HIGH FREQUENCIES: From twelve-string to no strings?

The guitar is not ready for the trash pile, as evidenced by Blind Willie’s, Blackfox, Darling Machine, and Tommy Talton

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Photo credit: Black and white photo courtesy Tony Paris Archives. Color photo: Beth Casner Gregory.
THEN & NOW: Blind Willie’s owner Eric King back in the day with the late Chicago Bob Nelson, and more recently with co-owner Roger Gregory.

The Pig ‘n Whistle used to sit on Ponce de Leon Avenue where hot Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts now roll off an assembly line. If you’re lucky, when you’re there the orange neon sign is flashing and the hot doughnuts melt in your mouth — and the sugar glaze melts in your hands.

A barbecue joint, the Pig ’n Whistle occupied that corner at Ponce and Argonne the corner where Krispy Kreme now beckons many Atlantans into a diabetic coma, offering pork plates, pork sandwiches, and cold beer. Like the Varsity to the west, both opened just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, offering reasonably priced food. After the Great Depression, you either hung out at the Pig ’n Whistle or the Varsity.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, if you were lucky, you heard a blind, African American blues musician playing a twelve-string guitar in the parking lot of the Pig Shop, as regulars called the Pig ’n Whistle. At the time, you wouldn’t have paid him much attention, unless you had a keen ear and recognized the uniqueness of his fingerstyle and slide guitar playing accompanying his smooth vocals for what it was. No, for most Atlantans, save for blues fans, it wasn’t until 1991, when Bob Dylan released a song singing his praises, that those who encountered him along Ponce de Leon (The Blue Lantern Lounge was another one of the places he could usually be found), learned who he was, and, that "nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

In 1986, two blues enthusiasts, Eric King and Roger Gregory, knew of McTell’s legacy and his connection to the city. When they opened their then hole-in-the-wall blues club on North Highland Avenue, which crosses Ponce, not far from McTell’s haunts, the name Blind Willie’s was an obvious choice.

Like the club’s T-shirt claims, “It ain’t easy being sleazy, “ yet, apparently, King and Gregory have found the right formula. This weekend, Blind Willie’s celebrates it’s 32nd anniversary, with shows Friday and Saturday night featuring Sparky & Rhonda Rucker, Steve James, and, of course, the Shadows — the house band featuring Gregory and Albey Scholl — that has provided the solid musical foundation for many of the visiting blues musicians to play the Blind Willie’s stage.

It’s easy to be led to believe guitar-driven music is on the decline. Just look at the musical instrument retailer, Guitar Center. It’s more than $900 million in debt, due largely to to an ever-increasing drop in guitar sales. Gibson Guitars, along with Fender, one of the two most iconic guitar manufacturers the world over, is also facing bankruptcy, though its troubles stem more from poor management rather than a dwindling interest in the six-stringed instrument. And then, there’s this year’s Grammy Awards show. Very little of the music celebrated during the telecast was guitar-based.

In Atlanta, the instrument shows no signs of going gently into the dark night. This is most evident in the music of Blackfox and Darling Machine, two bands playing Smith’s Olde Bar Friday, March 30.

Blackfox playing the Music Room, booked between Boxcar Radio and Nerdkween, celebrates the release of the band’s new album, La Brea. With a sound reminiscent of early new wave bands (think U2, Simple Minds, and Modern English) performed with an understanding of the British blues bands before them, Blackfox have melded the two styles together to offer a contemporary and original sound. “Dream About You” is a perfect example of their style, its pulsating, forceful beat, accented with blistering guitar riffs, propelling cinematic vocals. “Lord Has Left Me,” with it’s swampy and murky syncopated beat, is another. The eight songs , each with an identity all their own, keeps the mix interesting.

Looking back musically, but forging ahead is Darling Machine, playing the Music Room at Smith’s. A self-described combination of “old school goth and punk with (a) modern pop sensibility,” Darling Machine is just that on it’s recently-recorded, but as yet unreleased, 10-song LP. A guitar heavy quartet, the group is more the Cult meets Gene Loves Jezebel than of the Specimen/Alien Sex Fiend, or even Bauhaus/Cure variety Goth. Although Darling Machine does have a penchant for the pop hooks that pervaded the music of the latter two. Produced, mixed and engineered by Jeff Tomei (Smashing Pumpkins, Matchbox 20, etc.), the music is menacing, not unlike Pleasure Club during its heyday.

Tommy Talton has been added to Sunday night’s bill with the Weight at City Winery. Perhaps best known as one-half of the songwriting team of Cowboy, the Macon band which he founded with the late Scott Boyer, Talton’s a singer/songwriter in the best sense, his songs painting verbal pictures that lift you up and take you away from everyday reality, while reflecting on just that. This time last year, Talton released Somewhere South of Eden, an album that recalls the music he made with Cowboy, and backing Gregg Allman, building on the past rather than revisiting it. A contemporary during the emergence of Southern Rock, Talton has expanded as much as established the genre, Talton’s vocals and guitar work shine throughout the eleven compositions, especially on tracks like “I Can’t Believe It” and the title cut, conjuring sultry, hot southern nights and the romance and indiscretions they allow. Talton is a musical treasure, Somewhere South of Eden confirming what many have known for a long while.

Contact Tony Paris regarding upcoming gigs; noteworthy news, rumor, and innuendo; or, if you just want to say, “Hi,” at cl.highfreqs@gmail.com, as you probably know he doesn’t read messages received on his Facebook account.

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