Published on August 5th, 2014 | by TLV News0
Lightnin’ Malcolm is Workin’ Hard: Blues powerhouse live at Proud Larry’s August 7th
This article originally appeared in The Local Voice #209 (published July 31, 2014). To download a PDF of this issue, click here.
by Suanne Strider
Steve “Lightnin” Malcolm’s 2013 album Rough Out There—released on his own independent record label Shakedown Records—very appropriately begins with a song called “Workin.” Malcolm may just be the new “hardest working man in show business,” a term James Brown often used to refer to himself. From the time Malcolm left home at the age of fifteen, he has been constantly “workin.” He left his Southeast Missouri home to, in his words, “become a man and learn how to play the blues.” As a child Malcolm heard a John Lee Hooker album and a tape of Muddy Waters, and from that point on, he knew he wanted to be a bona fide Blues Man. His travels took him all the way from California to Mississippi, with many stops along the way—all the while working constantly on his instrumentation and style.
Malcolm was following the blues music scene, which led him eventually (of course) to Mississippi. He landed in Como when he was about sixteen, where he met Othar “Otha” Turner, the legendary North Mississippi Hill Country blues man made famous for his particular style of blues featuring the drums and fife. Otha and Malcolm became fast friends, and this was Malcolm’s induction into the world of the blues that would lead him to play with and learn from just about every great blues man that was still living at the time.
Malcolm was seventeen when he first met R.L. Burnside at Red’s Juke Joint in Clarksdale, Miss. During that time, Red’s music schedule operated more like an open mic night every night, where musicians were invited to bring their instruments and, as long as they were good, they could come up and play. Each person in the room was well aware of who should go on and in what order, according to their stature in the blues community. Malcolm remembers that night at Red’s: “There had been this crazy dude sittin’ right up front drinkin’ and givin’ everybody hell all day long and I was thinking, ‘There ain’t no way this man is leavin’ here in any other way than in the back of a police car’…then he ends up getting up there and playin’ and bein’ the main attraction of the whole thing.”
That man was R.L. Burnside, and this would be the night that changed Malcolm’s life forever. After he met R.L., he began spending a lot of time in Chulahoma, Mississippi (near Holly Springs) with the Burnside and Kimbrough families. He went to Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint called “Junior’s Place” as often as he could to sit in the audience and wait for the chance to be asked onstage to play. Junior and R.L. both would often allow their sons and grandsons to come to Junior’s Place to play music with them. It was a family affair that Malcolm quickly became a big part of. At that time, Malcolm was mainly playing whatever instrument needed to be played in whatever band was playing at Junior’s Place that night.
It was during this time that Malcolm also met Cedric Burnside—R.L.’s grandson and the son of R.L.’s long-time drummer Calvin Jackson. Cedric was just a young man of fourteen then and, like Malcolm, was hanging out at Junior’s Place, learning all he could. Years later, in 2006, Cedric and Malcolm would team up to become one of the most popular and critically acclaimed blues duos of all time. In 2009 they won “Best New Artist Debut of the Year” for their critically acclaimed album Two Man Wrecking Crew at the Blues Music Awards, and they toured very successfully for years all over the world.
But Malcolm’s greatest influence was T-Model Ford. Malcolm played drums as a duo with T-Model on and off for years. T-Model was notorious for being difficult to play with, but Malcolm fell right in step with the blues legend.
When Malcolm was playing with T-Model, he developed a close relationship with one of T-Model’s grandsons, Carl Gentle White—a.k.a. “Stud.” Stud was only a toddler when Malcolm first started playing with T-Model, and Malcolm would spend a lot of time with Stud—teaching him to play drums, and also becoming a mentor for the young man. Malcolm took Stud under his wing, much like the blues greats had done for Malcolm.
He taught Stud not only how to play the drums, but how to succeed in the music business and in life—stressing to Stud the importance of staying out of the gang-related activities that are such a plague on the African-American youth of the Mississippi Delta.
When Malcolm teamed up with Cedric Burnside to create their duo, Stud became T-Model’s drummer at the tender age of seven. Leigh Taylor, the sound engineer at Proud Larry’s, fondly remembers a night long ago when T-Model and Stud came to play a show. Stud was probably eight years old at the time, and Leigh laughed as he talked about how Stud was so worn out by ten o’clock and so visibly exhausted that he was barely able to keep his eyes open, but he kept on playing until about 11:30, when Stud got so tired he was literally falling asleep behind the drum set, causing T-Model to end the show early. Stud would be T-Model’s drummer on and off for the next ten years, until T-Model’s death in July of last year at the age of 89.
It was around that time that Malcolm decided to create a duo like the one he and Cedric Burnside had made so famous, and the obvious choice for Malcolm was Stud. Stud appears on Malcolm’s first solo album, Rough Out There, along with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars and Sharde Thomas of the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band. Now, at eighteen, Stud is poised perfectly to continue the family legacy, honoring his grandfather’s name and making a name for himself in the hallowed halls of blues history.
I was lucky enough to be at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale this spring when Lightnin Malcolm and Stud played at the New Roxy. The last time I had seen Malcolm play was years ago with Cedric, so I knew that I was in for a good show. But it wasn’t a good show—it was a great show. The vibe in the room was like a church revival. Souls were saved in that room that night by music, and Malcolm and Stud were leading the service. I’ve never seen an audience so moved by a band that they weren’t already familiar with—most of the audience was tourists from out of town. In a recent interview I did with Malcolm, he described his first real experience playing guitar in front of an audience—at a COGIC (Church of God in Christ) church in Malcolm’s hometown. Then it all made sense to me—Malcolm’s brilliant expertise at drawing the crowd into the energy and happiness he and his band are experiencing onstage originates from the education he received at a predominantly black church.
He remembers walking past the church by chance when he was about thirteen, and hearing the music that was coming out of the church. Malcolm had been teaching himself guitar whenever he could get his hands on one, because he did not have one of his own. So when a woman standing outside the church noticed Malcolm, she asked him if he wanted to come inside. He said, “Sure! Can I play some music with y’all’s band?” She said, “Sure! Come on in!” He remembers it this way:
I played in church a lot. That’s where I really started taking off. That’s where I really got a lot of my beat, and we never knew what key we were in when we played a song. The women would start singing, and the band would just fall in. It was a magical thing. So I learned to follow the vocals; that’s how I learned to follow the old guys, how to feel where the song was going, where the melody was going. Also, a big thing I learned in church was the release. They would get to stompin’, you had these ladies that had been stressed out all week—their lights got cut off, their husband gambled their money away—whatever their problem was. They didn’t smoke or drink—you know, sanctified ladies—so the pressure was just building up all week. Then Sunday would come, and they could let it all out. And they really did. It was a miracle that I was able to be around that. That was a big influence. Not just in how to play, but in how to make the room release. That’s probably the biggest thing of all. Anybody can play, but being able to make the room explode, that’s the goal. That’s what’s good.
Robert Plant obviously knows what’s good about Lightnin Malcolm. Plant chose the North Mississippi Allstars with Lightnin Malcolm to be the supporting act for his European tour this year—Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters. Malcolm plays bass, drums, and guitar with the Allstars on this tour. Malcolm is also joining the Allstars for three festivals they are playing on their own in Europe. And he is doing all of this while working on his next album with Stud, Turned Up On Loud, set to be released sometime this fall. On top of that, he is continuing his tour back in the states with Stud in between playing with the Allstars.
I am anxiously awaiting the Lightnin Malcolm and Stud show coming up at Proud Larry’s on Thursday, August 7th. It’s revival time, people. Come on out and get saved by the blues powerhouse that is Lightnin Malcolm and Stud.