We were grateful to work with local blues lover Justin Zyla on this piece, be sure to keep an eye out for this author's work in the future!
Image courtesy of The Blues Room
It’s midnight with Ms. Mami Porter and the Smokehouse Band. In a basement room almost empty -- fifteen people, maybe. Mostly from bands getting ready for the next set or who just performed. And it feels like the Blues: like young Hubert Sumlin sneaking into a Mississippi Delta dive bar to hear Howlin’ Wolf. Or Silas Hogan on his mother’s porch, “fightin’ back mosquitoes and hittin’ on the guitar.” In a hollow basement that echoes in the history of everything Deep South.
“A smile on my face you didn’t put there.” Her voice breaks through the room -- soft and sweet and scratching against wood rafters. Haunting. Her voice haunting, and I’m in a graveyard. The moonlight bouncing off the burial chambers of dead things: decaying bone and rotting skin. The body just a discarded husk as the soul comes out to play -- ghosts drifting up from the grave. To drink beer. To smoke cigs. And to dance in the glowing air.
The Blues is like that: sharp chords cut the skin wide and deep -- stretched back and torn from tendons. To bleed. A good Blues artist has to bleed. Damn near every night on damn near every stage. To pierce into a crowd that bleeds along with them. Dancing the history of the swamplands: the Mississippi Delta, Louisiana. From the slavery of a sharecropper South up to Chicago. Lightnin’ Slim on a bus to Detroit, spitting dust to a world where, “Over there [Mississippi], you even got to call a white mule, ‘Mister.” Escaping a prison-industrial complex that swallowed Robert Pete Williams in Angola.
And the Smokehouse Band feels like sorrow or tragedy or hope. The weight of history falling on top of you. “I cried, Lord have Mercy on me.” Seconds springing into life, and then dying, again. Little dead things caught in the web of a thousand years. Lost to a decaying and rotting memory. But then there’s the next verse. The next strumming bass chord. And life -- somehow -- keeps moving on: in a lover’s touch, in twisting hips and arms stretched up and swaying.
I walk out from The Blues Room. That small dive bar without windows. With rafters you can reach up and touch. With concrete floors that have stories for days -- whispering secrets as the band reaches the bridge. “Come on, let me hear ya,” Ms. Mami Porter bellows as the trumpet rides on the slow motion waves of a choppy sea. The band going softer as the door shuts behind me. As the night air sparks against my skin, and I light a cig. A plastic cup with enough beer for the walk home. The night dark and beautiful. As I head toward a different kind of sleep.