Harmonica phenom/singer Tom Ball and guitar wizard Kenny Sultan have charmed local audiences for decades, and their two-hour concert for the Song Tree Concert Series on Saturday night was a particularly entertaining showcase for their good-time blues music.
For the first set, it was just Ball and Sultan, sitting on original barstools from the late Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, serving up their trademark funny fare such as their rejected jingle for the California State Lottery, “I Wanna Be Filthy Rich,” which has lyrics like “I’m tired of being poor white trash.”
Also on the menu was “Chicken al a Blues,” which catalogs the types of chicken eaten on the road (they quipped that it is hard to be healthy as a musician as there are “no little tofu restaurants open at 2:30 a.m.”), “Who Drank My Beer While I Was in the Rear?” and “Perfect Woman,” which celebrates finding a mate who is “smart and pretty and young and witty and owns a liquor store.”
They also recalled the local inspiration for their song “All Talk and No Action” — it was written for the talkative audiences that they played for years ago at The Grill in Montecito. Apparently the patrons were “too busy talking to realize we were singing about them.”
There were also covers of old songs that retain much vibrancy to this day: “Livin’ with the Blues” by guitar and harmonica duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, a solo guitar arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” played by Ball (he plays a mean guitar, too!) and “I Got Mine” from 1903. Introducing the latter, they noted that they are “always on top of latest developments.”
Sultan also gave a fascinating overview of the guitars onstage, which included a 1938 000-28 Martin acoustic, a 1936 Gibson acoustic, a 1931 National steel body guitar on which Kenny played cool solo instrumentals in country style and Robert Johnson style, and a 1919 Gibson guitar banjo.
For the second set, Ball and Sultan were joined by “Lord of Low Frequencies” and Song Tree organizer Tom Lee on stand-up bass, and Jody Eulitz on a cardboard box played with brushes and producing an impressive array of sounds. This set included humorous songs such as “Too Many Drivers,” “Don’t Roll Your Bloodshot Eyes at Me,” “Brown Liquor in a Dirty Glass” dedicated to Cold Springs Tavern, where Ball and Sultan have a long-time residency, “My Last Meal” in which a condemned man on death row asks for crazy, exotic food to forestall his execution, and “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”
They also paid tribute to Willie Dixon with “I Love the Life I Live, and Live the Life I Love,” played “My Gal” from 1910 with Sultan on the guitar banjo to give a truly vintage old-timey sound, and did an instrumental version of “Maria Elena,” which was originally written for the wife of the Mexican president by Lorenzo Barcelata.
It’s hard not to smile when Ball and Sultan perform, and their rapport with each other and the audience is truly astounding. Next time you see them perform at a bar, I suggest listening rather than talking to your friends — not only will you hear a great show, but they just might be singing about you.
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.