If West Hollywood’s House of Blues tends to be more of a showcase club than a modern take on the chitlin’ circuit most of the time, this wasn’t the case last Friday night when Texas blues man Jimmie Vaughn came to town. The Epic recording artist commenced a national tour at the club to promote his new disc, “Out There.”
The album’s title must surely be derived from “out there” as in the road, as opposed to “out there” in the avant-garde sense of the expression. First with his group the Fabulous Thunderbirds and now as a solo, Vaughn has been playing roadhouses to blues fans for well over 25 years.
As an emissary of Austin, he’s the living embodiment of the kind of relaxed-yet-urgent shuffling feel of West Texas blues, and Friday’s show was an excellent example of the master laying it out. Opening with a pair of 12 bar blues tunes, Vaughn and band stayed neatly in the pocket throughout their set, alternating between new material and old favorites.
The best of the new music came early, when Vaughn and band moseyed into “Like a King” from “Out There.” With its classic blues hook in the chorus, this song could very well remain on the AAA charts all summer long. An understated, subtle guitarist, Vaughn is the polar opposite of his late brother Stevie Ray, and his guitar lines decorated each number accordingly. An anomaly as a player, Vaughn plucks his Fender with a free index finger and always uses a capo on the instrument’s neck so that he’s always playing with a lot of open strings. The result is an extraordinarily twangy, organic sound, a fact underscored by the band’s lack of a bass player, organist Bill Willis provides the undertow with foot-pedals. This is no typical bar act regurgitating Muddy or Wolf at all.
Still, for a Friday night out, Vaughn may have been a shade too laid back for the sold-out house. As the show progressed, many of the fans on the tightly packed dance floor began to drift. A little more bluster might have turned the trick for the veteran that night.
The same could not be said for Vaughn’s opener, the local group, Imperial Crowns. Sporting two baritone saxes, as well as a percussionist, the Crowns were all rhythm from the go, and with guitarist JJ Holiday providing slide guitar crescendos to every song, they would appear to be the closest thing Los Angeles has had to the original Little Feat in years. Fronted by the maniacal harp player Jimmie Wood, whose act comes across as a wacked-out cross of Southern preacher and carny barker, the Imperial Crowns rocked the house with their own loopy take on New Orleans second line rhythms and Bo Diddley beats.
That they are unsigned is surely one of 1998’s great mysteries.