Monday, July 5, 2010

John Mooney: House of the Rising Son (2004)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )

In the blues as in so many other areas of life, appearances can be deceiving.

Consider, for instance, John Moody, the veteran bluesman appearing this Sunday at 3:30 on the Cingular Wireless Scène Fais Do Do stage. Looking at the CD covers of his two most recent albums--2000’s Gone to Hell and 2002’s All I Want (Blind Pig)--one sees a man who but for his guitar could easily pass for a public menace. Shaved head, eyes obscured by sunglasses, goatee, tattoos, a preference for black clothing, and multiple earrings a-dangle from his left earlobe (and a miniature skull a-dangle from one of those earrings), he resembles a member of the Hell’s Angels far more than the husband and father he’s worked hard at being since leaving New Orleans in the late ’90s and moving to the Gulf Coast community of Pine Island, Florida.

“New Orleans is still home to me,” says Mooney, forty-nine, via telephone from his home, “and I wish we were living there. In fact, I wasn’t planning on staying down here for more than a year. But the kids are all situated here, so it’s hard just to pick up and move back.”

Mooney’s original reason for getting away from the Crescent City had less to do with parenthood than with self-preservation: a recovering abuser of all-too-available drugs, he decided that removing himself from the temptations of New Orleans would be easier than removing the temptations of New Orleans from him. But there’s no denying that rearing children in a place describing itself as a “tropical island paradise” ( has its advantages, especially when juxtaposed with the stress of rearing them in the occasional murder, and perennial debauchery, capitol of the United States.

“It’s pretty safe,” he says. “The kids can go out and ride their bikes around and hang out with their friends. I think I worry more about alligators and poisonous snakes and sharks than I do about people with guns.”

Were Mooney a rapper, of course, a shortage of people with guns might be a problem, representing as it would a decrease in both his target audience and his targets. Bluesmen, however, have long been on a first-name basis with nature, the primordial habitat of howlin’ wolves, muddy waters, lonesome sundowns, smokestack lightning, and the deltas from which the style of blues in which Mooney specializes takes its name.

There is not, he concedes, much in the way of a Pine Island music scene (“Compared to New Orleans,” he says, “there’s not too many places that do have a music scene”), but there are other musicians of note nearby (the AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams and the jazz guitarist Elliott Sharp), and several times a year Mooney himself contributes to the island’s cultural ambience by holding court on the deck behind a local marina/hardware store.

“There’s usually three or four hundred people,” he says. “We set up a P.A., everybody brings their lawn chairs and coolers, and we sell barbeque and beer, stuff like that.”

There won’t be coolers at the Festival International, and there will probably be more than three or four hundred people at Mooney’s gig, but there will be food and drinks. So Mooney should feel right at home. And given the fact that he will have played the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival the day before (maintaining a tradition he began in 1977), he should be in peak condition.

He’s played the Festival International before too, but it’s been a while (“Maybe ten years ago or something,” he estimates), and it could have been more pleasant (“It was like 110 degrees, one of the hottest days ever”). A self-described heavy perspirer (“I sweat like a hog,” he told Blues Access in 1999), Mooney’s aversion to Lafayette humidity is understandable. The bad news is that, given his propensity for generating heat onstage, it doesn’t really matter what the temperature is: where there’s Mooney, there’s fire.

His current conspirators in live pyromania include the bassist Jeff Sarli (who played on the Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon) and the drummer Bernard “Bunche” Johnson (Aaron Neville, Allen Toussaint). He might even have the longtime percussionist Count M’butu (Col. Bruce Hampton, Derek Trucks, Randall Bramblett) in tow. It’s a combination that has had Mooney hiring film crews and recording trucks to tape his shows in hopes of amassing enough footage for a performance DVD. The fact that he won’t be taping in Lafayette (“The logistics got too complicated”) shouldn’t keep Festival International fans from cheering so loudly that he’ll wish he were.

One subject about which Mooney has no regrets is the fact that nearly every story ever written on him mentions what was undoubtedly the turning point in his life: meeting and becoming friends as a teenager with Son House in the early 1970s.

“I think people are interested in where you come from and what your influences are,” he says. “When people write about B.B. King and Muddy Waters, they write about who influenced them. So it kind of goes with the territory.”

“I knew who he was,” says Mooney, recalling his apprenticeship, “but it wasn’t like I was hanging out with ‘the legendary Son House’ Once you got to know him, he was a pretty easy guy to get along with.”

