Ivy Room, Albany

April 27, 2004
By Rolf Olmsted

Coming out of the van the piano music was bouncing off the storefront brick walls of San Pablo Avenue.  The Road Trip crew had been on a tight time schedule.  Zooming inside past great sounds coming out the Dutch door, we saw we weren?t very late and were able to get seats along the wall.  Steve Freund was already in top form and to his left and behind him was a driving real piano sound.  The Ivy Room?s old filigreed upright was looking dusted and in shape.  Playing it was a mid-sized curly haired guy with a mustache, Barrelhouse Chuck.

Chuck and Steve and the band were playing low down and dirty blues when we came in.  Chuck was slow grinding and Steve was slow burning on the guitar?s lowest register.  Steve was looking inspired and Chuck was looking like a man who was gonna physically shove that piano to get it to do what he wanted.

My God, he sounded like Little Brother Montgomery and Otis Spann.  When Steve was soloing he played all those little support fills like Otis did, almost subconscious unless you concentrated.  Then you saw how great they fit in with what the guitar was playing.  And his fills between verse phrases were sparkling gems.  Then his solo would come and the astonishment!  Damn!  The guy can flat play.  I mean chops and taste!  He can play fast as lightning and only does it for a phrase when it suits the music.

Steve Freund on guitar, Tim "The Iceman" Wagar on bass, and Robi Bean on drums.  And Barrelhouse Chuck on piano, the kind that?s made out of wood and strings and a big old heavy cast frame inside.  The kind that resonates and has treble crispness but nobody can carry around.  Barrelhouse Chuck was born to play a real piano and then worked real hard at it.  Chuck called "Tin Pan Alley" and played that low down blues with real feeling and than capped it by singing a fine smooth baritone.

Steve called for guests and Sid Morris sat in on piano.  First a shuffle and then a jazzier tune, something about "Just Rock Awhile."  Sid was smooth and sounding good; people danced and really had it going on the floor.

Wendy DeWitt took the piano chair. I?ve seen Wendy always with her portable electric rig and hearing her playing a real piano was great.  Steve began a low down dirty slow blues opening, crying the intro.  A long heart-felt purely aching blues guitar instrumental for two verses led into:

"Son, please remember,
What your dear old mother said,
Son, please remember,
What your dear old mother said,
Your friends will deceive you,
And leave you with a hung down head."

(Lowell Fulson)

Behind Steve, Wendy really did it with a real piano, trills and ascending figures accenting the song.

Wendy led out on an upbeat "I?m Glad You?re Just As Fine As You Are" and in a night of surprises, Wendy knocked me dead with the power of her voice.  I?m used to seeing her in a sideman role.  I missed out on the Boogie-woogie Queens.  Furry, rich, and strong, her voice has a Louisiana tinge that?s most affecting.  From where I sat, Wendy was directly in front of one of the stage red-orange lights giving her a corona around her head.  The person next to me said, "She has a halo around her head."  Wendy seemed almost in a trance.

A very heavy intro led into a powerful version of:

?You may own half a city,
Even diamond and pearls.
You may have your own airplane,
And you may fly, fly,
Fly all over this world.
But I don?t give a damn,
What you?re worth.
When it all comes down,
You got to come back to Mother Earth.

You may play the horses, baby,
You may, own the racetrack.
You may have enough money,
To buy anything, anything you lack.
I don?t care how great you are,
Don?t give a damn what you?re worth.
When it all, all comes down,
You got to come back to Mother Earth.

You may not have me all the time,
You may never go my way.
Mother Earth is waitin? for you,
With a debt you have to,
Have to, have to, have to, have to pay.
I don?t care how great you are,
Or what you?re worth.
When it all comes down,
Oh, you got to go back to Mother Earth.

(Peter Chatman & Louis Simpkins)

Wendy declaimed it!  Church!  Wow.

Steve called Chuck back to the stand and they did Steve?s "outro" song "You Can?t Sit Down."

The following break was very long with a house full of musicians and serious fans.  I shook a lot of hands and met a lot of people.  And there were folks there I didn?t even get to meet.  It seemed like half the membership of the Yahoo: Bay Area Blues Club was there.  The band was circulating, hands were being shaken and conversations going all over the club and outside on the front.  Steve opened another guitar case and got out his red SG. Steve went in search of his band.  Passing me a second time he said, "I lost my band." He could have made up an all-star band from the audience, but they were up on the stand in a minute.

