoned by the purpose imbedded in those chords, and the racially mixed, working-class audience of more than 300 people is fulfilling that purpose with a joyful vengeance out on the dance floor. The steady, sonic thrust of the organ, the boom-pop-boom-pop of R.J.'s drums, and the metallic growl of Keith Kaminsky's saxophone all swirl together across the floor like a three-dimensional rhythmic Picasso in blue.

Go, Johnnie, go. Go.

No cowboy hats and
Strats on this ride

We pick up Johnnie last, before heading out for New York City at around 1:45 p.m. The rain is coming down in sheets, and the man doesn't look happy. Gives me a solemn look -- I'm the reason we're late -- nods his head, then takes his seat. The man doesn't like to be kept waiting.

As time passes, however, the crew loosens up and the wisecracking starts. Even Johnnie cracks an occasional smile as he plays his computerized poker game. Johnnie doesn't just open up and share a smile with anybody. That's just him. The man lays back and watches things, even when he doesn't look like he's watching. Sizing up people and situations. Johnnie Bassett didn't make it this far in the music world by not paying attention.

Farther down the road, Johnnie and R.J. share their views on the Detroit blues scene. Both can remember the days when local musicians like Chicago Pete and other long-timers could work regularly around town. Those days are gone, and most of the gigs are now located in the suburbs. Unfortunately, that trend has frozen out many old-school black blues musicians like Uncle Jessie White and Willie D. Warren, says R.J.

"The scene today is full of guys in cowboy hats with Strats," he says, getting a laugh and a nod from the rest of the crew.

The real problem, says Johnnie, is the absence of a centralized music and entertainment district in Detroit, like there is in Chicago. The result, they say, is that any musician serious about making some money and any kind of name had better leave town. The chat goes on for a little longer before Chris pops in a CD. The music varies from straight jazz to B.B. King to Jimmy Smith to a few other places -- but never too far from the roots.

Living the life

We arrive at the motel after 1 a.m. and Johnnie hits the sack. Chris, R.J. and Keith drop their bags, then jet out the door to scope out the club. They return later with pizza and beer, and we all stay up until around 5 a.m. Seven hazy hours later, someone is pounding on the door wanting to know if we're leaving or staying another night. Motel manager. Keith staggers to the door.

"You will continue, yes? You will continue?" the manager asks in a thick East Indian accent.

Keith nods groggily.

"Yes. We will continue. Thanks."

Two hours later, we head to a nearby diner. Johnnie's not in too good a mood, saying sometimes he just doesn't think all the bullshit in the music business is worth it.

"That's why I got out the first time," he says.

Pretty soon the food comes. Not long after that, Johnnie's mood lifts. He starts talking about how much he's looking forward to an upcoming gig in Seattle where his daughter lives. He says he'll fly out so he can spend more time with her, then asks if the guys will miss him on the road. Kaminsky says, "Yeah!" Johnnie laughs.

"Yeah, right. Only thing you're gonna miss is R.J.'s snoring at night 'cause somebody's gonna have a single room, you dig?"

The conversation switches directions again. Chris says the last "real job" he had was fixing bikes in a shop on East Warren.

"I knew then. This is not what I want to do with the rest of my life."

"But you were good, though," teases Johnnie.

"Yeah, I was good, but what difference does that make if it's not doing something I wanna do?"

Later that night, at a Greenwich Village club called Terra Blues, Johnnie Bassett is standing at the back of the room quietly observing a long, tall guitarist with long blond hair and a mustache performing solo on the stage where Johnnie will be performing in about an hour. After 40 years in the business, it will be Bassett's New York City debut.

During those four decades, Bassett played with a star-studded list of musicians ranging from John Lee Hooker to Little Willie John to Jimi Hendrix to numerous big-name Motown artists whom he backed during his years as a studio musician. Bassett also worked as a session musician for Fortune Records, a somewhat lesser-known Detroit label known largely for its doo-wop artists. He estimates that he has criss-crossed the United States at least six times going to or from gigs, and he has played in every type of venue imaginable: from sterile recording studios to lively cabarets and from large, crowded outdoor festivals to crowded backyard fish fries and rent parties. The man has lived the life and has the stories to back it up.

Right now, the club is nearly empty, which is too bad since the guy playing is damned good. Playing to an empty room is no fun, but then again he's young and this is New York. A bar photo shows him to be yet another Texas native with a Strat and a cowboy hat, which could explain a few things, but he's still good. When his set ends, he thanks the few patrons for their applause, then takes a seat at the bar looking a bit dejected.

When the Blues Insurgents take the stage, the house is packed. When the groove kicks in a little after 10:30, the whistles and cheers shower the stage from beginning to end. Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. E-mail [email protected]

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