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Ain't Done Wrong

Kathy Minke
I Can't Stop My Leg: John Mooney stomps at the Rams Head Tavern.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 1/22/2003

John Mooney

John Mooney


Somewhere along the line, people got the wrong notion about the blues. These folks believed the essence of the blues was closing your eyes with a grimace and leaning backward while you played a lot of fast, squealing notes high up on the frets with no regard for melody or meter. They forgot that the blues isn't about the solo. It's about the groove.

John Mooney hasn't forgotten. When the 47-year-old veteran came to Annapolis' Rams Head Tavern Jan. 15, he arrived without his terrific rhythm section (though his longtime bassist, Marylander Jeff Sarli, was in the audience). No matter. Mooney sat down in a wooden chair, grabbed one of the four guitars surrounding him, and jumped into Leroy Carr's "How Long."

The pace was fast and furious, and he set notes flying, sometimes sliding them together with the silver cylinder on his left pinkie, sometimes picking them out individually with three fingers. But however wild the notes might be, they always fit into the syncopated beat anchored by his stomping left foot. For Mooney, there was no distinction between lead and rhythm guitar; it was all the same thing.

It's remarkable how much added impact a blues guitar solo has when it works inside a groove rather than straying outside it. When each notes serves a double function--melody and beat--it's doubly powerful.

Mooney began the show by paying tribute to such influences as Son House (Mooney's original teacher in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y.) and Snooks Eaglin (Mooney's pal during his 20 years in New Orleans). He swapped his electric for a National steel guitar and played songs by Willie Brown and Robert Johnson. And when Mooney switched to his own compositions--such as "Sacred Ground," "Sweat 'n' Bones," and "Tell Me Who" from his recent albums for Blind Pig, Ruf, and House of Blues labels--the quality didn't suffer, and the rhythm never flagged.

Dressed in a black suit and blacker shades, Mooney was a striking presence on stage, his head shaved into a bald dome and a gray goatee framing his mouth. Inspired by a table of friends from the Baltimore Blues Society, he commanded the club's attention for nearly three hours with nothing more than his voice, his stomping foot, and his pulsing storm of guitar notes. He made it clear how Charley Patton could once play Mississippi dances all by himself.

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