Sunday, August 25, 2013
Only a man like Swamp Dogg would warm up the crowd with his mother. But here she is, less than five minutes after the lights have dimmed, Vera Lee, Swamp's mother, standing somewhere around five feet tall in a silver wig, belting out "All of Me." Minutes later she's answering the question that hadn't yet been asked but certainly would have: "They put me at 93 in the paper -- but I didn't quite make it yet. I'm 91!" Swamp himself would make his own advancing age one of the points of his showcase, but here Vera Lee stands, showing that, hey, it might be awful getting old, but you certainly don't have to give up what you love -- if what you love is music.
She kicks the band back to (what I imagine) is her signature piece, which punctuates verses about Mrs. Lee's sexual prowess over younger men, with, "I'm 91, still playing with the boys!" This is the kind of soul revue Swamp is putting on tonight. Not quite the "psychedelic" that some would use, but certainly a show for those with more left-field sensibilities.
Swamp Dogg is, more than anything else, himself. His personality and his words command and control every story about him. But that personality is part of why he's so beloved by his small group of fans: he's humble, funny as hell, sympathetic, and maybe most of all, he loves music more than just about anything else.
It's the last of these traits that I notice first: the band flubs his entrance, announcing him to the stage while Vera Lee has one more song to play (or, shit, maybe she just wants to play another; she is Swamp's mother, after all). So there Swamp stands, on the small Yoshi's stage, in a light lavender suit, with nothing to do but listen to the music. And that he does, nodding to the beat while his mother belts out death threats to all her former lovers.
The next thing that I notice is that the motherfucker's humble (and his constant swearing is infectious). He thanks the crowd of 100 or so people profusely, explaining that "there are a lot of other things we could be doing." Later in the show, he explains further that San Francisco used to be his biggest market -- but after he called up the box office earlier in the week to learn he'd only sold six tickets so far, he realized "used to be" is 43 years past. If he ever was a popular force, it certainly isn't in 2013. Only Swamp Dogg can offer to suck the dick of anyone who comes to his show and get zero comments in return. (Swamp explains to the 100 or so who show up: "That's just a little publicity. It's really not my bag, so don't nobody hold me to it.")
The prevailing theme of the night is that it's hell getting old, or in his words: "There's no one in this house older than me, except for my mommy. But that shit ain't what it's cracked up to be." Or, "I woke up this morning, and my toenails hurt." Or, "I've been reaching for that note for 40 years. I finally hit the mother." Or, "Half your life is wasted being lost in your house."
As much as he talks about being old, it's difficult to tell by how his voice sounds. He has a punchy, muted-trumpet tenor and it sounds even better now than on his songs recorded 43 years ago. It's not an "it gets better with age" kind of voice; it's the same voice he's always had. He may have to stop his band, take off his jacket, loosen his tie, and wind up for it -- and he does so -- but he hits that crazy high note at the end of "The World Beyond," and damn, is that a righteous note.
He continues his self-described "depressing set" with "My Resume," which inspires a long, speechifying bridge about what Swamp Dogg will still need to accomplish to make himself proud. The remarkable thing about this man is that he thinks that he has to keep giving, keep creating more things to be proud of, not to stay relevant, or be popular, but to be able to look back and say "Jerry Williams, Swamp Dogg. He was all right."
And now I can't tell: Was this a revue meant to grapple with growing old, diminished relevance, pursuing your passions, and making a lasting mark on the world? Or did it just happen that way? With Swamp, you can't be sure.
He closes his set with "Total Destruction To Your Mind," and to prove how thankful he is to the handful of fans he has left, he vamps over the chorus for as long as it takes to come off of the stage, and shakes the hand of every person in the audience. It's the kind of thing that nobody does, and the kind of thing that everyone who saw won't ever forget. Someday, they'll put on a record with a big, white motherfucking rat on the cover, and think to themselves, "Jerry Williams, Swamp Dogg. That motherfucker was all right."
Old Friends, pt. 1: When an audience member shouts out a request for "She's a Heartbreaker," a spectacular firecracker of a song that Swamp wrote for Gene Pitney, he says he doesn't know how to play it. But he does tell a story about it: If you listen real closely to the recording, you can hear Swamp Dogg singing the vocal line in the background, and Gene would record over the top, and try to imitate his voice. I'd heard the song before, but somehow didn't put together that it was a nearly pitch-perfect Swamp Dogg imitation. On Gene Pitney: "I'm sorry he's gone. He sure was all right."
Old Friends, pt. 2: Midway through his set, Swamp Dogg brings out a special guest, his "best friend," Guitar Shorty. Shorty has been playing the blues just as longs as Swamp's been writing songs, since the early '50s. He has on perhaps the greatest shirt ever created, with an American flag, eagle, and shirtless Harley rider, and rips up two straight-blues numbers. Swamp sits on the ground at the foot of the stage and nods approvingly at the scorching guitar work. Eventually, Shorty, mid-guitar solo, walks off the stage, into the audience, taking a step every 8-12 bars. He walks past the tables, out the back door, and disappears for five or so minutes, presumably roaming the building while the band plays on and his guitar licks pour unceasingly through the PA. He finally appears at the stage door, and comes back on stage to finish the guitar solo and launch into another verse. Swamp's response: "You come up here and fucked up my show. That's all right. I'm used to looking like shit."
1. Vera Lee - All of Me
2. Vera Lee - Walkin' And Talkin'
3. Vera Lee - Still Playin' With the Boys
4. Vera Lee - My Man's an Undertaker
5. Swamp Dogg - Crawdad Hole
6. Swamp Dogg - Synthetic World
7. Swamp Dogg - The World Beyond
8. Swamp Dogg - I Was Born Blue
9. Swamp Dogg - My Resume
10. Guitar Shorty - The Blues Done Got Me
11. Guitar Shorty - It's Too Late
12. Swamp Dogg - Since I Fell For You
13. Swamp Dogg - Total Destruction To Your Mind