Furthermore, Mooney, as something of a Delta-blues wunderkind, already knew most of House’s songs, so the two were able to play together.

House, the only bluesman known to have inspired both Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, was living in Rochester, New York, and in his final years as a performer when he took Mooney under his wing, but his influence on Mooney was, and remains, strong. Mooney’s versions of such House compositions as “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” “Dry Spell Blues,” “Down South Blues,” “Son’s Blues,” and “Levee Camp Moan” grace the ten albums (eight studio, two live) that he’s released since 1979. But even when performing his own compositions, he seems possessed and at times transported by crossroads-haunting spirits.

First, there’s his way with a guitar. Whether sliding a bottleneck across the neck of a National steel guitar or picking the strings of something plugged in, Mooney plays with unpredictable verve, scraping splintery solos from veneer-rich chords. Second, there’s his singing. Use a Mooney disc in a blindfold test (1997’s stripped-down live-in-Germany Dealing with the Devil [Ruf] works best), and most of the participants will identify his voice as that of an old black man who could use a dime-sparing brother. He sings, in other words, the way he plays.

It’s unlikely, however, that even the most gifted taker of Mooney blindfold tests could tell that Mooney’s second-biggest influence isn’t a guitarist at all but the late New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair. “I just loved the way he played piano,” he says, “and I tried to emulate that on guitar. I loved the way he sounded, the way his band sounded, the rhythms.”

Lovers of Longhair’s rhythmic idiosyncrasy will hear its echoes in Mooney’s full-band studio albums. Despite the predictability of much blues and the tendency of many a blues performer to turn a groove into a rut, Mooney has consistently marched to the beat of a different drum.

On 1997’s Against the Wall (Ruf), for instance, he bobs and weaves atop the cockeyed and funky Bo-Diddley-meets-Second-Line shuffles of George Recile (Bob Dylan, James Brown) and Carlo Nuccio (Continental Drifters, Emmylou Harris). Gone to Hell, on the other hand, chugs along to the relatively straightforward junkyard poundings of Kerry Brown (David Allen Coe, Little Freddie King), with All I Want ricocheting to yet another vibe courtesy of “Bunche” Johnson.

And then, in true blues fashion, there’s Mooney’s own stomping foot, which can be counted on to come to the fore whenever the rhythm section needs a cigarette or restroom break.

Perhaps because he himself was once a young white bluesman-come-lately, Mooney harbors no purist prejudices against Jonny Lang or any other contemporary young white hopefuls. (“I think it all depends on how well somebody plays,” he says, “how honest somebody’s being with what they’re doing.”) Neither does he begrudge Aerosmith its shot at a best-blues-album Grammy with Honkin’ on Bobo. (“I think that would be all right; they’ve got blues roots.”)

But he admits that it would be funny, in a sad sort of way, if as the result of Aerosmith’s blues success millions of otherwise blues-ignorant CD buyers were to assume that “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “You Gotta Move” were Tyler/Perry compositions.

“You run into that occasionally,” he says. “There’s a lot of people that think ‘You Gotta Move’ and ‘Love in Vain’ are Rolling Stones songs or that ‘Crossroads‘ is a Cream song.”

Another reason for Mooney’s generosity of spirit with regard to untraditional crashers of the blues party may be that he himself, despite his storied pedigree, has encountered less-than-hospitable reactions from certain segments of the blues audience.

“Some people don’t think that white people can sing the blues,” he says. “Particularly in Europe there’s a kind of reverse discrimination that goes on. It seems to be the white, college-educated journalists that have the biggest problem with it. You know, they’re not out there living it or doing it or going around to different clubs on the circuit and stuff, so they don’t really see what’s going on, but they have their own opinion and they’ll write stuff. It’s not really based on anything except for their own viewpoint.”

Mooney laughs, perhaps realizing that the majority of people in the typical music-festival audience are white and college educated.

“In general I find that the people who it really doesn’t matter to are blues people, particularly older black musicians. They don’t tend to care what color you are as long as you sound good and you’re honest about what you’re doing. That’s what counts. It’s like Muddy: his band was a mixed band. A lot of people used mixed bands.”

Spoken like a true Son House protégé. And although it’s been 16 years since House passed away, Mooney still misses him.

“When we were playing together and hanging out, it never occurred to me to have our picture taken together or anything like that,” Mooney recalls. “Of course, when I look back on it now, I wish I had thought, ‘Why don’t we have our picture taken together?’”

To those with ears to hear, Mooney’s music is snapshot enough.

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