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Smoking in Virginia

The Rhythm Kings at the Birchmere, 5 August 2001

Ross Taylor writes to BtP

Located in Washingtonís labyrinthine suburbs, the Birchmere is an unremarkable room, square, flat, with a raised stage and good food available on the tables. We got there early to eat but the joint was already packed, so the best we could do was a table just to the right of the stage, directly behind what I guessed was Garyís electric piano. Throughout the evening I supplemented this view by strolling through the room, pausing where I could.

As Green Onions played on the PA, the lights went down and the opening trio, Johnny A, came on. They played guitar-driven bluesy instrumentals, plus a cover of Witcheta Lineman that could almost be Hendrix in a quiet mood. The crowd was dominated by baby-boomers. I noticed a few pre-teen kids sitting with their families.

The Rhythm Kings came on en masse and jumped right into Let the Good Times Roll, Gary on the lead vocal, sharing it with Janis Hoyte, one of the two Rhythm Queens. The band was forced into pretty much two rows by the smallish stage: front row, left to right,

Georgie Fame at the organ in a red vest, Martin Taylor, guitar/blue jacket, Bill Wyman, bass, shades, purple shirt, black pants and white loafers (the shoes the most Rolling Stones thing on stage), Albert Lee, guitar, palm-tree shirt and a rather Harpo-Marxish mess of curly gray hair, and Gary Brooker, piano, and a loose, geometric orange shirt. For the second row Iím going to skimp on dress, left to right: Beverly Skeete (great dreads!), Janis Hoyte (they did have great pantsuits), Graham Broad on drums, Frank Mead and Nick Payn on saxes.

Georgie Fame said "Letís say good evening to Mr Gary Brooker!" and they started into Jitterbug Boogie, with him on vocal. Next came Walking One and Only, Fame on vocal, Jump, Jive and Wail, Albert Lee on vocal. This featured a big sax solo by Mead and some wild saxophone dancing. Next came Baby Work Out, Fame vocal, then a long, cooking Any Way the Wind Blows with solos from Lee and Fame. Janis Hoyte danced around while singing the next number, This Little Girl is On the Rocket, and Brooker took a solo. Then it was Hit the Road Jack with Gary doing a finger-pointing, head shaking soulful bunch of singing and a jazzy solo which he handed off to Martin Taylor, who in turn handed off to Fame, who inserted a verse of Van Morrisonís Moondance.

There was some joking about Wymanís old band, then Beverly Skeete sang Melody, during which Brookerís piano dueled with Martin Taylorís guitar. The next song was Screaming Jay Hawkins's I Put A Spell On You. Beverly mentioned Nina Simone's version before she began it.

Georgie Fame called out "All aboard the Albert Lee express!" as Broad drummed the intro to Mystery Train. Brooker did a marvelous job of singing this, with harmony from Fame. Fame, who didnít play on this number, did some crazy seat dancing, working his shoulders and elbows like a cowboy riding his old paint across the prairie, or getting up and playing air guitar. Meanwhile Albert Lee did his incredible high-speed thing. Frank Mead contributed a breathy harmonica outro, complete with train whistle.

After this song Gary said, "Itís great to be in Virginia Ė where they make cigarettes. I think itís Billís favorite state." Wyman was puffing away. "You walk in the airport here and they have a sign ĎYou must smoke.í" Gary then sang and rocked out on Breaking Up the House.

Then the finale, Tear It Up, with Lee on vocals and smoking guitar. He and Martin Taylor dueled and hammed it up, with Taylor becoming a human whammy bar and bending Leeís guitar neck while Lee played. As this was going on Brooker got up and went back to encourage Graham Broad. He drank some water, ran back to the back room and seemed to come back with something stronger, sitting back down for the last verse.

At the end, as people clapped, hooted and hollered I began to worry. The Stones never gave encores. No fear, Fame and Martin Taylor came back out to perform "Georgia On My Mind." Fame lit a cig while Taylor was playing the intro and sang while smoking. This was the first I really focused on Taylorís excellent guitar playing, to which Fame did a sly, hipster, shuffling dance. At the end he segued into Dixie, getting a big response. I think a few folks in the front row stood up and saluted, but I could be wrong.

Next Wyman came out with Brooker and Frank Mead. Gary played some very familiar chords and elaborated them and then played and sang the two-verse AWSoP. After the 1st verse Mead joined him on a straight horn that sounded a bit like a sax, but reedier. He accompanied the second verse and I thought it was a damn good arrangement. Big applause.

Wyman brought the whole band out and introduced them. Then Beverly introduced Wyman and they blasted through the Satisfaction riff twice. Finally, Gary rocked and rolled the show to a big finish with Saturday Night at the Hole in the Wall.

Afterwards, only Wyman stayed to give signatures. I got his autograph but was still hanging around when a petite woman with curly light-colored hair brushed past. She saw my shirt and said in what sounded like a British accent, "Oh, I know who youíre waiting for. You want Gary Brooker out here." I smiled stupidly and she said "You probably donít recognize me. Iím Franky." I asked her to pass the word to her husband and added "But what I really want is an American tour."

Finally Brooker did come out. As he was moving down the line towards me someone had him sign a Procol record that Trower had signed. He said "Boy, he doesnít leave much room. Iím going to have to leave Robin a message on one of these things."

Not being a subtle person, I repeated my wish for an American tour as he signed my things. I also asked for more like Within Our House. He was non-committal, but so cheerful and cheering that all things seemed possible.

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