On his latest album, Mules, Mistakes n' Dirt, Fleet Starbuck is painted against a blue background as a mutant. He's nearly mouthless, as if words no longer mattered. His eyes are swollen, as if he's seen too much in life and doesn't want to see no more. But even in this abstraction his trademark cap and dapper suit remain. The bluesman's class shines through, though the joy found on brighter album covers seems to have faded like a Delta dream.
After 30 years of playing blues that move seamlessly from playing-with-your-poodle entendre (a poodle ain't no dog, you know), to gritty heart-tuggers, to parochial salutes that name Miami streets and neighborhoods, Fleet Starbuck has fallen on hard times and suffers health problems.
The Fleetster has always been engaging in concert. He's funny in a way that doesn't belittle his tunes and he always makes sure that everyone knows what "poodle" really means. His vocals often follow the gritty, growly, howlin' lineage from Leadbelly to Albert King and Koko Taylor. He's rough, tough, and straight from the gut. Roots rarely pay in popularity, much less green cheese, but Starbuck was drawn to his music by inspiration, not greed.
In his recordings he offers a sound that comes from the source and carries the same weightiness as his performances. He can evoke Otis Rush, Dylan, the Staples, and Muddy Waters -- all in one song. He can stoke and stroke instrumentals that speak volumes without the benefit of words.
For all these contributions, Starbuck, 55, has gotten back what most blues musicians get: not much. A following, sure, but that won't pay medical bills or rent, even.
On his album True Stories the local blues veteran has a song called "Ain't It Hard." If that were a question, and its subject life, the answer would of course be affirmative. If life weren't difficult, the blues never would have existed. There is beauty in the struggle, but the sheer depths of blues music makes you wonder how humans ever get through this damn existence.
They do it by helping one another, and in the case of the endlessly entertaining bluesman named Fleet Starbuck, the help is coming in the form of one of the most unusual benefit concerts devised. Bill Duncan of GreenFog Studios and the folks at Music Tech music store are gathering bands that will pay to play -- not to showcase for big-time record label executives, but to help one of their colleagues. Each act will dish out twenty bucks to play; another twenty gets them a CD of their performance. Everyone else can enjoy the show for a mere five dollars. All proceeds go to Starbuck and his family. It's not enough of a payback for what he's given Miami, but it's something.