“Hey, hey, hey, yeah, yeah yeah,” sings warm, gravel-voiced Bruce Clough as he dances up and down the narrow aisles of Don’t Tell Mama’s Brick Room. We instinctively clap time. “If you ain’t been to Heaven, you ain’t been there,” he continues, bouncing and weaving. (“New Orleans”- Frank Guida/Joseph Royster) The artist gets New Orleans and its music: bluegrass, Dixieland, rockabilly, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, zydeco, jazz, “witch music”… examples of which we hear tonight. There’s no pastiche, no overacting. Integrity of origin grounds everything.
Clough lived in The Big Easy, then regularly visited. Anecdotes bear the tone of a missed lover. During Tom Waits’ “I Wish I Was in New Orleans,” his vocal shifts from deep silt to soft lilt. The big man unabashedly shows tenderness. “Right Place, Wrong Time” is Dr. John funk: I been running trying to get hung up in my mind (oooh)/Got to give myself a good talking-to this time… Tracy Stark and Nicole Spano deploy back-up. Guitar picks clean and sharp. Clough takes the microphone out of its stand; he leans forward, rocks back and forth, steps side to side. The performer can moooove.
Randy Newman’s evocative “Louisiana” refers to the great Mississippi flood of 1927, then the most destructive river flood in U.S. history. “The cry of the people down there is, ‘We don’t want relief and charity; we want protection.” (Will Rogers) “Then there was Katrina,” the musician adds quietly. Gravitas is affecting.
Bruce Clough, Boo Reiners, Skip Ward
“As a kid, my go-to music was soul which exploded with Fats Domino.” “I Hear You Knockin” (Dave Bartholomew) pulses with hard, infectious rhythm. “It became a kind of thing to record songs another way,” he notes, introducing Little Richard’s up-tempo version. We then hear two interpretations of Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller’s iconic “Hound Dog.” The first is Big Mama Thornton’s terrific, slow, insinuating take. Stock still, he plumbs the attraction. Spano then launches Elvis Presley’s better known rockabilly arrangement. Clough twists. “So I entered my teen years carrying a load of refried confusion,“ he sums up.
“Born on the Bayou” (John Fogarty) is a nod to Credence Clearwater Revival. The head bobbing, foot tapping rendition has a side sauce of hot bass and rousing “whoo whoo” back-up. From well known to eclectic, “Polk Salad Annie (Tony Joe White) follows. “The dish is so-named because it is made with pokeweed, a pervasive green that can be toxic when ingested improperly.” (Southern Living.com) Down in Louisiana/ Where the alligators grow so mean/There lived a girl that I swear to the world/Made the alligators look tame… It’s a story/song. Clough knows just when to speak, bite, or spit lyrics. Theater background is apparent.
“The Witch Queen of New Orleans” (Lolly Vegas/Pat Vegas) starts with the kind of verbal conjuring one hears around campfires. Beat is heady; bass in its own world. “Imagine living all your life by a body of water that floods when it feels like it, on the lookout for gators and snakes…” The artist shakes his head. “My first girlfriend down there was a bonafide witch, claimed to be an ancestor of Anna Laveau,” a Creole practitioner of Voudou/Voodoo in New Orleans). “When it came time to break up, I was scared.” Intermittent stories are good – and just enough to add color.
Tracy Stark; Nicole Spano
The performer and his wife are planning a trip to New Orleans. “These are the perfect lyrics for such longing,” introduces “Rainy Night in Georgia” (Tony Joe White). It’s moving. Sad shadows emanate from the guitar. “I hold your picture to my chest,” Clough sings hand on heart, “and I feel fine.” Bruce Clough and his wife have had a tough couple of years. He’s emerged grateful and optimistic. “What a Wonderful World” (George Douglas/George David Weiss) is the end of a journey. It’s tender, just lovely.
“When the Saints Go Marching In” starts like the spiritual it actually is- a rarity. The song sounds aspirational. Tempo increases. Our audience sings, Clough contributes counterpoint. It feels celebratory.
The band is tight and soulful, arrangements are rich.
My single caveat, that Clough doesn’t look around the room at us doesn’t keep this from being a helluva good time evening. Watch for his return.
Bruce Clough: From Out of the Blues
Bruce Clough – vocals
Nicole Spano – guest vocalist
Boo Reiners – guitar, Skip Ward-bass, Don Kelly-Drums
Tracy Stark – MD/piano
Directed by Lennie Watts
Don’t Tell Mama
343 West 46th Street
Sunday March 26, 2023
Repeated on April 22 at 4 p.m.