January 20, 2023

Photos: Bobby Rush tells tales and wails blues improv during sold-out Safety Harbor gig

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Photo by Josh Bradley
Many a time have typically electric artists chosen to perform small-scale—often acoustic—sets, in an effort to make fans feel as if they’re guests in the former’s living room. Some artists see the setting as an exaggerated synonym for “intimate setting,” but bluesman Bobby Rush takes it to heart.

The 89-year-old spent more than half of his set last Thursday night at the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center—a gig that PR boss Todd Ramquist has dreamt of staging since seeing Rush perform at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2012—chatting up a storm. He managed to turn one of his already seemingly rare live shows into a book talk, standup comedy show, and dinner party—with the occasional innuendo—all at the same time. Whether Rush was rambling about how he had one of the most in-demand box sets a few years ago due to his extensive amount of master tapes, or solemnly recalling not being able to get a record contract in the ‘50s due to him being a Black man who wasn’t illiterate, Rush might as well get cracking on a sequel to his autobiography “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya,” because there appeared to be anything but a drought of stories to tell on his end.

Despite the ever-fascinating banter, he didn’t forget about the music itself. All Rush had on him was a black electric acoustic Washburn EA9B model—which was out of its standard tuning—and his foot to keep time. At the end of the day, such circumstances scream “classic blues,” and it makes you wonder if Robert Johnson would have stuck to his minimalistic fashion of pioneering music, had he lived longer.

Rush started with a tribute to his old friend, the late, great Muddy Waters (“You Don’t Have To Go”), followed by his “first gold record,” “Chicken Heads,” and “Bowlegged Woman.” Much of what he was singing appeared to be improv, many of which included him communicating in the third person. “Bobby Rush is just a schoolboy, too,” he sang during “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” And other songs just straight up made him lose his mind laughing. “Blind snake, biggest one you ever saw/Treaded from Mississippi all the way to Arkansas,” he sang on “Blind Snake,” just to bust out into laughter seconds later.

Local blues maestro Selwyn Birchwood—who is no stranger to Safety Harbor—gave a half-hour opening set, wielding a few different electric-acoustic axes, and comparing blues styles. He even praised Bobby for basically being walking, talking history. “I learned from listening to records. But guys like Bobby Rush, he learned from being there,” Selwyn explained, just before heading to his front-row seat to witness blues greatness that—in Rush’s case—began when Harry S. Truman was president.
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Photos: Bobby Rush tells tales and wails blues improv during sold-out Safety Harbor gig
Photo by Josh Bradley
Photos: Bobby Rush tells tales and wails blues improv during sold-out Safety Harbor gig
Photo by Josh Bradley
Photos: Bobby Rush tells tales and wails blues improv during sold-out Safety Harbor gig
Photo by Josh Bradley
Photos: Bobby Rush tells tales and wails blues improv during sold-out Safety Harbor gig
Photo by Josh Bradley
Photos: Bobby Rush tells tales and wails blues improv during sold-out Safety Harbor gig
Photo by Josh Bradley

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