NEW CITY article

by James Porter

“Coach House Blues,” the excellent record by Diamond Jim Greene on the Cooling Board label, has to be one of the few live recordings ever made where the audience was asked politely to shut up.

The night is still young when Blues Fest ends at 10pm.  If they’re not totally partied out, some people hightail it over to nearby Buddy Guy’s Legends.  Others hang out on Michigan Avenue to watch the street musicians.  On June 5, 1998, acoustic blues guitarist Diamond Jim Greene invited twenty-five people (fifty actually showed) to witness him record a live record at an old coach house in Evanston.  It was partly for that informal feel, partly to soak up the massive room echo.  And it was a major stroke of genius to schedule this about an hour or so after Blues Fest ended that night, as people would still be on a boogie high.  But there was one condition – they had to keep quiet.

“I think I play my best when there’s a crowd,” reflected Greene.  “Usually the bigger the crowed, the better I play.  And so that’s the idea behind it – instead of doing a sterile recording in a studio somewhere, let’s get a couple of people over and make like it’s in your kitchen or at a family member’s house and they haven’t seen you for a while.  Let’s try to create that atmosphere, a home family kind of environment – that should bring out the best in Jim Greene, and that’s what we did.  We told them what we were doing, we told them why we were doing it, and we needed their cooperation.  ‘You must be quiet – no clinking of glasses, no sucking-barbecue-out-of-teeth sounds…,” he laughs.  Considering that they had an incredible spread of food, they did a real good job of holding back every last burp, any random giggle or any urge to stomp their feet.  “Coach House Blues” captures the humor and good feeling of most prewar guitar-based blues.

“We recorded it at my friend Ray Sanders’ coach house in Evanston,” says Greene.  “The coach house was built in the late 1890’s.  It was a horse house is what it was, a stable, and Ray has a big old-fashioned kitchen downstairs, and then upstairs he’s got it fixed up like 1921 Mississippi juke joint…very comfortable up there, very comfortable.  Man, we had a good time.  Ray’s a hell of a cook, he used to own a Henry’s Drive-In and the guy can burn, man.  We had plenty of adult beverages, and we had a good time.  We had couches and chairs up there.  It was very comfortable that night.  It was about 75 degrees and it wasn’t humid…in fact, after almost every tune, if you listen carefully, you can hear the birds singing in the background.  Recording came out real good.”

I first encountered Greene in a Chicago subway in late 1993.  This was just before the current acoustic blues kick started, and I remarked how unusual it was for a relatively young (he was 41) black blues musician to play the blues unplugged.  Since then, there has been a huge upsurge in black acoustic musicians – from people like Keb Mo, who use the style as a jumping-off point, to the more idiomatic sounds of Guy Davis, to the category-bending experiments of Alvin “Youngblood” Hart and Corey Harris.  All are conscious, to an extent, of acoustic blues being an endangered species.  Quite a few go out of their way to make references to current events, to remove the stigma of the music being dated.

On last year’s Front Porch stage, one of the Fruteland Jackson’s songs openly made reference to Viagra (drawing a hearty response from the crowd), and Greene’s own “Watching You” has an off handed reference to “Larry King on CNN.”  People complain about the blues not having enough involvement among younger blacks, and among those that do, unplugged blues was neglected for the longest time.  Maybe in hotel room jams or one-off projects, but never as an out-and-out career move.  Of the recent boom, Fruteland Jackson once told me that the explosion isn’t as big as it seems, then asked me to name ten black acoustic bluesmen off the top of my head.  I barely got to nine – his point was made.  Greene views the new resurgence with some amusement.

There was a time when being black, playing the blues, and playing it acoustically at that was like being counted out twice, but the fortunes have changed in recent years, with Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, to name one example, opening shows for rock bands like Wilco.  “I think it’s a commentary on where we (blacks) are socially and politically as a people,” Greene says, adding that when he first played acoustic guitar in the eighties, “I was so in love with the music that I didn’t care whether or not there was a renaissance coming, or I was in the middle of a renaissance…it didn’t matter to me at all.  The main thing that mattered was I found a vehicle that I was first exposed to as a boy.  I rediscovered it, it was a personal rediscovery.  I got in, and I know I wasn’t going anywhere else but in this genre.  It didn’t matter what was going on.  I like to see the renaissance that’s going on now.  It’s gonna be interesting to see where some of the so-called acoustic blues players end up in five years.  It’s gonna be interesting to see how it all pans out in the end…whether or not they’re playing popular music for the sake of selling records or whether or not they’re gonna be true to the genre.”

In a town ruled by electric blues, it’s reassuring to know that there’s still a place for an artist like Greene, even though he does quite a bit of business overseas.  Greene grew up on Chicago’s South Side, around 63rd and Ellis, when the blues was really “red hot”, even if it was looked down on by the upper-crust members of the community.  Blind Arvella Gray, the late street musician known for his performances on the old Maxwell Street site, was almost the equivalent of a guardian angel for Greene.  Gray’s picture appears on the inner CD insert, one of the songs (“Blind Man”) is about him, and the record is dedicated to him.  As Greene explains, “I was coming home from school one day, and I saw this old guy playing in the middle of the sidewalk.  I’m just a little guy, 7 or 8 years old, something like that, I’m coming up to about waist high on most of the adults that were around this man.  I’m looking in through their elbows and stuff.  The old guy finished his tune – he had a cup taped to his lapel – he finished his tune, and the people were just going ‘OOH WEE, PLAY THAT AGAIN, BLIND MAN, PLAY THAT AGAIN!’ and he’d go ‘NAH, I CAN’T KEEP PLAYIN’ THIS STUFF FOR NOTHIN’.  NOW, THIS IS HOW I MAKE MY LIVIN’!’  And he started playing the tune again, and people just filled up his cup with half-dollars and quarters, they fell along the sidewalk and everything.  Me and this old woman were picking up the coins from the sidewalk and stuffing it down his coat pocket.  He played a National (guitar).  It was a chrome, steel-bodied National, and I haven’t been the same since,” he chuckles.  “He was on that day!”

