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Music = Magic, on a Night in Oakland

Music = Magic, on a Night in Oakland

Although John Lee Hooker lived in Los Altos, he told Ted that Eli’s, across San Francisco Bay, was a favorite haunt to play and hang out when he was at home.

Sometimes the joy performing brings can pay dividends greater than money—and fried shrimp and sausage, too.

As I’ve written, I have a passion for exploring the special spaces where great American music in its unadorned form is still made—juke joints, honky-tonks, dusty farm fields. And while I never want to impose on the authenticity of the music with my presence, sometimes I do get to show up by invitation with a guitar in hand. So, a story—about the kindness, gratitude, and community that comes with playing live music.

In 2005, West Coast-based blues and roots music promoter and manager Mindy Giles dropped a gift in my lap: a string of dates up the California coast for Scissormen, the Mississippi-hill-country-informed blues duo I had at the time. Back then, I lived in Boston, and with just an EP out, there was no practical reason to tour the other side of the country, even if SiriusXM was playing it. But I was eager to gain a toehold anywhere and I love to perform, so … off I went, with the great drummer Jerome Deupree (Morphine, Joe Morris) riding shotgun.

Many of the dates were depopulated, although a little place in the pines outside of Santa Cruz that had once been a firehouse and Constable Jack’s in Newcastle, where we opened for West Coast blues-guitar master Chris Cain, were great. But in a way, none of that really mattered for me, because our final destination—and the real hook for me wanting to do the tour—was Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, a legendary juke joint John Lee Hooker had told me about, where Muddy Waters, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby Rush, James Brown, and so many of my heroes had played. I never thought I’d get to see this storied place, let alone perform there. I was thrilled!

We arrived at Eli’s, a humble room in a rough part of town, at the appointed time for load in, to find the door chained and padlocked on a Saturday night. When I called the manager/booking agent, it sounded as if I’d woken him up, but he told me to come back in two hours. We killed some time touristing in Jack London Square and got back to find the doors open and the manager and a bartender at their stations. After a quick soundcheck, we reveled in the dressing room, where Bobby Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Etta James, and a host of other notables had left signatures—including John Lee Hooker’s rough-drawn J.L.H.—on the wall. I was inspired, and didn’t care if only a handful of patrons were there when we started our first set.

“The real hook for me wanting to do the tour was Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, a legendary juke joint John Lee Hooker had told me about, where Muddy Waters, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby Rush, James Brown, and so many of my blues heroes had played.”

Then magic happened. Slowly, people began filing in, until the audience of mostly middle-aged Black residents of the neighborhood and local collegiate hipsters packed it standing room only. And we caught fire. In addition to our originals and tunes from the canon of Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, and the Hook, we improvised a handful of tunes on the spot, complete with hooks, turnarounds, and lyric choruses. I’ve never done that as well again, and I could tell our freestyle-slide-guitar-and-drums combo was hitting the mark by all the dancing, laughter, and ardent shouts.

After the set, many people told us our music had spoken to them, including one man who tearfully explained he hadn’t felt as at home as he did while hearing us since he’d left the deep South years before. Moments like that make you feel like you’re actually doing something right with your life.

And while the cover charge was low, we’d managed to bring in more than $400—which was our biggest take of the tour. (Ouch!) Only after he’d handed me the money and shaken my hand did the manager tell us the staff hadn’t been paid by the owner in weeks, and that he’d taken pity on us and opened the room despite the labor dispute.

Jerome and I quickly conferred and decided the best thing to do was to split our take with him and the bartender, in gratitude. Suddenly, we’d made new friends. And they cooked up a heap of andouille sausage and fried shrimp, and we laughed and ate together for hours.

At about 4 a.m., I had to take Jerome to the airport, so he could fly to a wedding, and I began a four-day cross-country solo drive home. But the joyful energy of the night kept me going past the sunrise toward Truckee and into the desert, where I enjoyed watching nightfall turn the rocks and sand dark red before I started getting tired, finally stopping for the evening near the Great Salt Lake.

A while after that, Eli’s ended its 30-plus-years as a blues room, but it’s reopened as a punk rock club today, where, I hope, other musicians can still have their hearts as well filled—and the staff always gets paid!

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