Goofing around they did Steve?s "Wes-Montgomery-meets-the-Beatles" version of "Hard Day?s Night."  I don?t know why I?m surprised that Steve can finger pick as good as he plays with a pick.  I love the double stops up and down the neck.  "Don?t The Sun Look Lonesome (when your Baby pack up and leave)" was just a loping ton of fun, with Chuck being a marvel of backup piano fills.

A real treat was Barrelhouse Chuck and Steve doing one of Sunnyland Slim?s signature tunes, "She?s Got A Thing Going On."  I?ve got an odd version of this on CD from a European Blues Tour and I was amazed at how close to that Chuck played this song.  A knockout!  This was followed by a slow; really low down grinding piano workout that had us swaying.  Steve?s solo was just as powerful.  Blues heaven.

Leroy Carr?s "My Baby, She?s So Low Down" was a door opened into a style not heard today, simple and direct yet sophisticated.  Carr?s work isn?t as well known as it should be these days.  Steve invoked the ghost of Scrapper Blackwell with a tasteful understated solo.  A rocking "Barrelhouse Woman" followed.  The crazy beat of "Dangerous Man" got my attention.  I think I heard this announced as a "Crazy Ray" tune.  This is a good time to say how much Robi Bean and Tim Wagar added to the night, groove and rhythm was superb all night long.

A burning slow blues with Barrelhouse Chuck setting fire to the piano had my heart pounding.  On this one almost everybody sat down and watched intently.

Steve Lucky took over the piano chair and John Lawton played guitar.  "Kiddeo" done a lot like Johnny Littlejohn?s version was lilting fun.  Then it was swing time, real smooth.  Mr. Lucky sure does have his style down, we got to see some real variation.  Round and round went the jump number ?Jump with John,? and the dancers did jump too.

At the second break I got to talk with lots of people.  I was happy to talk with Bird Hale who had invited Barrelhouse Chuck for a visit, put him up, and helped arrange two gigs.  Bird probably bankrupted Chuck by taking him to both Amoeba Records stores, Village Music, Downhome Records, and then down the house of the guy who runs Blue Beat.

Approaching a joking Tim "The Iceman" Wagar, famous for his lack of expression on stage, I complimented him on his bass playing and how good the music sounded.  I told him he was almost smiling with the good music up on the stand.  Perfectly on cue Tim switched to his poker face and without any vocal inflection said, "I just try to do my job."  I cracked up.

Most of all, I got to talk with Barrelhouse Chuck.  He?s almost terminally modest and seemed excited by the reception and notice he was receiving.  I bought both his CDs and talked with him a little about Little Brother Montgomery.  When I bought the second CD he seemed really surprised and happy and gave me one of his buttons.  What a good guy he is.  Ladies were beginning to line up to buy his CDs and talk with him so I sensibly stepped back and watched his modesty and pleasure at being noticed.

The third set began with the band up and Mo talking with Chuck Steve said "You gonna play, Chuck?" Mo gave Steve the look Chuck went into an incredible rendition of "Trouble No More."

Don't care how long you go,
I don't care how long you stay,
It's good kind treatment,
Bring you home someday.
Someday baby, you ain't gonna trouble,
Poor me, anymore.

Sunnyland Slim lives!

Up to the stage came Dave Bernstein on guitar, Beth on harp, and Tom Bowers on bass.  Chuck channeled Little Brother on ?Wringing My Hands And Crying.?  Then into a slow version of ?Can?t Hold Out Much Longer.?

"Crazy ?bout you baby, and I wonder if you ever think of me?"

Rusty Zinn joined on guitar, with Jaime Sheets on harp, and Leroy Shine on bass. And it was Junior Wells? type version of ?Come See Me Early In the Morning,? another one of the great tunes selected this night.  And even better was a knockout version of Johnny Littlejohn?s "How Much More Long?"  Mr. Zinn!

Steve closed out the night with three wild dance rockers ending with ?You Can?t Sit Down,? a solid closer.  Chuck can play these at lightning speed and did.  Just killer!  The dance floor was full at the end. Steve had a great night supporting a friend and playing great solos.

Thanks to everyone involved in this night of top musicianship, song selection, and most of all Barrelhouse Chuck.  Piano Master, great singer, and a fine human being. I?d seen his name, now I know, really know, just how good he is.

...Rolf Olmsted

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.