Blues King Kirkland Plays the Real Thing

Excerpt From:
The Boston Sunday Globe
November 30, 1986

Blues King Kirkland Plays the Real Thing
Eddie Kirkland with The New Hawks and Pinetop Perkins, Luther Johnson and The Magic Rockers at Nightstage Friday Night
By Elijah Wald
Special to the Globe

“I’m 60 years old,” Eddie Kirkland crowed near the end of his first set.  “And when I get to be a hundred, on my birthday I’ll be right up on stage.  And I won’t be sitting down!”

On Friday night, that boast was easy to believe.  In an age when blues fans are mostly fed a diet of guitar technicians and unsubtle shouters, Kirkland was a taste of the real thing.  He had a high-energy drive and a degree of passion and emotional impact that have all but disappeared from the scene.  His dress was uptown, a red and black ensemble topped with a jeweled turban, but his music was down home.

Kirkland has been playing professionally since he was 12.  Best known for his guitar work on John Lee Hooker’s records from the 1940s and early ‘50s, he has recorded off and on as a solo artist and even toured for a while with Otis Redding.  Through it all all, he has maintained a raw, unadorned style and the great bluesman’s talent of being able to make even the most familiar material sound not only new but person and vital.

A high point of Kirkland’s set occurred on “Stormy Monday,” one of the most overdone songs in blues.  Following a choppy and searing guitar intro, Kirkland sang the standard verses and traded blistering solos with guitarist Silvertone Steve of the New Hawks.  Then, motioning into a long gospel-style digression on the theme, “You never miss your water till the well runs dry.”  He worried his words like an old time preacher, repeating verses of “Help me!” – each phrase more passionate than the last.

Kirkland’s guitar work was a far cry from the current mainstream.  He displayed a dirty, biting tone and performed with his whole body, twisting and crouching and wringing every scrap of feeling from solos that had no flashy runs but were constantly surprising as they branched out in odd directions and always came out right in the end.  He showed his best work during his endings, taking off on flights of imagination as the tension built, then crashing to a powerful close.

For the second set, Kirkland opened with another standard,  “Kansas City,” featuring his harmonica.  Carrying his microphone, he roamed the stage and came out to blow wailing solos in the audience.  Younger men may be winning the awards and the press attention, but Kirkland proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is one of handful of artists who art truly kings of the blues.

Friday’s featured attraction was a reunion of Pinetop Perkins time stalwarts of Muddy Waters’ band.  Johnson is a strong local favorite and he was in fine form, playing good guitar leads and neatly supporting Perkin’s rolling barrelhouse piano. 

Unfortunately for the Perkins-Johnson set, solid musicianship, a tight band and a bright, rocking sound were not enough to follow Kirkland’s show.  On any other night they would have been fine, but Friday they sounded like a back-up band in search of a strong front man.