California Beamin'

Have you ever had a really vivid dream that was like a movie? Not a nightmare, but a story with such a happy ending that you still felt good even though you woke up and realized it never happened? That's how I feel right now, only it really did happen.

I have to start by going back 20 years: It's 1988, I'm 18 years old, in my first and only year at Antioch College, and about to start an internship at the Community for Creative Non-Violence in Washington, DC. Of course the first thing I do when I get to DC is look for a blues show in town. Jackpot. Lazy Lester and Loaded Dice are playing at the Twist 'n' Shout in Bethesda. I'm accompanied by my father and my uncle, who assure the doorman that they will vigilantly monitor my drink orders.

I don't care about drinking anyway. I'm too busy hero-worshipping. I buy a copy of Lazy Lester's new "comeback" LP, Lazy Lester Rides Again. His real name is Leslie
Johnson and he comes from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was one of the main session players on the Excello label, recording 15 singles under his own name and many more as a sideman for Lightnin' Slim, Whispering Smith, Slim Harpo, Tabby Thomas, and others in the 1950s and 1960s. The music coming out of J.D. Miller's studio for Excello became known as "Swamp Blues" both for its sound, a murky melting pot of blues, country, cajun, zydeco, and pop styles, and for the Louisiana artists who crafted it.

After Loaded Dice plays a great first set, I make my way through the crowd to talk to the band and Mr. Johnson. I boldly and recklessly ask him if I can sit in with him. Keep in mind I've been playing for all of 18 months. He balks a little, then says, "Why don't you audition for us after the show, and then you can sit in tomorrow night." I don't want to explain that my Dad and my uncle won't be available to drive me to the club the next night; that doesn't sound like something Little Walter or James Cotton would say. So I just tell him that I have to work the next night and would he please consider letting me sit in anyway? Relenting, he asks me point blank if I'm any good. Being 18, I'm confident in my abilities and assure him that I can play. Being 18, I'm not at all prepared for what's about to happen.

He brings me up on the third song and calls a harp shuffle in E. So far so good. He takes a few choruses, then turns it over to me. I start my solo and the band and audience are responding well. So far so good. I start wailing on the "3 hole" of my A harp, which I've just figured out how to manipulate to get some honking, wailing sounds. In fact, at this point in time it's the only place on the harmonica on which I can get honking, wailing sounds. And I've really got that one-note jam down. Which is why I become completely lost when both the reeds in that hole suddenly get stuck, resulting in more of a no-note jam. Panicking, I try to play other licks, but they all rely on that third hole. I have a solo to take. People are depending on me, or so I imagine. I throw the solo back to Lazy Lester while I try to fix my harmonica. This has never happened before. What do I do? I try tapping the harp against my hand and on the stage, hoping to dislodge whatever is stuck in the reeds. I'm really wimpy about it because I'm afraid I'll get thrown out for denting the stage floor. Finally I extend my harp out to Lazy Lester, and indicate through some kind of sign language that I want to trade harps with him.

To this day I can not describe the look of shock on his face. But bless him, he goes for it. I take his harp, finish my solo, acquitting myself reasonably well under the circumstances, and cringe as Lazy Lester takes my damaged harmonica and starts to play. But the man proceeds to wrest more music out of the first 2 holes of the harmonica than I could have gotten out of all 10. No 3 hole? No problem.

At that moment, I have one of the greatest epiphanies of my musical career: professionalism isn't always about how well you perform under the best circumstances, it's about how you perform under the worst ones. It's about how you cover up those inevitable disasters and keep the show going.

But it's too late for me to appy this knowledge on this night. The song is over, I'm back in the audience, clutching Lazy Lester's harp, my hands tingling, my mind racing. After the show, there are too many people around him and I never get a chance to thank him or give him back his harmonica and reclaim my own.

I was pretty happy to have his, actually. And a few years later it turned out to be the perfect harp for a recording session with Paul. The song was "Nothing But the Devil" by Lightnin' Slim, originally recorded in 1960 with Lazy Lester on harmonica. This led to another epiphany: "Old Blues Guys," as I characterized many of my heroes back then, often took the time and trouble to cherry-pick their harmonicas so they could play in tune. I had been nursing an invisible prejudice in assuming that playing "real blues" meant not caring about that stuff.

I saw Lazy Lester again years later when we were both playing at the Great British R&B Festival in England. He sat in our dressing room and surprised us by playing a Hank Williams song on Paul's National Steel. He didn't seem to remember much about our first encounter, or if he did he might have been trying to forget it. He was friendly but reserved. I wanted to make a musical connection with him, if only to make up for my own earlier embarrassment and awkwardness, but the timing never seemed to work out.

Flash forward 20 years to last weekend at the Doheny Blues Festival in Dana Point, California. It's a beautiful day, about 80 degrees with a breeze off the Pacific Ocean. We're getting ready to play a set on the "Back Porch" stage with our band, which consists of Billy MacGillivray on drums, Chris Rival on guitar, and Ed Friedland filling in on bass. We're happy to be there out on the road with such good players. I'm excited because Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and Bobby Rush are in the audience. Bobby Rush has just finished a powerful acoustic set and everyone is feeling fine. So I don't need anything more out of life, when suddenly who cruises by the stage but THE Lazy Lester. We wave at each other and he goes in search of a seat. Now I'm really hopped up. We start our set. The crowd is fantastic. The band is just cooking. About three quarters of the way through our set, I introduce "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter." I tell the audience, "This is a song by the great Lazy Lester, one of my very favorite harmonica players. I know he's here today so we're going to do it for him." I'm putting my heart into playing and singing it. I can't see him in the crowd but I hope at least that someone will tell him about it afterwards. In the middle of our next song, he shows up in front of the stage. He has a T-shirt over his shoulder and he hands it up to me. The T-shirt is the label of the Excello single of "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter" and it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the song. I try to keep playing through this but I just have to stop and lean over to give him a hug. I'm so thrilled I hardly know what I play to finish the song. The crowd is going nuts anyway. They call for an encore, and I get an idea. I step up to the mic and ask if Lazy Lester would join us on a tune. With a little help from Paul, the septegenarian makes his way over a rickety fence onto the stage. I ask him if we can do "Nothing But the Devil." He says he'll sing it but he doesn't have a harp. Don't you worry about a thing, I tell him, reaching over to my harmonica tray to hand him my backup A harp, a brand new Hohner Marine Band Deluxe. And now he's singing, and Paul is laying down some beautiful slide guitar, and now Lazy Lester and I are trading solos again, and I can't believe we've both survived long enough for this moment to happen. I watch him sing and am amazed by how animated he is and what a cool-looking cat he is. Tall and wiry, he seems younger than he did the first time I played with him 20 years ago. I guess 50 seemed older to me when I was 18 than 70 does now. And right now I feel more like a kid at 38 than I ever did when I was 18.

We finish the song together and I'm just beaming, grinning ear-to-ear. The band, the audience, all of us are one big ball of joy. Lazy Lester embraces me and then tries to give me my harmonica back. I hold my hand up. "Keep it," I tell him. "I owe you one.