Beverly "Guitar" Watkins
Beverly "Guitar" Watkins' live album, In Paris!, is high energy, not in volume or notes-per-second but in her focused intensity. The fact that she recorded it at age 73 shows that blues experience and soul is the ultimate musical tool.
Watkins, born in 1939, floated around the Atlanta scene for years, playing with giants like James Brown, B.B. King, and Ray Charles, but unable to make a go of a solo career. The Music Maker Relief Foundation, which also released In Paris! got her doing some shows with Koko Taylor and Rory Block, allowing her to make her solo album debut in 1999, at age 60.
Listening to this concert, recorded in 2012 (and one track from 2010), it seems inconceivable, and inexcusable, that a singer and guitarist with so much heart and talent could languish for so long because the blues world couldn't imagine a woman of color who could outplay most men. And while this set is a wonderful listen, it's hard not to feel like it's too little too late, as Watkins died in 2019.
Watkins' show sounds surprisingly contemporary. Even taking her age out of the equation, the show is still a decade old. There's a funkiness and a sense of groove that goes beyond Chicago and the Delta. While it sounds like she's using a full horn section, it's really Lil' Joe Burton and his trombone making it sound like he's playing with a few other people.
"Do the Breakdown" is James Brown energy distilled down to it's smallest pieces: drums, Watkins' guitar, and Burton's trombone. It's not traditional blues, but it's a beat that grabs onto you and won't let you go. Watkins' vocals ride it all, like a rodeo cowboy who won't let the bull buck her off. If the album were a loop of that one track, most people would still be more than happy with it.
Luckily, calmer heads prevailed and decided to make the live album more than a single song. She pays tribute to her time with Ray Charles by covering his "What'd I Say," Watkins taking the tune on with a throaty vocal, rhumba-ing through swirls of organ. "Lonesome Window Blues" is a slow blues where Watkins shows off some sick, jaw-dropping harmonica that makes you realized she's underappreciated in multiple instruments.
One of the hotter tracks is "Red Mama Blues," a 2010 performance actually recorded outside of Paris in Kittery, Maine. Watkins uses a jazzy vocal performance, matching it to uptown, B.B. King-style guitar. Compared to some of the funkier tracks from Paris, it almost sounds like a different artist, showing how versatile and talented Watkins was.
Watkins worked hard at her craft and In Paris! captures her brilliance. It's easy to focus on her age, because of the power of these performances, which you would probably associate with a younger person. And while it's easy to appreciate these songs as they are, it's also hard not to wonder how much of Watkins' prime we missed because she didn't fit the music industry's mental model for a blues artist.