Ron Thompson (left) with his Resisters, Larry Vann and Gary Rosen (photograph by Linda Dembo)
After many years of promising myself that I would check out the Biscuits and Blues club, I finally made good on my promise last night, going over to catch the first set given by Oakland-born blues man Ron Thompson. Over the course of the evening he played three different guitars, all electric but each with its own set of “personal” sonorities, and sang along with all of them. He performed with his trio, called Ron Thompson and His Resisters, whose other members were Larry Vann on drums and Gary Rosen on bass guitar.
Thompson spent seven years leading John Lee Hooker’s backing band, and he made no attempt to hide Hooker’s influence on his own work. I have to confess that my command of the blues repertoire is, to say the least, weak. Since Thompson’s diction was not his primary concern, there were any number of tunes last night that I could not identify. However, there was no mistaking his honoring his experiences with Hooker through his own take on “Boom Boom;” and, to reach back to earlier decades, I had no trouble recognizing Big Joe Williams’ “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” Towards the end of the set, Thompson mentioned Robert Johnson; but I have not yet succeeded in internalizing all of the handful of songs he managed to get recorded. There was also a gutsy account of Ray Charles “Sinner’s Prayer.” Most astonishing was a gradual segue into Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” one local musician’s way of honoring another.
More interesting than trying to identify the recognizable, however, was the sheer pleasure of Thompson’s diversity. Across the three guitars he played, Thomson came up with any number of ways of inventing new licks for what too many take to be a limited form of musical expression. Each song revealed its own palette of innovative approaches to the different guitars Thompson played; and, even when it seemed as if he was returning to a familiar trope, he never failed to pull out yet another new twist on that trope.
There was also an almost uncanny craft in swinging between dynamic extremes. Most of the evening was hard-driving, an onslaught of decibels reinforced by Vann’s solid drumming, always regular but always spiced with little twists on the basic beat. In that wash of intensity, Rosen’s bass work often came through only in its own beats and the occasional reminder of where the tonic was. Every now and then, however, Thompson would drop down to the barely audible, allowing for better attention to his finger-work, Rosen’s bass line, and Vann’s diversity of embellished rhythms. Towards the end of the set, both Vann and Rosen were given extended solos, each of which provided a stimulating account of the fuller scope of what the player could do with his instrument.
As a departure from my usual listening habits, this all made for a stimulating brew, not to mention a reminder of how much diversity can be encountered among musicians who really know how to make their instruments sing.