[Harp-L] Performance report: Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers at Biscuits & Blues, San Francisco, 10 PM April 27 2007

I first heard Rod Piazza on record when I bought the Dirty Blues Band LP in 1967, and I've heard a fair amount of his recorded work since, enough to know that he covers a very wide emotional range in his playing, and fronts a strong band. This is the first time I've heard Piazza in performance. It was a great show.

He fronted a band with Henry See on guitar and vocals, Piazza's
wife Honey on piano and keyboard bass, and a great drummer whose name I didn't catch. The band was superb, individually and as a group, with a deep, full ensemble sound and strong grooves on everything. Piazza's own playing and singing were outstanding. He opened with a solo chromatic piece (played in 3rd position, I'm sure, i.e. D minor, on a 4-octave chromatic), switching to diatonic for his solo. Most of his playing this night was in 2nd position on diatonic, played through what looked like an Astatic mic into a big red Harpking amplifier. His tone was great, of course, and I was most impressed by his exceptionally strong rhythm--did I mention that the grooves this band laid down were great?--and the way he mixed his textures up with single notes, octaves, and partial chords, spread all over the range of he instrument. As many Chicago-style players do, he used vocal sounds--something between a breath and a grunt--through the mic to provide a rhythmic and textural counterpoint to the harp, a subtle effect that added weight and drive to the band's overall sound.

Every member of the band got a showcase. Honey Piazza played a boogie-woogie piano duet with the drummer that showed both players off brilliantly. Henry See took the lead on vocal and guitar on a slow blues while Piazza sat out. See played a lot of guitar low on the neck, exactly as a guitar player backing a harp player should. Everything rocked. I never missed a bass player. Honey even played behind the beat with her left-hand bass sometimes, just as a real bass player would. The overall sound level was loud enough to be punchy and get your attention, never loud enough to make me think about ear plugs.

The repertoire included two Little Walter pieces: "Mellow Down Easy" and one of the slow instrumental blues ("Blue Lights", I think?). It was interesting to see that Piazza stuck pretty close to Walter's work on these pieces, even to the point of including the little structural variations that Walter sometimes used (e.g. dropping a measure out of the 12-bar here and there).

I noticed that Piazza's textures didn't include a lot of full-blown 3 and 4 note chords. This is consistent with the band's style, and it's also consistent with his gear--the typical blues mic just turns a 4-note chord into mush anyway, and octaves have a lot more "cut" with that kind of setup, so why bother? This is an area where modern players still have a lot of room for exploration.

On the showmanship side, the band was nicely dressed, Piazza in a powder-blue suit that really looked too good to be a straight '50s homage. (You know, except for Chicago blues, the '50s kind of sucked.) Henry See wore a dark sport coat and slacks--he looked like he'd fit right in with a smooth jazz band. It was good to see a band that cared to dress for the occasion. The music was almost continuous, one song leading straight to another, leaving the audience no time for boredom. The players moved well to the music, grooving physically as well as musically without outrageous theatrics.

It was great to see a small ensemble put out such a big, swinging sound, and great also to hear a guy that I first heard on record 40 years ago still laying down the big grooves with a huge tone. This was one of the most enjoyable blues performances I've heard in a while, certainly on par with the Charlie Musselwhite show I saw in San Francisco about a year ago. In short, if you get the chance to see this band perform, and you dig blues even slightly, do it.

Final comment: the price for this show at Biscuits & Blues was $15. This was certainly a reasonable price for a couple of hours of great music in a comfortable, smoke-free, well-lit room with a good sound system and helpful wait staff who aren't pushy or annoying. I didn't sample the food in B&B, but I'm told it's very good southern-style cuisine. If you're going to San Francisco, it's worth your while to check the schedule for this club.

Regards, Richard Hunter
Latest mp3s at http://www.broadjam.com/rhutner

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