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Ribs and Blues
By Ron Sitton

I rarely get to hear Texas blues in Knoxville. These people lean more toward the Chicago style with its jumpin' beat. Though that's great, sometimes I long for the sound that first turned me on to the blues.

    Things were getting crazy in Knoxville when the blues-list alerted me to Jonny Moeller 3 playing at our local juke joint, Sassy Ann's. So I headed over on a steamy August night under the full moon.

Jonny Moeller plays Knoxville. To see more of the show, take the tour.
    The night started slowly, but as the band played, the beat picked up. Having never heard Jonny Moeller 3 before, the large dose of '50s-style rock 'n' roll these guys jumped into surprised me — Chuck Berry would've been proud.

    A little bit of N'awlins-style piano cut through the din of the crowd as the band rolled into a laid-back rendition of Magic Slim & The Teardrops' "You Can't Lose What You've Never Had." The piano had just a hint of Professor Longhair with the tinkling of the keys running up and down my spine.

    Nice — while the guitar wails, the piano supplies the undergirding, and the drums lay down this wide-assed beat the size of a coal-hauler. The drummer has the chops — he's using a ride cymbal for the crash, as he's only playing with two cymbals. The pianist plays bass when the guitar leads -- the guitar pulls the rhythm while the piano takes off. Both the drums and piano are straight ahead.

    Approximately 60-70 people take in the scene at Sassy Ann's — not a great night, but not bad in a conservative town that loves Ted Nugent and thinks Taj Mahal is an abnormality. (A lack of enthusiasm for Taj's multi-cultural show was evident earlier in the week).

    I look for a menu — whiskey on an empty stomach ain't fun. Though the sear-roasted prime rib with Cajun spice and either a baked potato or rice and veggies sound good, I go with the slow-cooked pork ribs, cole slaw and fries. Sassy Ann's cook Jackie Lee Ellis guarantees they're the best in town. "We try to go with the Texas favorites since that's where (the band's) from," he says with a grin.

    My editor spotted the Tabasco in the sauce before the meal hit the table. Though Wilson's olfactory sense is muted, he claimed he could smell it. It's not my favorite combination, but the food didn't last long. The meat was so tender it fell right off the bone.

    So I'm happy, catching a taste of Texas in Knoxville. What's even more incredible: This isn't the regular Jonny Moeller 3 line-up, but the group sounds as if they'd been playing together for at least 15 years. Jonny Moeller leads the trio with his '57 Stratocaster reissue, while his brother Jay beats the skins. Matt Farrell, the regular pianist for Austin's Keller Brothers, took Mike Flanagin's place on this trip without missing a beat.

    A lil' Robert Johnson tremolo over a church organ. Back and forth, they light into a slow swing. A couple gets up and sways to the music. Ahhh!! Organ feeling the air — letting everybody know he's in town leading the way. Maybe a lil' looser now than earlier in the set. And as low rumble moves in, a lil' staccato guitar gives way to raindrops and a jazz feel reminiscent of Stevie on "Lenny." The hair rises on the back of my neck. Typewriters don't do this justice at all. Swing me low. Swing me low.

    The drum rolls along and then stops to give super power to a decrescendo that brings applause from the crowd now sitting on the edge of their seats like a wave crashing and rolling onto a beach, and then the pull of the tide on its way back out. Then the guitar screams again. Torrid!! You can feel the blades of the fan cutting through the heat. Damn, I haven't heard anything this good since SRV. The Louisiana-Texas blues — I almost feel at home.

    A duo between the guitar and piano captivates the crowd. It's almost like sunshine on the front porch, and a glass of lemonade waiting for you to come out of the sun. That's what you catch about the Texas blues. You can hear the rain settling the dust. It's not hard enough to cause a SPLAT but more of a SPLOOF. Like a storm rolling over the plain, the piano's thunder is accentuated by the lightning display from the guitar. People wanna hold up their hands like they were listening to a good sermon. Wilson walks by and says, "Sometimes you've gotta get Pentecostal about the Blues." Others nod.

    Almost a crying guitar: Baby please come home. I know I done wrong but I swears I'll do better next time if you'll just give me the opportunity to walk through that door. A little rainbow at the end promising a sunny day someday. A good dose every now and then to melt away a bad disposition, and sometimes it looks like it's all gonna fall flat in your face, but you can stand up and dance anyway.

    Yeah, Texas blues — fading away at the end of the note. It's there in your face, but receding at the same time, like those old telephone bells with dampers. It's the kind of music that pulls the skin behind and below your ears to the top of your head. Texas blues has an effervescence, like steam rising off a hot blacktop produces a mirage, but this one's in stereo.

    For a moment the musicians take a break and speak of an expected December release of a new album through the Dallas Blues Society. Jonny Moeller's impressed with the crowd, contrasting it with Austin's, which he says has become a haven for yuppies who don't care about the music. On this trip through the Southeast, he's felt the crowds get into the music.

    "Southern crowds are a lot more soulful," he says. "They clap when you play and are so attentive. Plus they eat cool food. Playing the blues is easy here, the people are with you."

    So much so the band doesn't want, or take, a long break. The members start bringing up the locals to jam, including The Boogeymen's Lebron Lazenby and Andy Lewis, who provides a bass. As they cut into Lazenby's original "Just Keep Spendin' ", Jonny Moeller makes it sound like he's played the song on tour for weeks on end, not at a moment's notice.

    You can tell when musicians are on and when they're off. Occasionally, in even the best jam, the beat can turn on top. Experience will put you back in the groove after hanging with it. Then they turn it back over. Right there. No miss. You're waiting for it to fall apart, but instead it becomes a Picasso turned into pointillism, all without a slip of the beat.

    The Queen of Knoxville Blues takes the stage. Sarah Jordan is always a treat to listen to. If you've ever liked soulful Southern gospel music, you'd love it when she wails, "I Don't Want No Man Telling Me What to Do." This lady can make people cry.

Jay Moeller lays the beat.
    Then up jumps 14-year-old Danny Lee "Popcorn" Michael. Remember the name of this kid. He ain't going to do nothing but get better. As he ages, he's learning to play to the crowd instead of playing in his own cocoon.

    And then it's like a family reunion. Roger Wallace, the original "RC" of RC and the Boogeymen, gets up to the delight of the crowd. Wallace is a Knoxville native now living in Austin. His roommate is Jonny Moeller.

   After a few more songs, the band finishes with a nice rendition of Professor Longhair's "Tipitina," a tribute to New Orleans' Tipitina's bar. As the band begins packing, Jonny Moeller delivers his take on blues heading into the millennium.

    "It's cool here, depressing in Austin. It's getting harder to find the scene in big cities. People really dig it in Knoxville and a lot of cities in the South," he says. "In the South people go a little bit more crazy about it. It's in their blood. They feel it here, I don't know. In some places, they say Jonny Moeller 3 is too bluesy. I'm wondering 'Are you guys clueless?' "

    Yeah, Jonny, they are.
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