A'Roma Roasters, Santa Rosa
April 9, 2004
I like A?Roma Roasters. I like coffeehouses from my days as a young man in North Beach in San Francisco. One night Luther Tucker and some friends took over the stage at the old Coffee Gallery on Grant and blew me away. Beatniks, coffeehouses, and the blues go way back.
Coffeehouses have newspapers, books, chessboards, conversation and music. Sometimes the music is beginner class; coffeehouses are where people used to get their start. A?Roma Roasters is a real coffeehouse, not a fake one like those chain stores. It?s in a fine old stone railroad building. The employees look like they know about French novels, Japanese poetry, or The Clash. The coffee is roasted there and they have Central American coffee like I like it---strong. I like the kids and young adults that hang out there. Fuscia hair is cool with me; these are the ones that?ll come to the blues in time.
So it was with pleasure that I saw that the Hellhounds were playing at A?Roma Roasters. I?ve wanted to see them for a long time. I?ve seen their members play in various groups and in snippets for years. Mo would always tell me about how good they were on those road trips down to the City. They haven?t played together for a long time since Dave Chafoya, the harp player, had ear problems. He?s back now and the Hellhounds are stepping out again.
Fronting the band with Dave is the great Phil Ajioka on guitar (Phil, I keep running into people who knew you years ago), Bill Wolfe on standup Bass (Bill also plays great electric bass), and Alan McDaniel on drums.
Phil Ajioka has guitars I keep wanting; this night he had an old Kay flattop with a pickup that sounded so sweet. With it he played them old blues with the juke sound like 1948.
Starting out with one of those great Robert Nighthawk Maxwell Street jam tunes they swung into Jimmy Rogers "Going Away Baby" which became "Rollin? and Tumblin?." Phil?s voice is adequate for the tunes; he shines when he plays. He?s got the old feel and the licks come tumbling out with that old time feel.
Bill Wolfe sang "Kansas City" in a strong tenor and the band had a lot of fun with this one and its good rhythm that everybody knows. Then a swell highlight was Sonny Boy Williamson?s ?Help Me.? Lots of bands do this song, what they don?t usually do is the rhythmic pulse that this great song is built on. The Hellhounds do that pulse the right way with the insistent swing and the accent on ?the one.? Phil had a great guitar solo on this and Dave was right there with him. The got all the interplay that Sonny Boy and Robert Lockwood had on the original. The audience of sitdown folks was right there with them.
Alan McDaniel is an interesting drummer. He had only a snare drum, a floor tom, a high hat, and a small crash cymbal. With that and slapping his cheeks for pops he had a very full sound. Using brushes and sticks on both the heads and the sides of the drums and any other trick he?s developed he gave the feel of those old recordings of pioneer blues drummer Peck Curtis on the King Biscuit Time radio show.
If all this sounds like the Hellhounds are a museum piece, they?re not. They?ve just chosen not to go in the flash guitar-slinger direction with the blues. They?ve got rhythm and pulse like the Muddy Waters Band had. Danceable as hell.
?Trouble in mind, I'm blue
I'm gonna lay my head
Trouble in mind, I'm blue,
Trouble in mind, I'm blue
"Trouble in Mind" had that old time slow lope just the way it used to be played. Took me back to another time and place long ago and Lionel?s front porch and the old beat up Harmony Sovereign guitar he had.
One of the first great classic recorded blues tunes was Tommy Johnson?s "Big Road Blues." All the early bluesmen knew it and played it. By Legba, the Hellhounds can do it the old way just like they spent midnight at the crossroads.
Switching to his 1936 Style "O" National steel slide guitar (more guitar lust) and using the "Dust My Broom" lick Phil led into "It Was All My Fault" and echoes of Elmore James. Switching up he moved into Fred McDowell?s ?You Got To Move.?
?You got to move, you got to move,
You may be high, you may be low
You see that woman, that walk the
You got to move, you got to move,
Sliding out of my seat I went for a refill of my dark roast. The tattooed and pierced young guy behind the counter said, "You know these guys? They?re good!" The other counter people liked them too. As I put cream in the coffee, I saw the young dudes leaning against the divider; nobody was leaving. The young couple with the little baby was still there (heaven for a new mother is getting out to hear some music).
Phil did a very emotional version of "It Hurts Me Too", on both vocal and slide guitar.
?You said you were hurting
You love him more
At the break Phil and Dave took me across the street to the Hotel La Rose bar and we talked about the old days in Oakland and Marin County. Mississippi Johnny Waters and Little Dave Huff at Eli?s. Mark Naftalin and Luther Tucker and the jams at the Sleeping Lady Caf?. And how Dave Wellhausen may have tapes of Mississippi Johnny Waters that might get issued on CD.
The second set was more of the same with the Muddy Waters mojo strong. "I?m goin? down to Louisiana, Baby behind the sun, I?m gonna get me a Mojo Hand" done deep with just Dave on harp and Phil on slide guitar. The whole band went into ?Willie?s Boogie.? And then into the big stop time pulse of "Rolling and Tumbling." The audience digging the songs. "I?ve been mistreated and I don?t mind dyin?." The last set just was a Muddy Waters style feast with "I?m Troubled" and "Hoochie Coochie Man". The band would go still behind Phil?s wild lead work.
Changing the roll they moved into a bunch of more recent tunes.
?I've got a mind to give up living,
and go shopping instead
Well, I read your letter this morning
that was on your place in bed
It read, ?There is no use looking or ever hoping, or ever hoping to get me back.?Oh, no use looking, baby or ever hoping to get me back
Because it's all over now and, baby,
you can bet on that?
They followed with a great semi-acoustic version of Bill Doggett?s "Honky-Tonk" with its library of blues licks and rhythm. Then songs about "Here I am playing the blues again" and ?One more night, one more funky bar.?
Maybe my favorite of the evening was a tune built out of Otis Rush?s "All Your Love" with its wild minor signature riff played over a rhumba. They had a lot of fun with that. The closer on the evening was "The Hucklebuck" done in full jump swing mode. Phil went wild on his lead parts and the audience cheered. What a rouser.
The Hellhounds have been gone for a while. They?re back. And they still ain?t playing no blues-rock.
Rolf Olmsted was born on the banks of the Mississippi River and had a dog and played his father's mandolin. He was exposed to the blues at an early age which accounts for it. Among his accomplishments are reproduction, a collection of cheap guitars, and computer semi-literacy. He's guilty of attempted guitar and mandolin playing.