Tail Dragger
With: Jimmy Dawkins, Rockin’ Johnny, Kevin Shanahan, Martin Lang, Rob Lorenz, Todd Fackler
Time: 75 minutes
Produced by Steve Wagner
Directed by Tom Koester
Delmark 2009

Not missing an opportunity, Delmark is following its success with Tail Dragger’s 2005 DVD, My Head Is Bald (the label’s best selling DVD to date), with another rousing live set captured on film for posterity, Live at Rooster’s Lounge.In short, this terrific set continues Tail Dragger’s (born James Yancy Jones in Altheimer, AR, in 1940) resurrection, artistically and personally, following a 17-month stay in a Lincoln, IL, prison after he shot and killed fellow Chicago bluesman Boston Blackie in self-defense in a dispute over money (has to be money or women, right?) and too many post-incarceration years toiling in obscurity before Delmark found him. His cause, and those of other blues people, isn’t helped any by the mainstream press acting like the blues died with Stevie Ray Vaughan and continuing to ignore the genre almost entirely. Jones—nicknamed Tail Dragger by his idol and chief inspiration, Howlin’ Wolf (who once predicted the Dragger would fill his shoes after he was called home)—isn’t letting any of this get in his way. As the liner notes to the DVD indicate, for the past decade and a half he’s been forging ahead on several fronts, making trips to Moscow and Argentina, touring Europe, earning a 2007 Males Blues Vocalist of the Year award from the Bay Area Blues Society, even appearing in a couple of indie films (Two Rivers, and the short film, Death and Taxis, posted on YouTube). Good for Tail Dragger, good for the blues, good for blues fans everywhere. For those who don’t have a chance to see Tail Dragger on any regular basis, if at all, this DVD’s other special treat is to experience his buoyant good spirits and warm humor up close and personal. For a guy who’s knocked around and been knocked down, who has been his own worst enemy at times, the Dragger is a beautiful soul. This DVD does its job very well in capturing that, so much so that you’ll either be going to Amazon to buy My Head Is Bald for another dose of the man to make up for the mere 75 minutes of him available here, or you’ll cue up the previous DVD, or a CD, to keep the party going.

Tail Dragger live at Rooster’s Lounge: an excerpt. A snippet of ‘Louise’; Tail Dragger introduces his new bride; workin’ the ladies on ‘Bought Me a New Home’; the ladies workin’ him on John Lee Hooker’s ‘I’m In the Mood’

Tail Dragger’s basic band is one he’s been working with for some time, and they’ve been regulars at Rooster’s Lounge for more than a year now. It’s a tight, fiery unit: Drummer Rob Lorenz and bassist Todd Fackler are a spot-on rhythm section, solid and subtle all at once. Guitarist Kevin Shanahan is a sure-handed rhythm player who is always right there, even as he puts on his own clinics in a lead role as well. For this gig, some surprise guests show up. Rockin’ Johnny Burgin ends a lengthy, self-imposed exile from the blues scene in spectacular fashion, spicing the churning, set opening mean woman blues from the Wolf himself, “Louise,” with some stinging chordal fills and trilling runs, and getting more forceful in his statements as the night goes on. “Louise” is also the occasion for Martin Lang to moan and wail on the harp with soulful fervor. Later in the set, the towering Jimmy Dawkins makes his way through the crowd, slings the guitar over his shoulder and proceeds to interject some sharp, pungent six-string editorials into the classic shuffle of “Wander,” adding a second, dramatic voice to the Dragger’s self-penned treatise on a woman who pretty much took him for all he had. To balance things out, in a set dotted with songs about faithless women, Dragger follows “Wander” with the announcement that he’s found a new woman; after bringing her up to the bandstand for an introduction, he leads the band into a strutting, slightly sarcastic blues celebrating his fresh start, “Bought Me a New Home,” another occasion for Burgin to cut out on a wild, multi-textured solo. The material is almost evenly divided between Tail Dragger originals and some monuments from blues titans, some of whom were friends of Dragger’s. Apart from Wolf’s “Louise,” the cover highlights would include a powerhouse, stomping rendition of Big Joe Williams’s timeless “Baby Please Don’t Go” (with Lang sending up a ferocious harp howl); a dark, steamy, primeval take on John Lee Hooker’s “I’m In the Mood” that digs out a deep groove and stays there, working it for all it’s worth, with both Burgin and Lang adding emotional, slow boiling solos to the ambiance (plus a female patron who is not Dragger’s wife grinding against him during Lang’s solo); and an appropriate Little Walter number to close out the night, “Blues with a Feeling,” the ideal resolution to an evening of quintessential Chicago blues by way of the Delta, with the band inexorably churning ahead and Dragger finding a willing female to sidle up to as he shouts out Walter’s bereft fury.

Let it be noted, too, that Dragger does more than sing here: between songs he shares with the audience some of his hard-won wisdom concerning life and love, priceless anecdotes and philosophy every bit of it. The DVD also includes, as a special feature, commentary by Tail Dragger himself, basically laying out his life story, the good and the bad, in unflinching fashion. “I been blessed, and I been almost around the world,” he says early on in the Commentary, “singing this blues, and you know it’s somethin’ I love.” That’s what comes through in his performance, song after song, and director Tom Koester and three others on camera capture the truth of that statement through their lenses, moving through the Roosters crowd, getting up close to the band and patrons both, sometimes shooting over customers’ shoulders, or seeming to stand on barstools for what amounts to overhead shots. At any rate, as a viewer you are in the big middle of it, and it feels real good.—David McGee

Buy it at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024