A steady-rollin’ man comes full circle at the Flat
What’s a guy like him doing in a place like this? It’s a Thursday night, for one, and “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin is a Saturday night kind of guy. He didn’t spend his green years seated at the right hand of Muddy Waters, sucking it up and throwing it down, to be the opening act on a freakin’ Thursday. In
a basement bar in downtown Greensboro, no less — the Flatiron, subterranean headquarters of the city’s hipster, musician
and general inebriate quotient. Everybody knows this guy, right? One of the last true practitioners of old Chicago blues? Guitarist for Muddy Waters’ band in the 1970s? Contemporary of Johnny Winter, Taj Mahal, insert-your favorite-influentialblues-artist-here? C’mon! The guy was in The Last Waltz! And if you know of him, you probably also know that Margolin lives in Greensboro, is very much a part of the local blues community and has been known to take gigs with some of the up-and-comers in small music halls around the Triad. So maybe it’s not so strange seeing Margolin on the Flat’s abbreviated stage leaning into his well-seasoned axe while the crowd grows deep enough to make the walls bulge. On a Thursday. A voice from the bar shouts: “Who were your influences?” “I wanted to play the guitar because of Chuck Berry’s music,” Margolin answers. “And you, the nice young lady at the bar.” “How did you get the nickname ‘Steady Rollin’” she wants to know. It’s a long story involving Muddy Waters, a college radio DJ and a cut by the Robert Johnson Trio made way back in the day called “Steady Rollin’ Man.” After telling the tale, Margolin launches into his own version of the tune that gave him his name. “I’m a hard-workin’ man,” he sings, “have been for many years.” Amen, brother. Bob Margolin is no stranger to rooms like this, with beer rings on the bartops and smoke gathering in the corners and well used whiskey bottles that pour all night long. After his stint with Muddy came to an end in 1980, the Steady Rollin’ Man spent the decade working the mid-Atlantic bar circuit for booze-soaked rooms where the blues is more than just a chord progression. People ask him about it all the time. “It was about the music,” he’ll say. “There never was a whole lot of money in it.” Tonight, on stage, he remembers Greensboro’s Nightshade CafÃ©. “Oh man. The place would get full-up, the ceiling was just a few inches overhead, the Chinese restaurant was upstairs. I really miss those kinds of places and those kinds of days,” he says. “Thank you for bringing it up.” And then, just like on an episode of VH- 1’s “Storytellers,” he launches into “The Thrill is Gone,” which you’ve got to know is a Roy Hawkins tune and not just something pretty that BB King makes with Lucille. Margolin prefers the Hawkins version, which allows him to play chords — BB King was a one-note wonder. He plays a tight lead and then messes with the meter, something he picked up from the Mud Man, creating this pocket… and then he’s in it, bending the neck and stretching the strings in a solo that starts like gently falling snowflakes and ends like a blizzard. The notes hold power, enthralling some and inspiring others while all the guitar players in the room try to pinch these licks. And then Margolin comes full circle, laying into “Johnny B. Goode,” the number that made Chuck Berry — and, by proxy, Bob Margolin — a star. On bass is Stan Atwell, a Greensboro attorney who is one of 12 musicians who have signed up to sit in with the legend. Afterwards, he’s exhilarated. “I felt like I kept up,” he says, “but really it was about the chance to play with Bob Margolin.” Atwell’s band, Lawyers, Guns & Money, plays here at the Flat Thursday night. After the show there’s whiskey and cigarettes and beers as the band members rotate on the stage, each trying to pay tribute to Greensboro’s most famous bluesman who tonight has come full circle in his own hometown. To them it’s a moment for the ages. Margolin keeps a cool head. “I don’t think I’m very famous,” he says afterwards. “To be well known in the blues world is like being a jumbo shrimp.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.