The groove returns as Greensboro music venue celebrates 25 years

by Jordan Green

When I was first checking out the scene in Greensboro in early 2005, there was a cohort of fans who lived on the groove, and most of the time they converged on the Blind Tiger. There were jam bands and there were Led Zeppelin cover bands. But the pinnacle was the blues, not a version of the Chicago blues packaged for mass consumption like a Budweiser commercial, but something more exquisite that was inflected with emotional subtlety. I detected a hint of New Orleans syncopation and funk, I thought.

The players always gave each other utmost respect. I remember meeting Dave McCracken, the first Hammond B-3 player I ever got to know. I was impressed at how he packed that monster box into the old Blind Tiger on Walker Avenue. I learned to appreciate the gentle swell of the instrument as it undergirded a flurry of guitar notes, and then erupted in a churchy testimonial or punched in like a hurricane bearing down on the coastline.

And the fans, they were the most loyal kind. Always someone was coming up to sing the band’s praises or to recommend a new act they’d discovered. They danced without inhibition, drank heavily and never lost sight of joy.

On Saturday, I was back at the Blind Tiger for the 25 th anniversary weekend. Cyril Lance — one of the most respected bandleaders of the mid-2000s — was headlining, but playing the first set from 10 p.m. to midnight.

It was a reunion in the truest sense, albeit in a newer venue, with old familiar faces thronging the joint. The middleaged gent from Burlington who mended a broken heart by going out to hundreds of concerts per year, the former tender who watched many a show with an appraising eye from behind the bar — they were some of the fans who knew it was going to be good.

Lance, a scientist, refined musician and curator of songs from the American roots highway, works full-time these days at Moog Music in Asheville, and performs rarely. You would hardly know it from the sizzling combustion created by the quartet he put together for the show. His old friend, McCracken, who plays 120 nights a year with the Donna the Buffalo was on Hammond B-3. Andy Ware, a Greensboro resident who plays with Hobex and made his own mark on North Carolina music fame as a member of Dillon Fence, played bass. The drummer, Ed Butler of Raleigh, had, incredibly, never played before with Lance. (Butler took a break midway through the gig to let Kelly Pace, a photojournalist and former Lance sideman, sit in.)

“Freedom,” a tribute to Richie Havens, was a counterintuitive choice for an opener that makes perfect sense in hindsight, considering the overall spiritual and sonic thrust of Lance’s vision. He began by strumming the song’s rudimentary rhythm by himself, building to a blistering crescendo as the band locked in behind him. Lance’s playing is a delight to behold. In addition to being an excellent rhythm player, his solos are restrained and soulful with adequate control to sustain intensity.

Lance and the band followed with “Eyes on the Prize,” a civil rights hymn recently repopularized through a funky, simmering reading by Mavis Staples. The quartet proved equal to the bar set by Staples, with Lance demonstrating adept slide playing as Butler and McCracken carried out a playful tet-a-tet between the drums and Hammond B-3.

The band also distinguished itself with a satisfying version of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Tin Pan Alley” that displayed Lance’s penchant for rambling guitar solos.

Hula dancers waiting for the next set by ESP filtered to the front, part of an intermixture of appreciative observers and inebriated boogie children. It was a party, after all. A guy I like to call the “Chicken-Dance Provocateur” whose crew cut, pinstripe shirt and cargo shorts made him look like he was stranded between the beach and the insurance office, aggressively wove through the crowd. He would periodically wander up to select females and stare at them with an admixture of acid-freakout and childish curiosity that appeared to be met with mostly humor.

A young woman who challenged the band to play Beatles songs in a drunken slur caused more of a stir, with Lance catching himself before embarking on a song with a guitar set for a different tuning.

Luckily, Lance recovered quickly and after Butler reclaimed the kit from Pace, the band launched into a stellar version of the Utah Phillips folk song “Rock Salt and Nails.” Lance’s exquisitely soaring slide solo on the number helped propel the band to an Allmans/Dead-like stadium ambience in the mid-sized venue.

When it was over, there were envyinducing texts going forth with summaries about what had transpired, the drummer retreated to the dressing room to decompress, and Lance and McCracken caught up with old friends.

Given the life current circumstances of the respective players, it will likely be a long time before something like that goes down again.