Monday, March 03, 2008

Jeff Healey & The Jesus Freaks

Last night I watched a bootleg video of a concert from the mid-80s. The performers were a quartet of Jesus Freaks, the same vintage as Larry Norman. The venue looked to be a church basement.

When I was finished, I shut everything off and prepared for bed. I quickly checked my e-mail one last time, and was informed that Canadian blues-man/jazz-man Jeff Healey had died. It all felt strangely of a piece, and I spent much of the night trying to figure out why.

First, the video. I was struck by the frugality of it all. Four guys on a badly-lit stage, probably working with something short of 40 watts of power. Musically/creatively speaking, they were working with considerably less. Most of their records sounded stale the second the cellophane came off, and the intervening quarter-century hasn't helped a bit. But they did what they could to bring something BIG into that basement room: slides were projected against a white sheet pinned up behind them, and every now and then a female mime (the drummer's wife?) crept onstage to illustrate a particular lyrical insight. As for the lyrics, it's best I not scrutinize them too closely. The band and the kids in the audience were there to rock, and the best way to do it free of guilt was to fill the choruses and between-song chatter with a whole heap of Jesus.

When the video was over I was left with mixed emotions. Back then the clowns taking charge of the evangelical circus were energetically trying to persuade the flock that this music was of the devil. Even so, these Jesus Freaks performed under the conviction that God had given them something worth saying, and the permission to set it to music that kids could dance to. Back then I gave these issues serious consideration (*sigh* ... still do, apparently). Now while lying in my bed and reminiscing I could be discouraged by the seeming banality of the show, or grateful to these guys for mustering up the courage to mount it. Truth be told, at the time it felt like this music was saving my life, or at least my sanity -- probably because it was.

Next, Jeff Healey. The one time I saw him play was at an Ellen McIlwaine concert in the mid-90s, during the height of his post-Road House fame. She was playing a tiny blues bar in Toronto's Annex. Healey wasn't on the bill, but she announced his presence after the first break. He came up, played and sang one of his songs, then played and sang with McIlwaine on one of hers. Then he and his mate left through the kitchen. McIlwaine, it should be noted, is a prodigious talent, and if this were a just world her name would be as widely recognized and her retirement fund as secure as Bonnie Raitt's.

But when it came to Healey ... wow, did that guy ever leave an impression. Today a lot of people are remarking on his method and calling it his "style" but that's an unfortunate confusion. Not that his method wasn't remarkable. He was blind, so he had to be led on stage and very carefully set up. He sat in a chair, planted his feet wide on the floor and placed his guitar flat on his lap, then used an overhand technique to get what he needed from the guitar. That's how he played and sang, but he was hardly the first guy to do it that way. What was impressive about him was, in fact, his style. He was a fluid player and could bend a note until you thought it would break, then revert to a rough and aggressively percussive style that finished off the solo and brought it back to the dirt-base of the blues. And if you think a white guy sitting in a stacking chair can't take full command of a stage, think again.

Healey's genius was manifold (I hope someone will appraise his style of trumpet playing, which I thought was rather snappy), but was chiefly manifest in his capacity to surprise and delight an audience. Healey didn't work against his perceived deficits; he drew from what he had, and used that to exploit the stage to its full potential.

Which pretty much sums it up. It doesn't matter if you're a Jesus Freak singing to kids in the evangelical culture ghetto, or a white guy from the suburbs who happens to be blind from cancer. You've got the hand you've got, and odds are you don't know the half of it. Take a little time to figure out how you're going to play it, but don't think about it too long. Life is short, and second-guessing will kill you just as fast (or slow) as any tumor.

No comments: