Merl's Fiesta

Merl Saunders

House of Blues - Chicago

October 12, 1997

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 1997, Volume 4, #13

Written by John Metzger


The Music

On October 12, Merl Saunders returned to Chicago for his second appearance this year at the House of Blues. This time around, Saunders brought a new guitarist Jennifer Lee in place of long-time Rainforest Band-mate Michael Hinton. This change, combined with special guest John Bishop (former member of the Merl Saunders Trio) seemed to energize and inspire Saunders, yielding the best show I've seen him perform.

The band took the stage to the funky beat of Stevie Wonder's Boogie on Reggae Woman, which immediately got the audience dancing and twirling. The band really found their groove during a relentless Tore Up Over You that built to a fiery peak on the raging intensity of Lee's guitar solo.

The reggae dance party continued with Lay Back Baby before Saunders brought Bishop from the shadows on the side of the stage. He introduced Bishop as a friend he met in the early '70s and as the guitarist on the very first version of Soul Roach. This was a wonderful surprise, and Bishop used this tune as an opportunity to loosen up while Saunders and his Hammond B-3 organ, dubbed Jessica, toured the stars.

Do I Move You continued the momentum as the band shifted into a full-blown blues jam. Bishop was truly amazing to watch as his fingers seemed to dance causing a beautiful, bluesy melody to float from his guitar. Following the song, Bishop left the stage, though Saunders promised that he would return later in the evening.

Fiesta Amazonica, the title track from Saunders' latest disc, quickly found a groove that circled around the rhythmic musings of drummer Vince Littleton as well as the audience, performing with a number of percussion instruments from Saunders' box of toys. During the central percussion interlude, Saunders began twirling in circles on stage with a big smile on his face. He looked like he was having the time of his life!

Bishop did return for the entire second set and proceeded to further display his many talents. After describing a trip to the Amazon, Saunders led the band into a delicate reading of Dance of the Pink Dolphins, which is also on his latest disc. Bishop gave this one a real light touch as an actual recording of the dolphins echoed through the sound system.

Franklin's Tower was reworked as Saunders made the song his own. Funky versions of Expressway (to Your Heart) and The System continued this rare, oldies-night treat, but it was My Funny Valentine that stole the show, making this show a very special evening! Bishop was truly magnificent on this classic standard as he completely changed direction from the blues-styles he had been playing all evening. He garnished this song with an amazing and beautiful jazz solo as Lee and Saunders both graciously hung back, giving him plenty of room to soar.

By this point, I was thoroughly convinced that Lee was a great addition to the band. She added a different and very fresh twist to the songs, and she could tear through a guitar solo with the sting of a swarm of hornets. She also has the ability to play off and allow room for her fellow bandmates.

The set concluded as the band tore into a medley starting with the driving force of Mystery Train. The train continued moving along its track as Saunders introduced the band. Bassist Michael Warren pushed the train onto a new track and thundered the song into a brief rendition of Sly and the Family Stone's Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin before Saunders ripped into I Feel Like Dynamite. As he sang the chorus, you could tell Saunders was pleased. This was definitely the best show I've seen him perform and the most enthusiastic I've ever seen him.

Common Sense opened the show with an enjoyable 65-minute set that borrowed heavily from Bob Marley and the Neville Brothers. Fittingly, the band performed outstanding versions of the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon and Marley's No Woman No Cry (which also contained the Rolling Stones' Beast of Burden). Unfortunately, throughout the set, their lead guitarist experienced a number of problems, relegating him to keyboards. During Hey Joe, the band's final song, he borrowed the rhythm guitarist's instrument and tore through a blistering solo, taking out his frustration.


The Venue

I feel the need to make a few more comments about the House of Blues. We arrived several hours before the show in order to grab a couple of the bar stools that usually sit along the elevated sides of the floor. These offer a great vantage point, good sound, a place to relax between sets, and relatively few hassles from the drunken mobs that flock to this venue. For some reason, the venue chose not to provide these stools for this performance, and they closed the balcony as well. Fortunately for us, this was the least crowded of any Merl Saunders' concert I've seen, but that still doesn't explain the loss of the stools.

Second, many people came to the show expecting to be able to record it, which has been a common practice at Saunders' shows for years. Unfortunately, House of Blues is a royal pain in the ass about this and claimed that the tapers needed to make arrangements with the artist well in advance in order to be able to record the show, yet they provided no assistance to those who were lining up three hours before show time. Despite the fact that people stood in line for hours with their equipment, they were sent back to their cars by the obnoxious security force. Consequently, I don't think anyone was allowed to record this show. It's a shame because it was spectacular.

Finally, there is still a severe sound problem for those who get stuck in the back of the room. The private skyboxes and balcony block the sound from reaching the back of the venue, much like the skybox problem at the New World Music Theatre. But at least at the World, there are speakers for the lawn, even if they are kept at a lower volume and pointed towards the ground (instead of out to the audience).

For a venue that is supposed to be about the music, House of Blues management seems to have forgotten that rather important aspect. It's really bad when the place is packed. Robert Hunter's performance in this venue in March was completely inaudible to anyone not on the floor. My impression is that House of Blues is less about the music and more about making money to feed Dan Aykroyd's incredibly huge ego.

Fiesta Amazonica is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright 1997 The Music Box