Friday, April 23, 2010

Matrix, 3138 Fillmore Street San Francisco, CA Lightnin' Hopkins, JC Burris, Jean Ball: October 1, 1965

I have posted this review from Rag Baby magazine (Vol 1, No. 2 - October 1965) as it provides a good insight in to the structure of the performances at the Matrix shortly after it opened on August 13. The article is uncredited but I am pretty certain that it was written by ED Denson, who would go on to help shape the careers of Country Joe and The Fish. The only changes I have made to the review are a minor edit to the first paragraph, the addition of the graphics and the amendment of Lightning to Lightnin'. Otherwise the review has stood the test of time for nearly 45 years.

Lightnin’ Hopkins opened at the Matrix, a folk club, to a varied audience. The hippies turned out, and were mixed with the collegiate crowd and a few people who looked society. A few blacks were here and there in the audience - almost all in the collegiate or society categories. The emcee asked Lightnin’ how to introduce him: "just say an old blues singer". But when he hit the stage he was king. He slowly and carefully made certain that everything was set as he wanted it, and between numbers for the first half of the set he had his manager or one of the club owners come up and make adjustments on the amplifier, or move things around on the stage.

The set opened with a fast rocker, and then a Chicago sounding modern blues. Slowing down the pace he played a really fine version of "Baby Please Don't Go" - the audience was beginning to yell now when he hit long notes - and then he dropped into a really slow blues. He was playing flashily: hitting slam chords at the ends of measures, picking the bass strings all the way up the neck, moving his hands all over the gui tar, striking long slow "soul" notes, and mak-ing those incredible long runs which are his trademark. The audience was picking up on it. Cries of "play it baby" rang out, and J. C. Burris - a long time friend of Lightnin's - was whooping and yelling from his seat by Lightnin's wife. When the number stopped the requests began to come in, and he played "It’s Mighty Crazy (how they keep on rubbing at the same old thing)" - a bawdy novelty piece. The next request was for "Rocky Mountain", a blues with mediocre lyrics , and then the set was closed with a fast finger-picking piece Lightnin’ calls "The Old Folks Dance". It is a raggy song in the style of John Hurt or Mance Lipscomb, and is a half-joking put-down. Lightnin’ picked so fast that the notes blended in the amplifier and sounded like a horn. The audience was wild.

During the break the house, which had been jammed, cleared somewhat and Lightnin’ sat at his table talking to his wife, cousin, and J.C. Burris, surrounded by an entourage which had swollen to 12, all drinking free as the performer's party. Jean Ball played, and then J.C. Burris, and the audience was warmed up. When Lightnin’ got back on the stage the house was full and excited. This time he gave them a set with messages in it. He started with a genre song:

I don't want your woman, mister,
please don't mess with mine.
She's bowlegged and knock-kneed
and she sticks out behind,
but she's mine.

and the audience really dug it. They laughed so much they could hardly hear the words. He followed it with a song about J.C. Burris. The audience laughed thru the first half of it before they realized that he was serious when he said they should help J.C. out when they could. "You know when a man got to leave all he's got, that's hard". He was talking between the verses, telling about J. C. losing his house in New York, and his family. J.C. would yell "that's right" periodically and nudge the boy at the next table so that he would give him another glass of beer.

The mood lightened with "Mojo Hand" and you could see people in the audience intently following every note, every twist and turn in these Hopkins runs. They were yelling comments now, and after the song requests came in thick, Lightnin’ joked about wigs for a while and then sang "Deep Sea Diver", the party song for the set. Once the listeners realized what it was about they howled, and then Lightnin’ got serious again.

In the afternoon he had told the reporter that he was born in a field, and had spent his youth travelling in wagons, and now he was afraid of airplanes. Whereas the younger generation had it easy - they had been born into a modern world, and their parents had enough money to send them to college. "If I had gone to college ..." he began. But "some people hold guitars in their hands and some people hold pencils". The gulf had been deeper than Lightnin’ had realized, for the reporter had grown up in Chicago and never heard of Howling Wolf, or Little Walter, or Sonny Boy Williamson - his parents wouldn't let him go into the section of town where the blues clubs were. Anyway Lightnin’ was still thinking about his childhood that evening, and he played a piece that never stopped rocking, and yet was one of the most beautiful blues I have heard. He told about being a child and peeping into his girlfriend's house and seeing her asleep in the moonlight. "Mean Old Frisco" followed, and then Lightnin’ sang another song about his childhood. This time it was about picking cotton in the hot sun and watching his mother tally up the day's wages for the family. When he got up to end the set the audience cheered and called for at least a full minute while Lightnin’ hesitated. He sat down again, played a take-off on Ray Charles, and then left the stage.

On the way back to Berkeley he talked about J. C- Burris.

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