BY PATRICIA DUFF
Whidbey Life Magazine
March 13, 2013
There’s something about “the blues” that gets under your skin and electrifies things you didn’t know were there.
Maybe it’s that driving beat, or the sexy slide of the guitar that makes it wail, or the lyrics that are often fraught with the pain of love gone wrong or the ecstasy of love before it goes wrong.
It feels to me like the blues expresses all the things not possible to put down in words. The blues makes you shake your head no, no, no and want to cry out or pound your fist or, after all is said and done, just dance it off and feel better. Funny how it’s called the blues, because it makes everything feel better.
Local musician and bookseller David Gregor has let the blues affect him. He feels so strongly about this style of American music, that he went ahead and wrote a script about it.
The show is titled “Journaling the Blues: A Blues Opera” and it plays one performance at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 22 in a Local Artist Series production at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley.
He said the idea for the show sprang from his desire to create a performance that went beyond just music; that would also tell a story of the blues in a theatrical way.
“WICA’s Local Artist Series is a very special and important program, and I wanted to challenge myself to create a ‘show’ that would take the audience on an unexpected journey into the world of musicians.”
Gregor wanted to go deep, and being a bluesman himself, chose the story of a man he named “Deja Blue.” Although it’s not an opera in the traditional sense, he said he used the word because it signals the passion of the piece; the broad-hearted emotion, the grandness that comes from love and sadness and, well, the deep subtext of the blues.
The opera takes us into the layered musical life of Blue, played here by Gregor. Gregor’s real life blues band, Deja Blooze, plays his fictional band, as well, with players David Gignac, Russell Sparkman and Scott Small. Singer Joni Takanikos plays Queenie, one of the great loves of Blue’s life; the other being music.
The only character in the show that is based on a real person is the narrator— Alan Lomax — played by David Ossman, best known for his beautiful, long-winded talent with the Firesign Theatre. Lomax spent more than 50 years of his life recording and documenting world folk music, including a large number of African American bluesmen of the south. He was the first to record Muddy Waters before he was “Muddy,” and he discovered Leadbelly in prison and became his longtime friend and promoter.
“When I began crafting the script under the title of “Journaling the Blues,” I knew I would rely on journal entries and letters, but to fill in the story I would need someone to speak of my fictional hero’s life and loves,” Gregor said. “Lomax was the perfect person for that, so I built the narration around an imaginary meeting between Lomax and Blue and their long friendship, which was not out of character for the real Alan Lomax.”
The other players, Gregor said, are composites of any number of real life musicians and singers that have played the streets and juke joints primarily in the south and the northeast United States.
Deja Blue represents the mythical African guide “Legba,” the god of the crossroads.
As the story goes, it was at the “crossroads” where the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have made a pact with the devil if he would show him how to be a great blues player. (The Faustian pact didn’t last long; Johnson died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 27.)
Gregor said that LiCastro, a longtime local guitar leader with the local bands Western Heroes and Tommy and Sharks, masterfully fills the role of the mythical Trickster/Devil, who shows Blue the licks that propel him onward in his musical journey. Blue must choose between his two, break-your-heart loves.
“David Licastro has all the qualifications of a great player who can lift the talents of anyone he joins on stage,” Gregor said.
Takanikos agreed and said she has watched with respect how LiCastro guides the musicians with an expert and gentle hand.
“I love working with all the musicians; I love watching them weave in and out with each other, forming a tight and raucous blues band,” Takanikos said.
The singer is happy to play Queenie who sings all those great lyrics that everybody pines to sing, but maybe just whispers into their whiskey instead. Queenie meets Blue early in life, but leaves him to hit the road with Ray Charles in Europe.
“She left, but she never forgot about Blue, and in later years they meet again,” Takanikos said of her character. “Queenie finds that the love is still there, right alongside the music, a passion they both share in equally.”
Takanikos recently played Edith Piaf in “The Songbird of Paris,” but here Queenie is all blues, and the singer said she is having a good time trying to find the Big Mama Thornton side of her voice, mentioning one of her all-time favorite blues singers.
The Mississippi Delta Blues style of the early 20th century in the Deep South moved into the Chicago Blues sound by the 1950s and 60s, which amplified the Delta sound using the drums and other instruments. It’ll be interesting to see what this band does here, since they’ve added the washboard, played here by Bruce Launer, and some brass, which Gregor easily found at South Whidbey High School, that bastion of gifted young musicians trained by music teacher Chris Harshman. Wiz kids Julia Hauser on the trombone and Jonas Anderson on trumpet provide the brass for Mr. Deja Blue.
Tickets are $15 and reservations can be made through the WICA box office at 360-221-8268 or order tickets online at www.WICAonline.com.
(Pictured at top, David Gregor, Deja Blooze leader and author of “Journaling the Blues: A Blues Opera.”)
Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and the editor of this magazine.