The blues are an inherently paradoxical art form when they make a public appearance—misery with the travails of life transmuted into joyful music. Last night at Rosa’s Lounge, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials mastered that paradox, turning what had to be years of struggling musicianship into an evening filled to the brim with smiles and dancing.
The band’s stage presence, naturally, centered on Lil’ Ed Williams, who literally shone due to his sequined fez. He was an expert facial actor. With his eyes, he could convey emotions ranging from shock and sorrow to pure ecstasy. His smile, missing a few teeth on the lower half of one side, spoke of someone who had been through the meat grinder of life and not only lived to tell the tale, but had nothing but joie de vivre to report on the experience. Even when Lil’ Ed sang in his soulful, raspy tenor about the sorry state of the world, invoking the biblical notion of Judgment Day as an interpretation of a failing economy and the government’s inability to help its citizens, his unbridled happiness gave me confidence that the apocalypse was something to be welcomed with open arms.
And when Lil’ Ed got to soloing, his happiness made total sense. The man is a whiz on the axe, easing emotion into every held note and using a slide to make his instrument squeal in passion. He didn’t venture too far outside the blues scale, but his dynamism up and down the neck of the guitar and the way he syncopated his playing made for interesting moments in what otherwise would’ve been repetition upon repetition of the same basic song. After all, that’s what the blues is—same song, different notes and words—so the fact that Lil’ Ed was able to hold my attention for a solid hour and a half is a testament to how fascinating it was to hear him play.
The other guitarist in the band, Mike Garrett, provided a foil to Lil’ Ed’s bursting energy, standing nearly still, eyes closed in reverence of the music, fingers flying up and down the fretboard in an almost religious tribute to the music. Meanwhile, the rhythm section of bassist James “Pookie” Young and drummer Kelly Littleton held down a steady beat, totally unexciting on stage (Littleton looked vaguely constipated) but vital to the Blues Imperials’ sound. They changed tempo and style with ease, allowing Lil’ Ed to float atop the music and experiment.
The most heartwarming moment of the show came when the band played a blues rendition of “Happy Birthday” to a woman in the crowd who had brought a large party with her, but the whole set was a complete joy. It made me forget about the bleak realities of the world, achieving the ultimate goal of the blues: turn sadness into joy.