When you’re least expecting it, totally caught off-guard, that’s when the best moments happen.
Halloween night on Michigan Ave seemed like a decent but unassuming proposition. After hitting all the hot spots (Slows, the house-party above Slows, High Bias Studio across the street) I’d finally wandered into LJ’s Lounge just around midnight.
All I knew was that Dan Kroha was playing with someone simply known as Harmonica Shah. The name had potential and even though the thought of a $5 cover charge at a bar that has seemingly always been free to enter was slightly off-putting, I bit.
For those who don’t know, LJ’s is a faux-wood-paneled watering hole with a radio-station-styled windowed DJ booth overlooking the rudimentary dance floor barely taking up the better half of a corner of the room.
The walls are covered with tacky promotional mirrors from all sorts of alcohol companies. Some might call the place charming. It reminds me of the endless number of dives I ended up in with my father following summer nights at his softball games where I was nary old enough to see over the bar but was always lucky begging for quarters for the video games.
The band starts playing almost immediately after I walk in. I’m instantly struck by the brilliance of Shah’s harmonica tone. It sounded like Dr. Ross was right there in the room with me. And from what I could tell, he was simply playing through a basic microphone and running it through an indistinguishable amp. The vibe, the tone, the feel…it was all coming through the man’s performance and no glitzy equipment or trickery.
The Shah and his drummer Leon seemed to be a package deal. These black men, presumably in their forties, were still clad in mechanic’s work clothes, the drab, nameless, blue togs that are the inimitable sign of blue-collar working-class, complete with embroidered name patches.
Kroha on guitar accompaniment was splendid. I thought the Demolition Doll Rods were an extremely hit-or-miss enterprise, especially after their TLA album. Dan was always consistent, but the Margaret-factor meant you never knew if you’d be legitimately impressed or leaving the show early. So with Dan unencumbered by that, he was letting loose with lick after spine-stinging lick of blues expertise. I can’t recall ever hearing Dan play so much straight blues and it pained me, if only for the fact that he’s so deft and skilled at it that the junk just oozes off him.
The bass player was someone I’d never seen before. I think it was a blonde woman, but the fact it was Halloween and costumes were plentiful means I could totally be dead wrong here. Either way, she was the backbone of the whole operation, ably keeping everything from falling apart while plucking out those standard blues scales that are as familiar as your childhood front lawn.
And Leon on drums was awesome. Oh, he was by no means a highly-skilled skinsman, but the looseness provided by his kick-snare-hat-tom-ride simplistic set-up and his teetering rhythm was the levity that made the whole thing feel like a jam session at a house party. And that's meant entirely as a compliment.
But back to the Shah. Underneath his off-white cowboy hat was a glint in his eyes. His words were standard blues fare…women done him wrong, braggadocio, signifying, whatever you want to call it. He was unafraid to make direct eye contact with the crowd, all of two feet in front of him. His steely stare was, on occasion, almost lasciviously directed at the wild ladies dancing in front of him. It was awkward, funny and entertaining all at the same time.
And I’ll not lie, the crowd reaction definitely helped fuel the feel of the evening. Amidst the record collecting dudes name-dropping Hubert Sumlin was a batch of freaks just dancing. And set against the wood-paneled walls, the band squeezed into a corner with a rudimentary sound system and the drummer and harmonica player still clad in their work clothes…it all felt like a live and true juke joint, where all are just gathered for a good time.
It took a lot for me to hold back yelling it as a request, so when Kroha switched from his white Stratocaster to a reflective Kent/Teisco/garage-rock $20 special with tons of switches and knobs for slide guitar and then bust into the Hound Dog Taylor gem “Gimme Back My Wig” it was, in my mind, perfection. The room was wholly captivated. John Sinclair, a blues scholar hisself, stood in a doorway soaking in the atmosphere. Detroit’s weird like that…honestly, I just thought it was funny that I could look at the man and tell him what he was doing exactly 39 years ago that night. And as tempted as I am to type Harmonica Shah into Google and find out the deal/history, I’d rather just sit back and revel in what was one of the simplest, purest and most honest musical performances I’ve seen in some time.