David "Honeyboy" Edwards @ the Oriental TheaterBy Billy Thieme | February 12th, 2009 | No Comments »
Living legend David “Honeyboy” Edwards graced the Oriental Theater’s stage last week with songs and stories. Photos by Brian Carney.
It’s a magical feeling, seeing history cavorting onstage in front of you in real time. Last Sunday night, the Oriental Theater hosted some real American musical history in the flesh, on the venue’s well-worn stage, and the star of the show was older than the Oriental itself. David “Honeyboy” Edwards, born in Shaw, Miss., in 1915 and one of the last surviving and touring original guitarists that plays traditional delta blues, graced the stage and a full house for a too-short, hour-long set of country blues, mesmerizing the room with characteristically minimal instrumentation and passionate simplicity.
Edwards’ life story is a personal, intimate history of a true American musical style born out of the rich soil of the deep south, and of watching — and helping nurture — its growth out of that Mississippi delta, up into Chicago and eventually out into the wide world. He was both a good friend of the legendary Robert Johnson as well as a frequent side man for many a show in the 1930s. He claims to have been in the place that Johnson was poisoned (or stabbed — the true nature of his death is still unknown) the night he died. He was an itinerant musician throughout most of the ‘30s and ‘40s and shared stages in juke joints and space on dusty streetcorners across the U.S., and later throughout Europe, with nearly all of the famous delta blues legends such as Pinetop Perkins, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, Big Walter Horton and many, many others.
He was recorded by blues archivist Alan Lomax in 1942 and the 15 sides from that session are housed in the Library of Congress. He both followed and led blues legends into and out of Chicago, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and elsewhere in his first four decades, tirelessly spreading the comforting and passionate country blues to whomever would pay to hear him and his friends until he settled in Chicago in the ‘50s.
He continued to play and record throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, including appearing as guest artist on two Fleetwood Mac albums. He has since then been approached constantly by archivists, documentary film makers, authors and blues enthusiasts to hear his stories, to see him play and to experience the life of a true bluesman in the flesh. He has also been awarded a Grammy for his portion of the 2007 live recording “The Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.”
All of this history made for a palpably significant atmosphere Sunday night as Edwards made his way onto the stage to sit and play alongside Michael Frank on the harmonica. After an introduction complete with a very brief history of Edwards’ life, the show started quietly, with the diminutive bluesman starting to tear into his guitar with impossibly long and sure fingers. His hands traveled up and down the guitar’s neck confidently, but coolly, pausing only very occasionally for just a half step here and there. This might have been interpreted as slight struggles, but as the show went on it proved to be simple manipulation of the rhythm to intimate a little jostle of bluesy desperation now and again.
As Edwards and Frank maneuvered through the set, hitting tunes from the latest CD “Roamin’ and Ramblin’,” and a few older traditionals, the Oriental became enveloped in an entirely new type of intimacy for a live show — at least for me. You could hear a pin drop during the performances, were it not for the smooth, quiet picking and strumming, tapping and clicking and sliding and blowing.
Not a peep was heard from the audience, though you could feel all of the hips and heads swaying and jerking slightly to the rhythm. In between songs there were, besides short bursts of fervent applause, occasional hoots, whistles and bellowed howls, but only for a few seconds. It was as if each of us was attempting to hear anything and everything Honeyboy might utter about this song or the next.
Towards the end of the set, he and Frank did stop and talk for a brief period, during which Edwards described some of his memories of Little Walter, who Edwards brought up into Chicago as a teenager in the late ’40s. He spoke of times playing with Little Walter and Muddy Waters, describing Walter as “…a mean little boy…” prone to lose his quick temper from time to time. Edwards told the story with a photographic recollection, giggling and huffing at times between descriptions of particular episodes, and the audience hung on every word. The experience was as real to us as it was to him as he laid it out and it created an even more rarified intimacy in the room.
One of Colorado’s own emerging delta blues men, John-Alex Mason, opened the show with a set of louder and rougher, but no less minimalist and passionate, delta blues concoctions. Mason played a mean guitar, sitting down as he played a snare, high hat and floor tom contraption with his left foot, and a bass drum with his right, and unleashed a string of rocky blues tunes lasting nearly 50 minutes. He ended his set playing a few songs on an exquisite, and exquisite sounding, electric cigar-box guitar, also known as a LoewBow, made from a wooden cigar box, a couple of dowels, one bass string and three guitar strings. In Mason’s hands, the contraption, along with those at his feet, helped him to belt out a smooth, chunky and wiggly blues.
Mason joined Edwards and Frank onstage for a few songs as the show wrapped up, and the trio picked up an almost immediate comfortable rhythm with each other, completely smashing any appearance that they had any difference in age. Music, in this case a primal, minimal and deep-seated blues, was the fundamental element with which they were creating the space that filled the Oriental that night. As the show ended, and after a prolonged applause, the legend that is Honeyboy shuffled off the stage, a huge smile across his face, and no doubt another story in him.
Billy Thieme is a Denver-based writer, an old-school punk and a huge follower of Denver’s vibrant local music scene. Follow Billy’s giglist at Gigbot.
Brian Carney is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.