If you’re a fan of slide and steel guitar, you had a tough choice to make Friday night on the shores of Tahoe. There were two really good shows happening on either end of the lake and the timing likely wouldn’t allow the chance to take in both. But sometimes serendipity intervenes.
One show had been circled since it was announced months ago, so I chose that show happening on the North Shore. “This one is called ‘Voodoo Stew’ ” said a smiling Selwyn Birchwood as he took a seat and prepared to put his lap steel guitar through its paces for the first time that evening. In the next breath, the voodoo apparently just decided to take over the Crystal Bay Casino’s Red Room … and it plunged into darkness.
It was, to turn a phrase you might hear in a blues lyric, a low-down dirty shame because the party in the Red Room was just getting started. Birchwood and his seasoned band were in the process of making love to the audience the right way. You had the sense that the five songs presented had just been the foreplay, offering in-the-pocket tastes of what was to come. They had just picked up the energy with the title track off their new record “Pick Your Poison.”
Saxophonist Regi Oliver and Birchwood shared the solo spotlight on the tune, playing off one another in an unhurried, yet purposeful manner letting listeners choose which instrumental poison would seduce them. So comfortable was Birchwood that he casually strode off the front of the stage mid-song to play a solo, barefoot on the dance floor, and give any fan who dared an up close blues guitar caress.
Sadly, we only received the temptation of lap steel, and slide guitar performances that were surely to come before Edison’s invention failed us. Tahoe would welcome a second chance.
Once it was clear that hope of continuing was lost, I decided to make the 40-minute trip south and see if a lemon could be made into lemonade and catch part of the Roosevelt Collier’s “California Get Down,” which was happening at the Tahoe Beach Retreat. Having discovered that fellow Floridians Birchwood and Collier knew each other, I asked if the 32-year old bluesman wanted to come along and perhaps sit in, since his night at CBC was done. He declined, but I think he would have had a blast.
When I arrived the place was absolutely jumping. And why wouldn’t it be with Lebo (ALO), Reed Mathis (Electric Beethoven), and Reno’s own Cliff Porter (Jelly Bread) joining slide guitar master Collier for four stops on his brief West Coast tour. This show was just plain relaxed fun both onstage and off. The quartet’s range of covers was all over the place, from The Isley Brothers, Sam & Dave, Tom Petty, The Allman Brothers, The Dead and even Robin Trower.
Jam out and improvise were the only rules. Collier was clearly the featured artist on both pedal and lap steel, leading the others through the compositions and providing space for the likes of Lebo to jump in with some of his classic tones. Things were so loose that they were going to do a song that wasn’t on the original list, prompting Lebo to grab his phone to check something out with Reed Mathis volunteering to handle vocal duties only to realize he didn’t completely know the words. No one cared, they just went with it, and just happily smiled through any mistakes.
Turns out “just going with it” Friday night also worked out pretty well for at least one fan of slide and steel guitar.