Tyrone "Shortleg" Johnson and Some White Boys

Before the show, my date and I returned to a place where we once conducted some nasty business. It felt good to be back at the scene of this particular crime with her, and I wondered if lightning was going to strike twice. It didn't, but we still had a good time. I would have stuck around, because things were just getting warmed up there, but we had a show to get to in a seedy part of town. Right around the corner, that is.

We entered the 50 Mason Social House and took a seat on the long banquette lining the wall. The room had a good-sized crowd, though not packed- not bad given that the President was speaking at the moment. The band came on first- six white guys in shades, white shirts with ties, black pants. The bass player looked like Steve Cropper with a bad rug, the guitarist like Jeff Buckley. Tyrone stood at the back of the crowd. I saw him take out a flask and hit it for a hard swig. A man's voice boomed through the room, introducing the great bluesman from Beaumont (goddam), Texas and Tyrone made his way to the stage. He's never seen this band before- he was pulling a Chuck Berry or something, and he was obviously pissed off to find himself playing with what he called a bunch of "hippies."

It took about a minute before the set was derailed by lighting problems. The man with the mike shut it down- told us all it would be about five minutes that turned into ten. Tyrone kept on taking sips from the flask. A belligerence entered his voice. He fronted off the man with the mike, who told him to watch himself- they didn't want another incident like the notorious one that happened in Newport. That problem with Joan Baez. Then someone in the audience said something funny about Bob Dylan, and Tyrone told us his truth about what really happened that night. Yeah, there was drinking involved that night.

The more he drank, the more Tyrone became "Shortleg" and Shortleg likes to tell a tale or two. Talking about his days in the whorehouses. Messing with the women. Telling us about his mama. She really laid him low one day. You can see why the man is the way he is once he tells that story. Damn.

He has a fondness for Willie Dixon and Leadbelly and can't stand white guys like Pete Seeger appropriating the blues. If you're gonna do it, do it like Johnny Otis did it. Like they do it on 7th Street in Oakland. He made the band take their shades off. Turns out the guitarist is just a kid. More Ricky Nelson than Jeff Buckley, but damn, the kid can play the blues like he was born to it. The kid's name is Jeremy Goodwin. Remember it. Turns out his dad was in the band too, on sax- a cat named Rick Goodwin. The trumpet player- a guy named Dennis Aquilina, did the "Hand Jive" and they have some British dude named Richard Trafford-Owen on the harp who knows a thing or two. Shortleg called him Ringo. How come British dudes always have three names?

The bass player, Steve Ekstrand, had an attitude. Sittin' there reading a magazine while Shortleg was schooling the room. Some gruff went back and forth. I though it might come to blows. And all of this was going on while they were trying to tape some stupid dance show for TV. Crazy. The man on the mike kept flipping out every time Tyrone said something about "titties" or when he'd grab himself. Behind it all, keeping the Bo-Diddley beat on the drums was Jeff Weinmann. Pretty funny to watch it all go down, but man, let me tell you- that Tyrone has some stories, and he can really belt the blues.

When he finally broke character at the end, it was a small shock to see the man behind all of this- Wayne Harris, who had just delivered an amazingly involved and nuanced performance, come across as an altogether different person than who we had just watched and heard for over an hour. Impressive.

The show repeats September 8, 12, & 14. Highly recommended. Check out the SF Fringe Festival site for details. And don't be late!