The right hand moves with dazzling speed, jackhammering the keys like a five-pronged backhoe stuck in overdrive. But it's the left hand, slowly and steadily rolling out rhythms, that holds the key to the loping stride of barrelhouse piano.
It's easy to become mesmerized watching Piano Bob Wilder's fingers trip the 88s. Joined by partner Ken "Snowman" Minahan's swampy, stinging Delta slide guitar and gruff, hard-times growl, the pianist lays down some of the most authentic barrelhouse to be heard these days. (Which ain't much.) Close your eyes and you're transported to a clapboard shack at the edge of a Mississippi cornfield, where this raucous musical form began.
Everything old is new again. Piano Bob and the Snowman proved this aphorism by winning the title of Best Unsigned Blues Band of 1992, both locally (at Tobacco Road) and nationally (in Memphis). Maybe sounding the least like Stevie Ray Vaughan helped, too.
Since then, an eventful year has passed for the duo -- appearing at festivals, touring the southland, and logging some recording time at the storied Muscle Shoals studios as part of their award -- but their reign will soon end and a new champ will be crowned. South Florida bands have, in fact, brought home the coveted B.B. King Lucille trophy the past two years (back in 1991, it was the original lineup of the Roach Thompson Blues Band that took Memphis, and Lucille, by storm). Against competition from Chicago, Mississippi, and Memphis, Miami has literally mugged these more traditional blues centers.
"It's very paradoxical," says Wilder, searching for an explanation. "The only thing I can think of is that since some of the groups down here who are dedicated to the blues have had to push so hard to get it accepted, it's helped us to be sharp about it."
Roach and his band did it with original tunes and an original presentation; Piano Bob and the Snowman did it with authenticity and authority. "Up there," Wilder says of the bands who play throughout the South, "as long as they're playin' the right kind of music [blues], they're very accepted, so maybe they don't have to hone themselves as much. Down here, it's more of a trial."
Most South Florida musicians know this all too well, competing for attention against the hustle of hardbodies, booze hounds, and the guy who wants only to hear "Free Bird" one more time. And you're asking them to sit and listen to music that was already old when the stock market crashed? But throughout the South, and in the states lining the Mississippi, says Wilder, the bluesome twosome's music was embraced like a long-lost relative. One experience Bob and Ken will always remember was playing tiny Helena, Arkansas, a predominantly black town on the edge of the Big Muddy -- Sonny Boy's home. "It was such a rewarding thing," Wilder recalls. "It was like we were going back to the source, and it was just wonderful to feel the energy from them, because they hadn't heard that older stuff in a long time -- the old barrelhouse stuff. I saw these older people there -- their eyes really lit up. And for these white guys to come up from Miami and be playing it was like a real trip for them. But I think they felt complimented that people would be interested in that music, because they thought of it as something people had forgotten about."
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Then there was the return engagement at this year's Memphis in May festival -- a two-week celebration on Beale Street, as well as stops in New Orleans's French Quarter, and Florida's Florabama Club. "When we play these places," says Wilder, "we just feel a closeness. There's something special about feeling that kind of closeness when you know you're in a strange city. It's like you're home, and yet you know you're not home. And it's like blues lovers are kind of like this fraternity where I could go to Alaska, to some lonely little town, and if they've got a blues bar there, then I'm gonna be home. I'll walk in there and there'll be this familiarity. I could be anywhere."
When the two weren't out prowling the blues underworlds of cities like Jackson or Memphis on their last tour, they were kept busy attending seminars, browsing the University of Mississippi's Blues Museum, and laying down some new tracks to be added to their original debut cassette, which will be rereleased. Recording Jimmy Rogers's "Walkin' by Myself," Tampa Red's "It Hurts Me, Too," Memphis Slim's "Beer Drinkin' Woman," and Sonny Boy Williamson's "Shake Your Boogie," the two decided to stick with the formula that has launched them into the national limelight: straight blues. Even Fats Domino's "I'm Ready," which Piano Bob and the Snowman cut a version of, was discarded as "too rock and roll" in the final, painful, edit.
History weighs heavy on Piano Bob and the Snowman. "There are other styles that are just waiting to be unearthed again," says Wilder, the blues scholar continually seeking out new forms of roots music. After all, it's not easy to keep 50-year-old tunes fresh A for the duo and for the audience. "I feel these ghosts looking down on me and I'm hoping they're approving," the piano man confesses. "There are these forgotten old blues people that are long dead. I like to think of myself as carrying on some very old traditions. It's like a cause I'm fighting for."
Piano Bob and the Snowman perform Mondays at Tropics, 960 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach, 531-2744, and Wednesdays at Stuart's (St. Michel Hotel), 162 Alcazar Ave., Coral Gables, 444-1666.