LINK WRAY

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's most glaring omission

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NEW YORK CITY 2005
B.B. King’s Blues Club

LIVE AT BB KING'S - MAY 9

The BB King Blues Club in midtown Manhattan, New York City is a real classy joint, it doesn’t get much nicer than this. Properly appointed tables for the guests, well trained wait staff, big stage for the entertainers with Broadway quality lighting. It’s cabaret style seating which means there’s lots of big tables and you get seated with whomever the maitre 'd seats you. I arrived well before the opening act hit the stage but BB’s was packed and I was lucky to be seated at all. I was shown to a table and seated opposite a woman older than me but still considerably younger than Link. Got to talking and she told me she discovered Link in the 50s, well before the original recording of Rumble (on the Cadence label) was made available to the public. She grew up in the  Washington DC area and was familiar with all the clubs and places Link and the Raymen used to play, such as Glen Echo Park. Before the night ended I discovered Jane walked, with difficulty, with one of those aluminum, tubular walkers you’ve probably seen before and had negotiated the New York City mass transit system (subways, etc.) all by herself to come into Midtown from the Upper Westside because she wanted to see Link again so badly. Now that’s the kind of commitment to rock and roll I like to see!

The one and only opening act was a band named “Rockola”. I never heard of them before last Tuesday and don’t have much to report about them. They’re a rockabilly outfit along the lines of Brian Setzer or maybe even The Reverend Horton Heat and the front man (think his name is Barry Ryan) played a single cutaway hollowbody, like a Gibson 135 or 137. They did an interesting up tempo version of “Fever” as well as a real pretty interpretation of the Hank Marvin classic, “Apache”. I don’t think “Rockola” will be a household name anytime in the near future but they were more than adequate as an opener.

Link walked onto the stage about 9:00 PM and received a standing ovation before he even strapped on his Strat. I had never experienced anything like this before because anytime I had previously seen Link it was in a smoke filled, tightly packed club without any seating to speak of and pretty much everybody was already on their feet. At the risk of sounding corny, I found the whole scene pretty moving. Link was welcomed the way guys like Jagger and Richards or Page and Plant are welcomed when they first appear at a venue, and why not? After all, those guys learned from Link, not the other way around.

OK, let’s get down to business. This is the evening’s setlist, as I noted it:

 Set 1:
 Rumble Rawhide So Easy Batman Fire Jack The Ripper Branded Run Chicken Run Rumble On The Docks (see note 1) Tribes (see note 2) Rumble Comanche Set 2 (with Jon Paris): Baby, What You Want Me To Do Baby Let's Play House My Babe Good Rockin’ Tonight Johnny B. Good Mystery Train

Note 1: This version of Rumble On The Docks is different in several ways from the Rumble On The Docks that appears on the Shadowman CD. For example, the descending Rumblesque line (G-E-D-B-A-G-E) that opens the Shadowman version is noticeably absent. Nonetheless, the rhythm and basic song structure is the same and I think it’s fair to consider this song another version of Rumble On The Docks.

Note 2: I don’t think anybody knows the name of this jam, including Link!. It’s basically a two chord jam that Link first started performing, to the best of my knowledge, during the 2003 tour. During the 2003 presentation of the song Link and Julie took turns calling out the names of Native American tribes; Link would call out “Shawnee” and Julie would follow with “Cherokee” or “Comanche” or... you get the idea! I call it Tribes, you can call it whatever you like.

Generally speaking, Link’s guitar wizardry was top notch, I’d say even better than it was in 2003. I’m not sure why or how that could be so; maybe he feels especially relaxed at this point in his life or maybe he’s been practicing a lot at home, I just don’t know. I studied his hands (especially his left, fretting hand) over the course of the evening and observed absolutely no signs of muscle, bone or nerve fatigue as the night progressed. His left hand is still completely fluid and he still has tremendous strength and endurance in his right, picking hand The only point of concern I noticed was that Link’s voice was not especially strong when compared with the voice he exhibited on recent past tours. As an example, during Batman Link couldn’t scream out “BATMAN!” during the chorus the way he normally does. I am not overly concerned about this though, there are so many possible explanations. Possibly Link had a bad cold or even the flu over the course of the winter or, very possibly, Link just blew it out working so hard the first month of the tour. We’ll have to keep an eye (or maybe I should say ear) on it as the tour progresses

First set highlights, for me anyway, included Fire, which just smoked, excuse the pun. Link’s riffing on this tune is absolutely incendiary (sorry again); this is the way it should be done, sorry Bruce, Pointer Sisters and everybody else. Just fantastic. Shortly after Link and the boys broke into the “Tribes” jam Link started exhorting folks in the front rows to strum his Strat (a great rock and roll device he often employees at shows (Check it out in the Rumbleman documentary if you’ve never seen Link do this.) but it got REALLY out of hand! At some point the ax left Link’s hands and started circulating throughout the front rows, as far as the guitar cable would reach! Guys were lining up between the tables for a chance to play The Master’s instrument. If it were my guitar I would have wet my pants, but both Link and Julie were loving it, beaming from ear to ear. And meanwhile Link’s men kept pounding it out, keeping that “Tribes” jam pulsating, never missing a beat. Eventually the sunburst Strat found its way back to stage center and Link nursed it along a little further, but its punishment wasn’t over! At some point Link lifted it off his shoulders, held it at shoulder height, perfectly parallel to the stage floor, strings down, and, you got it - dropped it! Boom!!! The boys kept it going as Link prowled around the stage in a most menacing manner. The Strat began to digest the stage floor’s vibrations, feeding back...feeding back... feeding back!

Something else happened at the end of the first set that was very cool, at least for me. After the second performance of Rumble concluded I started thinking about how great Comanche had sounded in Asbury Park a few days earlier and, at the top of my lungs, screamed out “Comanche”! Well, so help me, Link looked up, smiled, and the band tore head on into Comanche. Yea, I know it was a coincidence, but it was still pretty cool!

About this time Link introduced his long time friend and musical associate Jon Paris. Link asked Jon to tell the audience about their collective musical past and Jon described touring the world in the late 70s with Link, Robert Gordon and Anton Fig (Jon played bass.). As a point of fact, this was Jon’s first big tour and since then has had a very successful musical career, playing bass for Johnny Winter for many years and more recently enjoying an increasingly popular solo career based in New York City. While speaking of the 1978 tour in Europe Link interrupted Jon saying, “And that’s when I met Olive!”. Link and Jon played a handful of standards, Jon soloing on harmonica and singing, Link playing the role of the rock steady rhythm guitarist, nothing flamboyant but playing right in the pocket. At one point Jon looked out into the audience and said, “Come on up, Robbie, if you want to join us.”. Not sure who “Robbie” is; I could take a logical guess but why start a rumor... anyway, whoever it was chose to remain seated and anonymous. The set’s highlight for me was definitely Johnny B. Good - first time I ever heard Link do it and I sure hope it ain’t the last!

And that about raps it up. There were screams for an encore, of course, but it was just too late. The house lights came on and the BB King’s staff politely but diligently prodded us up the stairs, back onto 42nd St. and into the glare of Con Edison’s greatest lighting achievements. I bid farewell to my new friend, Jane, and we decided that if Doc Emmett Brown from the “Back To The Future” movie ever gets that time machine working right we’d have a date... 1955... Glen Echo Park, just as the Raymen are opening up. 
Link Wray - NYC 2005