This past Thursday, August 18th, I was the happy recipient, courtesy of my new friend Glenn Stevens, of two tickets for the Bobby “Blue” Bland/Clarence Carter concert at Bert’s Marketplace Theatre, which is located in Eastern Market. I was really looking forward to this show because my associate, John “Johnny Ace” Adams, from the radio show “Funk Soul Brothers and Sisters, was going to come to town and we were going to do a show about the event. Our plan was to interview Bert, the performers and such notables like the aforementioned Mr. Stevens and his “partner in crime”, Lester J. Collie, Jr, who are both involved in putting on two musical events that I will talk about in another blog, Groove Shop and the Detroit Bass Fest.
As I said we had a plan to do several interviews, but things didn’t happen exactly like we wanted them to because there was a major car accident on the expressway John was traveling on and his arrival was delayed several hours. Though we had to scrap our original plan the evening was far from being a bust.
The Cultural Side of Things
In my lifetime I have probably seen over 1000 concerts and yet, Thursday’s concert was a totally new experience for me. Now don’t get me wrong, I have been to a lot of shows where the audience was primarily black, but none of them prepared me for what I saw and experienced that night. Thursday’s show was probably as close as I will ever get to re-live what is affectionately known as the “chitlin’ circuit” concert experience. Those of you that have heard the re-broadcast of some of the radio shows that John and I have done along with my brother Isaac, know what I am talking about. But for the uneducated, let me give you an insider’s perspective…from the parking lot to the theatre floor.
The Parking Lot or “Hey Bartender”
When John and I arrived, the long line of concertgoers waiting to enter the building surprised us. It was nearly two city blocks long and though it moved quickly, it still took at least 20 to 30 minutes to get inside. We didn’t expect to see anybody tailgating but we did observe a couple of smart gentlemen that took it to another, more sophisticated, level. Though they didn’t cook any food, they came prepared to mix a couple of drinks before they went inside. Their car trunks were equipped with alcohol, ice and the proper utensils necessary to make a high quality cocktail. There was no gathering outside of the cars. They would make their drinks and return to the cool and comfy interiors of their luxury vehicles. This was the first but not the last notable difference of the night’s festivities.
The Food or “What Sides Come With That”?
Typical of the “chitlin’ circuit” experience but not so typical of most concert rooms with the exception being the “House of Blues”, Bert’s has great food! And without a doubt, Bert’s food is far better than what is served at HOB. Black folk know a good thing when they see it and Bert’s food is perfect for virtually any event that they have. I saw so many people going to the back…not for a drink…but for something to eat. It made me more than a little jealous that I had ate at home before coming down. There was chicken and turkey wings on my left…shrimp on my right…ribs in front and in back of me…everywhere I looked people were smackin’ their lips and lickin’ their fingers…sitting there with big greasy smiles on their faces…they were have a grand ol’ time and the show hadn’t even started!
Located right dab in the middle of Detroit’s Eastern Market, the pre-eminent farmers market in southeast Michigan, you got to believe that Bert’s is getting some of the best and freshest produce and meat in the city. The grills are set up outside and they must burn until the last song is played…the last note has been wrung out. Surprisingly, the menu prices were extremely reasonable. Bert knows what his customers like and expect and he serves it to them in styrofoam containers that will keep the food safe if they want to take a little somethin’ somethin’ home for later too.
The Audience or “Everybody Scream”!
There is one significant difference between black and white concertgoers and simply put blacks like to dress up for a concert…virtually any concert. Now I know the rule and more often than not I break the rule…you see I go for comfort…not to make a fashion statement. But, I should have prepared my buddy John. I actually thought that he knew. Why? Because he has traveled so much…been to so many places…I just took it for granted that he knew. So I didn’t think there was anything wrong with his attire…black jeans and a black t-shirt. To counter what he was wearing I was wearing a white polo shirt and a pair of white bermuda shorts. I was infinitely comfortable so I thought he was too. Unfortunately, John-boy felt that he was terribly underdressed as we sat among people that were dressed to the nines…lol! There were a lot of three-piece suits…big hats…two-toned patent leather shoes…gold chains…gold teeth flashing…there was probably more gold in this room than Fort Knox. And the women…lord have mercy…they were dressed so fine…it was like New Year’s, Easter and Christmas all rolled into one. Lawdy, there were so many pretty women there…Dayum! Baby’s got…whoa now; I better not go there.
