This performance was not your grandfather’s blues. It wasn’t even your father’s blues, that is unless your father liked to jump into mosh pits and scream lyrics that dealt with some of the darkest subjects imaginable. Jason Ricci, who has made a name for himself as one of the best harmonica players in the country, rolled into Richmond for his second appearance here since he recorded his latest album, Approved By Snakes, here in town.
Ricci is not strictly a blues player although his music is deeply grounded in the blues. He incorporates elements of rock (especially the manic energy and fierce honesty of punk rock) into his powerful exploration of his eventful life. Ricci does not shy away from the events that make up his being. Where other artists sing about some things, Ricci lived them.
He has done time, he has lived on the streets, he has hit bottom more times than any ten people you know – and he’s bounced back. Slowly to be sure, but he’s learned from these experiences and turned that material into songwriting gold.
On a beautiful Friday night, Ricci and his musical collective, The Bad Kind unleased an amazing high energy show that was only marred by a sub-par sound system. Still, in the intimate space of Buz & Ned’s Real Barbecue on West Broad Street, the group played hard and fast with an appreciative audience.
Starting the evening off with a great rendition of Hipshake, it took Ricci several tries to find a vocal mic that was working properly. Even though he was visibly annoyed with the situation, he continued to search for one in order to sing the song. The band vamped along and before long he was off on an octane-fueled delivery that stretched the song out for more than seven minutes.
The Bad Kind consists of some of the best musicians working in New Orleans, and given the caliber of musicians who call the Crescent City home, that says a lot. There were two guitarists, Sam Hotchkiss and John Lisi, who traded off leads throughout the night; Andy Kurz handled the bass with grace and style, and new drummer (“our 18th of the year,” joked Ricci at one point) Alain Baudry rocked. Kurz and Baudry created a kick-ass rhythm section and set up the others all night long.
After that opening came a slow blues number made famous by Otis Rush, Double Trouble, and despite further sound issues, they managed to make it a blistering event. Sometimes it was difficult for me to follow who was handling lead or what was going on as I was mesmerized by the entire group’s performance and didn’t take all the necessary notes.
The band followed up with the song, 515, which Ricci wrote for a proposed album in 2014. After that, Ricci joked that he was, “going to hell. It’s okay, I was there two days ago. It’s just lonely…” He used this quip as a way of leading into his introduction of a song off Approved By Snakes titled, My True Love Is A Dope Whore, which dealt with a low point in his life in which he and his then girlfriend would prostitute themselves for drug money.
This is part of Ricci’s unflinching honesty. The subject matter is one that has been dealt with before in the art of the blues, but generally through the smokescreen of language. If you obscure it, or use code words, it’s possible to write songs that deal with addiction and prostitution in such a sanitized way that often listeners have no idea what is being sung about.
Some poets cut through all of that obfuscation with simple language that spells out what is really going on. Ricci is one of those poets. The song is powerful, moving, and it uses the language of the people who lived through the events. It’s a strong commentary on a life, that fortunately few of us will ever experience.
Lightening the mood a little bit after that song, he reached back for an old Meters number, Funky Miracle, and I saw a few dancers on the fringe of the floor finding a place to express themselves. He then followed with another number from Snakes, Demon Lover, which dealt with his relationship with the woman from Dope Whore.
This was another case of your reviewer missing out on something, as I heard what sounded like a beautiful female voice singing harmony on the song and yet there were no women on the stage. Was it one of the guys using a high voice, or was it Hotchkiss playing some great slide. I can’t say for sure, but it was a beautiful effect.
After that, Ricci surprised me, by playing a song I had requested before he started the show. He took a few minutes to talk with the audience and connect with one member who was there that night that Ricci had never met. It was a spiritual connection and while he mentioned that I had requested the song, he was going to dedicate it to the audience member who needed it tonight.
After that, Kurz took an extended bass lead on New Man, and when the band returned to the stage, the entire group launched into their version of Lou Reed’s classic, Take A Walk On The Wild Side. From there, after a beautiful rendition of the song, Ricci added a coda of Amazing Grace on his harmonica.
The effect was stunning. There may have been some dry eyes in the house, but there weren’t many.
For an encore, they brought Li’l Ronnie out of the audience to play harp on one of John Lisi’s songs, Keep On Trying. While the band and Ronnie were jamming, Ricci and Lisi switched instruments and kept on playing
Buz And Ned’s has made a serious commitment to bringing the blues to Richmond. Every week he has a show on Wednesday evenings, and he is bringing in more and more national acts. This is the second time he’s hosted Jason Ricci, and I overheard him talking with Ricci after the show about finding a date to bring him back again.
If that comes to fruition, don’t miss the opportunity!