Thursday, July 9, 2009
Boulder Outlook Hotel, Boulder
Better Than: The canned blues playing over the PA between sets -- by a long sight.
Admittedly, when I first heard about this show coming up, I had to look up who Lazy Lester (Leslie Johnson) was, but after listening to a great deal of his Excello Records output, I realized I'd heard plenty of his music over the years. Most of the great bluesmen of old are long gone or basically retired. Lester is one of the few still active and getting to see him perform in such an intimate environment was a rare treat.
With a harmonica side player to accent his guitar riffs, Lester played in an impressively diverse style. A lot of modern blues players I've heard and seen stick to a fairly narrow range of phrasings but Lester never limited himself even within one song to such hermetic leanings. His textures and intricate melodies never sounded busy and his deft interchange between percussive sounds and resonant tones was a marvel of subtlety. Lester played two sets, the second of which contained an even greater variety of song styles. But throughout, he mixed in loving renditions of country covers with originals.
"Sing Me Back Home" and "Down Every Road" by Merle Haggard were especially effective, Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man" was a reminder of the power of the pioneering musicians work and Lester surely put his stamp on the Hank Williams Sr. classic, "Your Cheatin' Heart." For a few numbers, some couples felt so moved by the music, they got up and danced along to Lester's gentle yet soulful performance.
Throughout the show, Lester joked with the audience with humor both silly and profane, but never mean or sarcastic. The highlight of the intentionally amusing lyrics came toward the end of the set with, "I'm gonna wake up like poison ivy/I'm gonna be all over you."
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Lazy Lester bucked my expectations of what the old blues men were like live. Instead of coming from a place of deep sadness and performing music informed by a soul ache with a passionate intensity, personal ghosts and demons on display, Lester was having an amused chuckle at the absurdity of life's pitfalls and stumbling blocks. His songs sounded as though he intimately understood that it doesn't help to wallow in your pain but that it does the spirit good to acknowledge it and move on. Rather than dwell on the psychic bruises of this mortal existence, Lester's songs pointed to healing one's ills with humor, grace and charm. With a flawless mixture of jazz, country and blues, Lazy Lester worked the more subtle musical magic of the "swamp blues" rather than that born of deals with the Devil.
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Personal Bias: I like it when someone doesn't have to force his authenticity.
Random Detail: The Boulder Outlook door guys were super friendly.
By the Way: The venue, which regularly hosts blues artists of all stripes, is in the hotel restaurant/bar.