The Church of the Lost Souls
At 828 North Highland Road, a main street some four miles north and east of downtown Atlanta, is a small bar by the name of Blind Willie’s. I call it a “bar” only because that’s the word my friend used to describe it before he took a small group of us there. But it turns out to be more than that. Much more.
As a teenager growing up in the poor industrial north of England, where coal fires were still the main way to stay warm, and walking to school in the winter was accompanied by the smell of soot and frost, I had dreams. I dare say my dreams were no different than those of many working-class kids but mine distinctly included visions of American life. Sure, all I knew about the country was what I’d seen on our four-channel black-and-white TV, or heard under the bedclothes at night on my treasured transistor radio that brought in music from Radio Luxemburg, a faraway crackly station somewhere on “the Continent” as we used to call Europe.
There were beaches and blondes in California; hippies in San Francisco; cowboys in Texas; gangsters in Chicago; hustlers in New York; and blues and jazz in New Orleans. It was an America of the Mind, constructed from the media images I could see and hear, and that probably bore little resemblance to the truth. Yet it was as real to me as London or Liverpool or Edinburgh, or any of the cities within the UK that I’d never been to.
I picked up a guitar at 13 and discovered that playing the basics of the Blues was easier than I had thought. Three chords, twelve bars, and a simple progression that, once practiced, could have you jamming with your friends for hours on end. And the neat thing was that you could make it up as you want without the need to learn to read music or copy other people.
With the mechanics of the Blues under your belt, you soon discover that it’s not about the notes themselves but how you phrase them, bend them, slide them, extend them, and move effortlessly up and down the frets to express a feeling and not a tune. And it’s this that is difficult and that makes the difference between a mechanic and a player.
Along with the actual music, there was always an image that went along with the notion of a “Blues Band.” They players would be rough around the edges, drinkers, smokers, and womanizers. They’d be eking a living by playing in dark dirty bars for free food, free drinks, and a few dollars that would be just enough to keep a roof over their heads and their instruments up and running. There’d be no Shea or Wembley stadium gigs for them, just another round of booze and blues in front of a crowd of folks who, if the band did their job right, would end the night cheering and hollering in appreciation.
By the time I moved to the US in my late thirties, music had become more corporate, smoking was on the way out, drinking was in family-style pubs where kids were allowed to wander around the “family-friendly” environment, and the AIDs epidemic of the 80’s had made womanizing a much deadlier pastime for everyone. The America I came to wasn’t the America of my teenage dreams; except for the blondes in California – still one of my favorite places to be.
But there are still some magical places left in America, and Blind Willie’s in one of those. As I said, it’s not a bar but a cross between a church and a time machine. It’s also something of a reverse of Dr. Who’s Tardis – it looks bigger on the outside than it is within!
The first thing you notice is that you don’t notice much because the walls are red and the lights are low. Real low. Your eyes have to adjust from a well-lit street to a gloomy interior. And when you start to see things, you see the wooden bar, the wooden walls, and the wooden floor. It feels old. In actuality, it was opened in 1986, the same year as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant ruptured and killed thousands of people; when the US was dropping bombs in Libya in response to alleged government-sponsored terrorism from Colonel Gaddafi; and when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded killing its crew of seven. But it feels older. Much older.
And oh, how the band play! The house band, the Shadows, look as if they belong there. The space in which they play is as tight as their musicianship, which appears to be effortless but is really a reflection of years of experience coupled with an innate sense of how the Blues should be. The guitarist’s fingers spider their way up and down the neck, sliding and bending each note with just the right pressure to fill the room with the fat, rounded sustained notes from his worn Stratocaster. The bass player, in his small black hat and shades (shades!) provides that subtle yet essential deep throbbing background to fill in the lower registers. The singer plays harmonica and saxophone as if he’d been clutching them at birth, and provides the driving sounds that keeps everyone’s feet tapping and hands clapping. And the drummer, often an unsung hero in a band, keeps it all together in an understated yet vital way.
These guys are bluesmen and know their craft. The tunes they play are as timeless as the bar, and the execution of the music is flawless. And when Luther “Houserocker” Johnson joins them on stage, it’s as if we are all living 60 years ago in a time when folks like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were teaching us about electric guitars and making those small plastic disks called “records,” which would go on to influence folks like the Rolling Stones, the Doors, and many other blues-tinged 60’s and 70’s bands.
“Houserocker” looks the part, with his black fedora, black leather waistcoat, dark glasses, and a red Gibson ES335. Before taking the stage, he provides us with another Americana moment – he sits, legs apart, watching the band, nodding his head, and drinking a bottle of Budweiser – the King of Beers. A marketing man’s dream!
For the next couple of hours, we listen, we sing, we clap, we hoot; folks get up and dance in any available space, bumping and grinding with grins on their faces, enjoying every minute of this bar-room bacchanal. On a couple of occasions, “Houserocker” gives in to a little showmanship by playing the guitar with his teeth, a ritualistic display that new visitors expect to see. The place is just so alive!
In an America sometimes lost in the rhetoric of party politics and the narcissistic self-absorption of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – where “me” is the only pronoun you need to know – this smoky bar in Atlanta provides an island for those adrift and looking for something they thought had gone forever. Here, no-one is telling you not to smoke, not to drink, and not to eat as much of the “Feelin’ the Blues” chips that are fried and smothered in blue cheese. There’s nobody suggesting you “keep the volume down” in case your sensitive ears are damaged, for this is the Church of the Lost Souls; a place of redemption; a religious experience for the unapologetically profane; a godless, pagan ritual that reconnects you with something you thought no longer existed. No siree, for just a few hours you can be just a little wicked and sinful, safe in the knowledge that your soul will be saved by the healing power of Brother Luther and his Ministers of Music.
This is not just a band playing in a bar but a huge dollop of pure Americana, served up with a side of attitude, sprinkles of swagger, and an all-you-can-eat buffet of solid musicianship and craft.
Like it says on the can of one of Atlanta’s other iconic offerings, this IS the Real Thing.