Some ten years later, Greene caught the fever himself when, as a teen, he bought an electric guitar, inspired by Jim Hendrix and other hard-rockers of the day.  When he turned to acoustic blues, it was halfway intended as a way to get around the instability of bands.  “At the height of my frustration, I was living in Washington, D.C.  I was actually in the Marine Corps, stationed in Quantico, VA., and going to these electric jams at a place called the Gentry.”  Around this time (1982-1984), he “put the flatpick down and started picking up these finger picks, “hooking up with a small acoustic scene that also included John Jackson, the late Archie Edwards, and the duo of Cephas and Wiggins.

The late eighties brought Greene to Southern California, where there has always been an audience for traditional-style blues (witness Rod Piazza).  Greene got a piece of this action with the Blues Ambassadors, a country blues band that included Earl Thomas, a young black vocalist who went on to make a few solo albums in the early nineties.  Predating the jump/swing fad by a decade, it wasn’t enough for the Ambassadors to sit around and replicate old-time blues – they decided to go for the whole presentation, wearing thrift store clothing and leaving audiences with an impression.

“We played everywhere, all over Southern California,” says Greene.  “We played on the street alot; we’d go into these thrift stores all over Southern California and buy these clothes from the thirties and forties.  Everybody was on the same mindset.  We’d set up out on the corner of Prospect and Jarrard in La Jolla on Friday evening about 7pm, catch the dinner crowd, and make a ton of money.  We’d hand out flyers and sell our tapes – this was before CDs – we’d sell our tapes and the flyers we’d hand out would be telling people where we’d be playing later that night or on Saturday.”

The good times didn’t last long: “There was a harmonica player in the band by the name of Billy Winston Elias.  He was a hell of a harmonica player and a damn good singer.  He used to blow harmonica with Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham over on the West Coast.  Shortly after I left the band, one of the girls who used to see us play was murdered, and nobody knew where I was, and Earl couldn’t get in touch with me because he didn’t know where I was.  I believe they convicted Billy of that murder.  When I left the band, it kind of fell apart.  I was replaced, and then I think Robin Hinkle replaced me.  I lost contact shortly thereafter.  And then there was a benefit where the band had switched to all-electric and they were in Phoenix, Arizona doing a gig.  They parked their van out in front of the hotel, came back and everything had been stolen.”

On the heels of this tragedy, the band, which by this time had resorted to doing the usual undistinguished Chicago-inspired bar-band repertoire, played a benefit in downtown San Diego.  “They had borrowed equipment and the whole thing had just changed.  Instead of wearing 1930’s clothes and playing all-acoustic, they were wearing blue jeans and T-shirts and they’d electrified and I was just saddened to see it.  “Although the final years weren’t pretty, Greene now states that “we had a hell of a time.  It was one of the most rewarding experiences in a band context that I’ve ever had.”

Greene relocated back to Chicago in the summer of 1993.  “It just seemed to me that there weren’t any acoustic blues music to speak of in Chicago.  I felt so positive and so strong about the music and my abilities that I felt maybe I could come here and I could use this place as my home base.  It’s got a rich tradition, this is where I first saw the music, I knew that there were some great players here, some great electric players who also play acoustic that don’t play acoustically, and I thought this would be a good place.”

The road has been relatively uphill since then, with several trips abroad and even a Blues Fest appearance (in 1997) under his belt.  Last year, he was approached to do a song for a Kate Bush tribute CD, a version of “Home for Christmas” that should be added to any collection of Yuletide blues songs.  Although Greene says he wasn’t familiar with her work beforehand, he was impressed with the song and jumped on it with all four feet.  This track was reprised on “Coach House Blues,” the only track that was not recorded at the coach house itself.  So it wouldn’t sound different from the rest of the disc, Greene and co-producer Brian Johnson inserted a bit of room noise leading in and out of the song.

Most country blues guys fit squarely in the Charley Patton-Robert Johnson “tortured soul” vein.  Greene, by contrast recalls the more varied, ragtime-flavored works of Mississippi John Hurt or Blind Willie McTell (three McTell works are covered on the disc.)  Greene sees country blues as an ongoing tradition which should not be relegated to museum status.  “It’s very powerful if you can keep the basic musical approach and use the same format,” Greene states.  “If you can update those kinds of ideas to a 1999 scene, and talk about 1999 issues using the same musical ideas and format, it’s a perfect vehicle for self-expression.  It’s not some kind of formula for me so much as it is an innate kind of thing that my soul has.    I don’t know how else to put it, and it’s not like I’m trying to figure out what the formula was and duplicate that formula so much.  It’s my life.”