Sinful business, the life of a hired sailor. Months of rough seas, casks of rum, and nary a woman in sight. By the time the ship reaches port, the men are ready to rock.
The same sailors also seek a bit of soul-saving redemption to wash away their transgressions. Until the 1960s, that happened in Charleston at the seaman’s chapel, now home to the Mad River Bar & Grille on Market Street. A haven for tourists, college students, and singles out-on-the-town, the venue also hosts Piccolo Spoleto’s Early Bird Blues series for the second year running.
“It’s a cool venue, and we’ve used it with very favorable results,” says Gary Erwin (aka Shrimp City Slim), who books and organizes the series. “It’s got good acoustics, a vaulted ceiling, and it’s a very comfortable room. And more importantly, the people who run the place are really into this.”
Erwin’s 2009 picks include veterans, new faces, and international and local acts. South Carolina blues icon Drink Small serves as the marquee performer, kicking the series off on May 22. At 76, the Bishopville native represents an authentic taste of the blues tradition.
“I was there the first time, and I’ve been coming back every year,” Small says. “I enjoy playing down there, because it’s nice and warm, and I meet people from all over the world. They seem to like my music, and I have a pretty good time. All the hospitality, it’s mighty nice.”
Although Small often plays with a band and brings in friends to jam, his Early Bird shows are solo acoustic gigs. The former church setting fits well with some of his inspirational songs.
“It’s never too late to do right, but always too early to do wrong,” he sings.
But Small doesn’t hesitate to make us chuckle with songs like “Tittie Man.”
Another veteran act with pre-sale draw is guitarist Geoff Achison, a native of Melbourne, Australia, dubbed the “Blues Thunder from Down Under.” Achison is a friend of Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen; the Aussie hosts annual guitar camps at Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio.
“The guy is just technically amazing, and he’s got tremendous soul,” Erwin says. “I booked him sight unseen. He’s a world-class musician.”
North Carolinian Matt Walsh joins the lineup this year with his ’50s-era, Chess-style slide guitar. He’s joined by guitarist Bob Margolin.
Among the local acts are Juke Joint Johnny and Drew Baldwin, Motherless Chillin’, and Ed “Porkchop” Meyer. Johnny’s been called “the Harmonica High Priest of the Southeast.” Accompanied by Baldwin on a vintage 1910 harp guitar with added bass strings, he accomplishes a unique, rootsy sound.
“They sound really good in a church,” says Erwin.
Motherless Chillin’ matches that guitar/harmonica duo, performing more upbeat country blues classics. Chicago-to-Lowcountry transplant “Porkchop” Meyer performs a raunchy solo piano set that’s perfect for a barroom crowd.
Rounding out the lineup are Edisto Island’s husband/wife duo Cotton Blue, Columbia’s Jeff Norwood, and Charleston-native Skye Paige and her band, the Original Recipe. Paige favors Memphis-style blues and rockabilly, while Norwood’s sound comes straight from the swamp.
The happy hour slot means these blues are accessible to everyone, even little ones with early bedtimes. Just keep those “ear-muffs” close at hand if Drink Small starts singin’ about his nibblin’ song.