Thursday, July 4, 2013

Sleepy LaBeef and those American Songs

I've wanted to see the legendary Sleepy LaBeef for more than 20 years, ever since I read Peter Guralnick's terrific profile of him in Lost Highway. Born in 1935 in Arkansas, raised on a melon farm, LaBeef has been playing American music for as long as anyone, through duress and semi-stardom, tragedy and brightness. Known popularly as The Human Jukebox, LaBeef allegedly knows thousands of songs that he can conjure at whim. This knack was on fantastic display at the 33rd American Music Festival at Fitzgrald's in Berwyn, Illinois. LaBeef and his band—a drummer and bass player, and Chicagoan Chris Neville on keyboards—set up in the tent area, and started playing around 7 pm with barely anyone around the stage (though plenty were seated). It didn't take long for him to draw a crowd. At six feet-five, LaBeef's commanding, standing stock straight and clutching a bright red Gretsch. He wears black slacks (of the Sears Dress variety), a black leather jacket, cowboy boots and a red-brim hat, and non-ironic aviator glasses. And he knows his music. Watching LaBeef play is like catching a long, sustained refreshing breeze of Americana: his set essentially consists of several long medleys blending classic and semi-obscure American rock and roll, boogie woogie, honky tonk, and country songs, filtered through LaBeef's baritone voice, fantastic playing, and genial personality. I was in awe. He throws solos to his keyboardist and drummer, resting his hands on guitar and smiling, pleased at the results. Neville looked equal parts baffled and bemused as he tried to follow LaBeef's smooth flight from song to song. Occasionally Sleepy will shoot a dagger glance at a musician if the breeze falters. During "Memphis, Tennessee" something in the bass player's performance was really bugging LaBeef—I couldn't figure it out, beyond noting the bassist played with his head down and wasn't very dynamic. LaBeef, his head twisted to his left toward the bass player, barked, "Pay attention now!" It was a little awkward, but over soon enough, LaBeef smiling again, the bass player breathing a little easier, playing double time now. I lost track of the number of songs LaBeef played: the net result is a rich run through an insanely large catalogue of songs made famous, infamous, or forgotten by dozens of past musicians. This contemporary of Elvis Presley just licks his fingers, finds the direction of the breeze, and plays on. And on and on. Check out these testimonials to LaBeef's talent and legacy.


Here are a couple minutes of Sleepy at work last night:


Mark Wyatt said...

He used to play Columbus OH all the time in the 90's. He was friends with Tim and Sue Gall of the Hey Hey Bar and Grill (home of the famous sauerkraut balls...ecch) and they would book him sometimes multiple times on the same tour if he had open dates. I would always take friends to see him and say this was like taking a graduate course in American rock. I was able to get my old bluegrass band One Riot One Ranger on the bill with him a couple of times and was thrilled. The second time we played with him, he came up to me and shook my head as he said in that floor-rattling baritone "Y'all must have been woodsheddin' since the last time I saw you, because you boys sounded real good tonight." I was walking on air after that. Then he proceeded to get our harp player up on stage with him to take breaks during almost a whole set. God I loved those shows. I'd heard some time ago he had a heart attack (no surprise...he would famously eat TWO of Tee Jaye's Barnyard Busters when one would put most mortals under the table) and so am really glad to find out he's still out there kicking butt.

Joe Bonomo said...

Great stuff, Mark! Yeah, Sleepy's an institution unto himself.