The fashion accessories of choice are Mardi Gras beads, the bigger and shinier the better, as the bulb-adorned crowd comes decorated like beer-chugging Christmas trees.
This is a festive bunch.
It’s day one of this past weekend’s Big Blues Bender at the Plaza.
The capacity crowd isn’t here to sing the blues so much as dance them away.
For one long night, I joined them.
Here’s how it all went down:
5:10 p.m.: Ever see a dog catch a rat? Once it has the thing in its maw, it shakes it crazy hard before applying the death blow. That’s kind of the way Lil’ Ed Williams grips the neck of his guitar, practically strangling the fretboard as he conjures one lickety-split groove after the next. “Are you with me?” the Chicago blues lifer asks rhetorically at the Bender Theater on the Plaza’s second floor as crowd members roll their shoulders in their seats in wordless approval. Then Williams kicks into a song about catching his woman making love to another man. “I said, ‘Uh-uhhh!,” he exhorts, eyes as wide as the hole in his heart.
5:35 p.m.: “I didn’t come to Vegas to lie to y’all,” purrs Toronzo Cannon inside a packed Bender Showroom, dressed in white from head to toe. By day, Cannon drives a bus in his native Chicago. By night, he does some serious blues sermonizing, the stage his pulpit. “This is a good cheatin’ song,” he says by way of introducing a soulful kiss-off. Starting to see a pattern here?
6:15 p.m.: A couple of ladies doff their shoes and a dude in blue tie-dye surfs his hands on the wind as Grateful Blues catalyzes some of the most uninhibited dancing of the day at the Plaza pool on the deck of the hotel’s sixth floor. It’s hot up here, the sun as heartless as all the two-timers who’ve populated so many songs up to this point, and this bunch is making it feel hotter still. For two hours, they’ll delve hard into some of the Dead’s feistiest jams, turning in particularly fierce readings of “Big Boss Man” and “New Minglewood Blues.” “If you can’t believe in me, it’ll make it hard to believe in you,” they sing on the latter. Believe it.
7:10 p.m.: Story has it that Curtis Salgado was the inspiration for “The Blues Brothers.” John Belushi was out in Oregon shooting “Animal House” when he befriended Salgado, and the rest is history. Harmonica in hand, Salgado pistons his neck into his instrument hard as he holds court in the theater, eyes clamped shut, lungs wide open.
7:30 p.m.: “She’s like a little Tina Turner over there,” a woman marvels at the fireball up on the pool stage, whipping her red mane in the air with the ferocity of a death metal bassist. Said singer is Southern Avenue frontwoman Tierinii Jackson. Her voice is supple and commanding at once, a velvet-covered cannonball, as she leads her band in hard-nosed, undulating funk and smooth Southern soul. The breeze kicks up as she sings, one force of nature in concert with another.
8:45 p.m.: With assorted tattoos, dreadlocks and aggressive facial hair, Anders Osborne and company look like a nü metal cover band — here’s hoping such a thing doesn’t actually exist — but sound like blues rock cosmonauts as they turn in the most muscular-sounding performance of the night in the Bender Theater. This is blues as clenched fist.
9:50 p.m.: Thoughts turn to five blues classics I’m still waiting to hear at this point: 5. “Women! Can’t Live With ’em, Can’t Give ’em Enough Complimentary Shoulder Massages.” 4. “Labradoodle on My Trail.” 3. “Mendin’ My Broken Heart With Positive Thinkin’. ” 2. “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Fanta Strawberry.” 1. “Sweet Home Carson City.”
10:25 p.m.: The burly Cajun fellow who’s introducing the bands promises us an “edge-of-yo’-seat geewwwdd time” prior to Walter Trout entering the packed theater. A few tunes into his set, he tells a story of meeting B.B. King — whose second-to-last show ever was at the inaugural Big Blues Bender three years ago — in a New Jersey shopping mall when he was a teenager. “He talked to me for over an hour that day,” Trout recalls. “He really put me on this path.” Fifty years later, he’s still walkin’ it with authority.
10:55 p.m.: Jack Broadbent uses a shiny silver flask as a slide and it’s a thing to behold. The former busker turned bluesman, who cuts a whiskery, Father John Misty-meets-Rob Zombie figure, looks like he’s siphoning a lemon as he sings, scrunching up his features. His fingers are a blur as he plays, tapping out the beat with his picking hand. Flanked by singer/harmonica great Johnny Sansone, Broadbent turns a standard like “Hit the Road Jack” into a thing of pure pathos and subtle menace. It’s the most spellbinding performance of the night.
12:25 a.m.: One of the coolest things about the Bender is that there are tons of artists at large in the crowd, countless fellas with guitars slung over their shoulders, all waiting to hop up on stage at a given moment, lending a spontaneous, anything-goes vibe to the proceedings. During Southern Hospitality’s poolside set, numerous musicians join the band, highlighted by violinist Anne Harris, who does her thing bent over backward at one point, her playing and torso both on another plane.
12:55 a.m.: Big Blues Bender founder A.J. Gross and Southern Hospitality keyboardist Victor Wainwright lock arms and jump into the pool together, fully clothed. Like I said, anything goes.
1:05 a.m.: Their set begins with a winking take on Johnny Watson’s “Too Tired,” a nod at the late hour, which the dudes up on stage then successfully defy. Singer-guitarist/master-of-the-rock-face Nick Schnebelen is leading the ace Bender Brass Band in the showroom. They put the hammer down on Muddy Waters’ “Electric Mud” as a guy in a gray tank top spins himself in circles and plays some mean air sax down in front of the stage.
It’s early Friday morning.
So many bottles have been emptied.
And yet the dance floor remains full.
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.