Shiela Klinefelter: still keepin’ the blues alive
Shiela Klinefelter’s Wednesday night blues jam has for more than a decade served as a workshop for young blues musicians trying to find their depth’— since the time when she herself was cutting her teeth. Some of the Piedmont’s best practitioners of the form often show up to hone their craft, and some veterans who have since earned their stripes come back to pay their respects.
Klinefelter has been hosting the blues jam with various musical partners and in various venues since 1994. In the beginning it was hosted by her outfit, the Ladies Auxiliary Blues Band.
Tonight at the Clubhouse, a shiny sports bar tucked away behind a row of low-slung offices in Greensboro’s west end, the 43-year-old mother of three and ubiquitous performer is in her element. She chats up a young drummer and gets his phone number. She jokes with two high school boys from Chatham County that they only have two more days of school left, so they can get away with staying out late on a school night.
She confers with the soundman, a scene veteran who wears long grey hair and a flowered casual shirt open down past his chest. She kids around with old friends. A lot of her time is spent introducing people. Networking is part of the job.
The blues jam is as democratic as Klinefelter can make it. She puts together sets of musicians based on the order they sign up, so a neophyte who comes in early won’t have to wait for the polished performers to show off before he gets his turn around one in the morning. Sometimes guys will come in and want to play together because they’re trying to break in a new band. Klinefelter acts as matchmaker.
It’s not as logistically challenging as one might think.
‘“When you got three kids, juggling a jam sign-in list is very relaxing,’” she avers.
Klinefelter has two confederates who dependably show up for the Wednesday night jam session. One is Tim Buffington, a 47-year-old singer and harp player who wears his hair in an Elvis-style pompadour and sports a pair of overalls and a denim jacket, calling himself ‘“the designated heartbreaker.’” Another is 52-year-old Charlie Atwell, who drives from Raleigh for the open mic, and gigs up and down the Atlantic seaboard with the Coconut Groove Band.
Buffington has been with Klinefelter since the beginning. Atwell has been a co-host for about three years.
‘“There are a lot of players who need a forum to express themselves,’” Atwell says. ‘“Players are constantly looking for the opportunity to find other players of like ability and interest. As the term ‘musical chairs’ suggests, sooner or later you’re going to find the right seat and a band will form.’”
Buffington describes the process more concisely.
‘“It’s like community service,’” he says, ‘“but in a bar.’”
Among the players who have sharpened their abilities on Klinefelter’s stage is Tim Betts, who started coming to the open mic from Sedalia as a teenager, and now plays guitar with Louisiana zydeco bandleader CJ Chenier and fronts his own band here in Greensboro.
Another is 19-year-old Matt Hill, winner of the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society’s talent showcase whose band recently played the Carolina Blues Festival. Hill’s band is a group of blues jam regulars, including Klinefelter on bass, Chuck Cotton ‘— who won the blues society’s ‘Keepin’ the Blues Alive’ award’— on drums, and Terry VunCannon on National steel.
At around midnight and about a half dozen sets into the thing, seven players take the stage, bantering and trading riffs with ease. Four of them are the members of the Matt Hill Blues Band. And then there’s Buffington, a long-time Greensboro guitar player named Max Drake, and Chuck Ward, who switches between the keys and a MIDI wind controller that mimics a saxophone.
Klinefelter, who wears a long, mod-style haircut like Chrissie Hynde and sings in the frank Southern blues mold of Lucinda Williams, purses her lips in satisfaction as she lightly rocks her upper body to the band’s ’70s-era N’Awlins funk groove.
Hill announces the next song as if channeling an ancient, smoky-voiced bluesman: ‘“This is one that Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded. Lynyrd Skynrd really liked this one.’”
Klinefelter laughs as the band launches into a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘“Evil,’” a song whose relentless rhythm can only be described as, well, wicked. Hill grimaces and stomps as he delivers the vocals and a series of blistering guitar leads.
After the song, Klinefelter turns to Hill, as if concerned, and asks, ‘“So, what’s going on?’” before declaring, ‘“That was killer.’”
Klinefelter has made the blues her full-time profession. Tomorrow night, she’ll host the open mic at Plum Krazy’s. The following Saturday she plays in her husband, Bump’s band at a club in Danville, Va. (Cotton plays drums in the band too; Klinefelter says since all four of them have received ‘Keepin’ the Blues Alive’ awards, they might rename the band ‘Bump & Logie and the Keeping the Blues Alive Band.) Then, on Tuesday, she and Cotton will play with Hill at Fisher’s Grill in Greensboro.
In nine days her own band Ladies Auxiliary, in which she sings and plays guitar, will play Ritchy’s in Greensboro. Cotton, another ubiquitous musician, is also a member of the Ladies, which these days is composed of ‘“two ladies and a kick-ass rhythm section,’” as Klinefelter puts it. Cotton likes to call the rhythm section ‘Los Lucky Boys.’
Dave Kindred, the soundman, has watched Klinefelter’s blues career unfold over the years.
‘“When they first started out, Ladies Auxiliary was kind of a novelty act,’” he says. ‘“They learned three songs in three months. And then they learned six songs in six months. But now she’s gotten to be a rock-solid bass player. Nothing fancy. But I can’t think of any guitar player that wouldn’t love to play with her.’”
Klinefelter makes it clear she’s always regarded the blues as an endeavor of equals.
‘“There are guys that really know how to play,’” she says. ‘“They will share it with you if you really want to know. They’re generous, I guess.’”
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