Another unique experience of the night was the interaction of the crowd with the DJ. Now we all have been to concerts and we know that between acts, they play music. Yes, I understand that it is done everywhere, but what caught John and I by surprise was how engaged the audience was with the music that was being played. Many songs were greeted by cheers and people not only would sing along…they would sing in key and in harmony! Everybody and anybody who had a voice found their note and worked it. You got the sense that they had done this before. There were several tunes where the DJ, like a seasoned stage performer, would play a line and let the audience sing the next line…going back and forth…a call and response that kept the audience happily entertained, allowing the stagehands to do their thing without cries of impatience from the audience (at one point there was a one hour wait between performers). And they danced! They danced at their seat…in the rows…in the aisles…together and individually. They did the hustle…some ball roomed…it was easy to forget that people were actually there for a concert. There was as much energy coming from the audience as there was coming from the stage. The joint was rockin’! (See link below)
The Show or Hey! Hey! The Blues Is Alright!
Welcome everybody it is showtime! It’s time to get down to the real nitty gritty! Get up to get down! The show was about to begin and we could hardly wait. The mistress of ceremonies was Ms. Mildred Gaddis, radio personality from WCHB-FM. She worked the crowd like a matador in the bullring. She taunted…she teased…you had the sense that she had seen more than one show at the famed Apollo! She stalked from one side of the stage to another…telling topical jokes…initiating banter…she was in complete and total control. Ms. Gaddis could give up her day gig and make a fine living hosting on the local stages. The first act that she introduced was a local band and it was the amazing Champagne and the Motor City Blues Crew. What a set…lots of energy…such a tremendous stage presence…and some great singing in the tradition of the Etta James/Koko Taylor’s of the world. Her showstopper was Sister ‘Rees “Dr. Feelgood”…and man she tore it up! She is a regular performer at Bert’s and I would highly recommend that any lover of the finest blues traditions to go check her out. The most surprising thing about her, other than I had never heard of her, was that she is 82 years old. You could never tell that by looking at or listening to her. If I could do it like she was doing it by the time I turn 80 or so, it would be a miracle. She set the bar so high it wasn’t reached until Clarence Carter and Bobby Bland got on the stage.
Champagne was followed by two artists that were good but didn’t set the stage on fire like she did. Calvin Richardson, a crooner who seemed to want to make the claim that he was the “heir apparent” to Bobby Bland and Theodis Ealey, a singer/guitarist that invoked memories of Little Milton. Both came close but there were no cigars to be handed out on this night. Although I must say that Calvin did a fantastic job doing a medley of Bobby Womack songs and his band was good, overall his set never seemed to work the crowd into a lather. Mr. Ealey, worked really hard, but by the time he came on everybody was growing impatient for the appearances of the two headliners…Clarence Carter and Bobby “Blue” Bland!
The Real Deal…Down Home Blues!
Finally, after a considerable wait, Clarence Carter hit the stage. Everybody got on there feet and showed him much love with a standing ovation. He came on stage with the energy of a diesel train…polished, well oiled…hitting his stride almost immediately. There was one drawback though and that was the sound system, which was not up even his minimum standard. After admonishing the sound engineer once with no results, he stopped entirely just as he was going to launch into his first song (which we will never know what it was). I have seen this happen with Aretha, Chaka Kahn and Brother Ray Charles. They have a take no prisoners approach to performing and if they are going to take your money, well they definitely intend to make sure that you get your money’s worth. So after about a 5 to 8 minute wait, Mr. Carter got down to business. He did his classics…“Slip Away”…“Too Weak to Fight”… “Patches” and probably his most popular song ever “Strokin”, which literally brought the house down. He sang with his usual zestful naughtiness and the down-home twang of his guitar. Almost each song began with a story, punctuated by his signature baritone laugh…a soul singer giving each song a blues treatment. Clarence was well worth the wait, even though his set was pretty short. But at 75, who could complain. (See link below)
At long last, around 12:30 or so, Bobby Bland hit the stage. Age has slowed him up a bit, but his smooth tenor, his full-throated, mostly mid-tempo stylings, clearly indicated that he can still be called the “King of All Blues Singers” and he can still work an audience as well as he did 50 years ago. On this night he did a mix of songs from his Duke (record label) to Malaco days. The hits included such songs as “Farther On Up the Road”… “Stormy Monday”…“Ain’t Nothing You Could Do”…“Cry Cry Cry”…“I Pity the Fool”…“Members Only”…“Turn On Your Lovelight” a R&B classic…“St. James Infirmary” and my personal favorite “Share Your Love With Me”. With a tight horn section that on several instances mimicked the strings of the original recording arrangements by the legendary Joe Scott, “Blue” as I want to respectfully call him smoldered…simmered and subsequently soared with a soulful performance that belied his 81 years of age.
Yes indeed…A Night To Remember!
Audience singing “Down Home Blues”
Clarence Carter telling a story
Bobby Blue Bland performing
To listen to the radio show inspired by the Bobby “Blue” Bland and Clarence Carter concert please go to http://funksoulbrothersandsisters.com/