Saturday, November 30, 2013

In the Lion's Mouth with the Hardest-working Bluesman




            When Saul and I go downstairs to the Lion's Den, the Red Lion Inn's entertainment club, the set is already well under way. Hidden beneath the sidewalk like a big city hangout in the late-night part of town, the club has a secret-hideaway sort of atmosphere. We have been told to expect a blues and folk singer that night; the club changes the entertainment every day. We find him in the corner of the room used as a stage, looking as advertised: a well-traveled bluesman with a red, good-humored face, a laugh-prone disposition and self-deprecating wit to go along with his strong voice and -- crucial point -- fine resonant tone on the acoustic guitar.
            A good portion of the room's small audience appears to know him. They sit in couples, laughing at his sallies; some even join in with responses. A blonde lady, flushed, grinning, at her ease: this is where the party has gone, her attitude suggests, and so here she is. Her man is broad in the chest and gray on top. He sits a couple of chairs away as if making clear that he expects plenty of room; no problem given the night's enthusiastic but spotty crowd. Also a performer, it turns out, he whistles a part in one of the blues singer's songs and sings out a line in another tune. The performer (his name is Dan) looks at him and says, "No matter how much you do I'm going to pay you." Dan's laugh suggests some of the happier qualities of had-a-few-already.
           Dan Stevens (top photo), one of the musician sites tells me, has been recognized as "the hardest-working bluesman in Connecticut" by the New York Times, playing 200 dates a year, including concerts, clubs, festivals,community and private events. A protege of the "legendary Dave Van Ronk," he performs a mix of traditional blues, "Americana" and originals. He has played with "names" -- Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Charlie Daniels. Tonight, a Monday in late November, he plays the basement club at the Red Lion Inn. 
         Another friendly couple, not much younger, sit tight as can be; she leans into his shoulder, his arm is steadily wrapped around her, long after my own would have worn out. The lady laughs, full of fun, and calls responses to Dan's sallies. Yet another twosome hang by the bar, apparently new to one another. She sits demurely on a stool, wearing a thick fur jacket. He stands close, facing her and talking through the music; voluble, high on life (or something), making an impression. He entertains, and is rewarded by her short but interested replies.
            Dan sings "ah'm a goin' fishin.'" He sings a Skip James song. He sings a dozen or so others, including originals, one about a singer who's been on the road too long. Every touring singer-songwriter, every last one, writes that song. Query from the audience: "Are you still together?"
            Dan cites a song he learned from his "mentor." Van Ronk was the classic the early 60s Greenwich Village folk-revival interpreter with a deep, at times searing voice. He was one of the voices the wannabes of the era such as Bob Dylan flocked to hear.
            Near the end of the set Dan performs a request that prompts yet another of the room's devoted pairs to get up and dance. Not just a stand up and move to the music sort of dancing, but some kind of fast-paced closely-partnered two-step, more complex than anything of the sort I have had the pleasure of seeing in the flesh. Song over, the couple bid a quick goodbye to folks at the bar and to Dan on the way out.
            Dan announces a break. He promises another set, though the hour is already growing late. He greets friends among the dwindling audience, working the room. When he gets to us, I mention that I heard Dave Van Ronk perform several times in New Haven and consider him a classic folk artist of his day. I say that I've heard the story that Dylan borrowed Van Ronk's version of "House of the Rising Sun" and recorded it before Van Ronk could. Dan is familiar with the story.
            He sits down in at our table and plays the intro to "House." Somehow we get around to Johnny Cash and I tell him that Saul (my musical son with a degree in classical guitar performance) is a guitar player, but he misunderstands and strums the beginning of a Cash classic, "Folsom Prison." Saul says something.
            "He's a guitar player," I say to Dan again. 
            Dan looks at him differently. Hands him the guitar. Saul plays a few bars, fingers flying.
            "Uhn," Dan says. "You're killing me already."
            Saul plays through the song; then plays another. Everyone left in the bar has gathered around now. 
           With a shrug Saul plays the famous version of "House of the Rising Sun," the one most of us are familiar with one way or another.
            It proves to be the last song of the evening. Dan and Saul have turned the last set into something like an Irish "session."
            While the performer packs up, the two guitarists talk shop about instruments. Dan says he plays at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge sometime this winter. I'll check the listings. In addition to the "hardest-working" honor, Dan is currently my favorite bluesman.