Friday, April 9, 2010

Lil Rev Show



I must take a moment to reflect on the recent Lil Rev show I had the pleasure of catching. Well, I caught most of it. On Maundy Thursday we had Mass at 7 P.M., and when that wrapped up, I dropped Ruth off at home, and headed down to Brady Street, where Lil Rev was playing at Rochambo. He was a half hour, or maybe an hour at most, into his set, but he still had a good couple more hours before he wrapped up. I met up with my friend Mike, and we found a good spot near the action.

It was a great show, as always. As I have said before, Lil Rev never, in my experience, plays the same show twice. He has a bountiful repertoire, spanning several musical styles, and so you never know quite what you are in for, except that it will be memorable and enjoyable. Perhaps the best way to sum up the type of music he plays is to use his own words from the notes on his CD Drop Baby Drop, viz., "...rare blues, lost ballads, Dust-bin theatre tunes, time worn country and back room bawdy numbers. The roots have always interested me more than the branches, so dig down deep and here you'll find me...this is where they buried the treasure so long ago!" Indeed the set he played on this particular night did not disappoint. Lately I find myself listening to songs like Deep Ellum Blues, St. Louis Blues, and a current favorite is Saint James Infirmary. He played all these, and much more. Of course he played them like only he can, truly honoring the forms that have gone before him, while adding his own touch.

There were a few children present, which is always fun. In fact, Rev gave them each a kazoo, and I must say that, until they got tired, they actually contributed to the show, in a very spirited way, with both their kazoo playing, and their dancing. It was beautiful to watch.

My late confessor, Fr. Stephen Wiest, was actually mentioned by Lil Rev two or three times during the show. Of course, that won't happen every time. I appreciate Lil Rev's music for everything that he brings to it, and only partly because it almost always reminds me of the musical stylings of Fr. Wiest. But it was very, very cool that on this night he did pay tribute to Fr. Wiest. At one point he introduced an all harmonica song by saying that this one was in memory of Rev. Wiest. And at another point he introduced a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace on the harp by saying that Fr. Wiest taught it to him. It all brought back beautiful memories.

Lil Rev is not only an entertainer, who can use his music and stage presence to give a crowd a good time, but also a man seemingly on a mission to educate people about the early roots of American folk, blues, and other forms of pure and raw music. I suppose part of what I love about him is that he is interested in, indeed animated by, what is most real and genuine. He is what I would call a true radical, in the best, and literal sense of that word. That is, he is deeply and firmly rooted (radix) in that which is the basis of so many modern forms of music. In being thus rooted, in other words, in taking such a radical approach to his field, his work does not stand opposed to modern forms, or "stuck in the past," as some might think. Rather, he recognizes that the roots are not foreign, but indeed organically related to what comes later, and are inherently valuable and enjoyable in themselves. And he does us a great service in driving these lessons home, by his stories, but more importantly by his skillful and passionate playing of the music itself. I hasten to add that Lil Rev also writes music of his own. One such song I really like he wrote for his young daughter.

Lil Rev is a true artist, and it is a real blessing to have him in Milwaukee. If you ever walk into a coffeehouse or bar, and as you pass by a bulletin board you see a sign advertising an upcoming show by a guy you never heard of or have never seen before, like Lil Rev, I recommend dropping in there that night. You might just discover something great. If it is a Lil Rev show, I guaranty you'll be in for a treat. And again, do check out his site, where you'll find his schedule, as well as information on his CDs and books.

P.S. If I correctly read the rules on Flickr, one is free to use a photo found there providing credit is given to the photographer. So I found the photo you see above on Flickr as I was searching for a good representative image of Lil Rev in action, and I thank Alex Gee, on whose photostream I found this excellent shot.

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