By Rod Peck
Saturday, Jan. 18 was bitterly cold and icy in Muscatine, to the point that if I hadn’t had a professional commitment to attend the “Mussel Down To The Blues” event at the National Pearl Button Museum at the History & Industry Center, Terri and I might well have said to heck with it.
Judging by the empty seats at an event for which every ticket had been sold, plenty of other folks reached the same conclusion. This is easily understandable, but quite unfortunate, as a surprisingly fantastic night of music was had by all who braved the wintry weather.
Terri and I started the evening at our favorite local Mexican restaurant, El Olmito, which I believe to be Muscatine’s best-kept culinary secret. Located at 502 Mulberry Ave., El Olmito is, in my experience, the most authentic Mexican food in town. El Olmito serves as a dual purpose Mexican restaurant/grocery store and has been in the same location since 1987, and the old building is currently undergoing a much-needed renovation. I used to enjoy taking out-of-towners to El Olmito and before going in telling them, “It may not look like much from here, but this is one fine dining establishment.”
Once we made it to the Pearl Button Museum, we found that a duo known only as Pearl was to be a last-minute opening act, and their performance just goes to show that you never know where you might stumble upon some real musical talent.
Pearl is a local group that matches Chris Weyrick on acoustic guitar and vocals with singer Tanya McDowell, whose soulful, sultry voice was a real revelation. As if to answer any questions about where their name comes from, the first song Ms. McDowell sang was a cover of Janis Joplin’s version of “Me and Bobby McGee,” which first appeared on Joplin’s final album, titled “Pearl.” From there Ms. McDowell went right into another song by an iconic female voice from the ‘60s, “White Rabbit,” which was written and sung by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick on their classic 1967 album “Surrealistic Pillow.” I personally would love to see Pearl fill out into a full band that would give Ms. McDowell more opportunity to showcase her vocal talent.
The featured act for the evening already had their equipment set up and sprang right into action within minutes after Pearl’s set was over. Blues Rock-It is a high-energy Blues/boogie outfit based in the Quad-Cities that instantly had those of us in attendance clappin’ our hands and tappin’ our toes. Lead singer and guitarist Boogs Malone is a Texas native who not only has impressive skills, but also the stage presence and charisma to keep an audience engaged from start-to-finish.
Mr. Malone is a natural showman, but never goes over-the-top with his performance style. Blues Rock-It also features virtuosic harmonica player “Detroit” Larry Davison and Josh Green on rhythm and slide guitar, with Jim VanHyfte on drums and bassist Ian Farmer rounding out the lineup. As they played, a quote from the cult classic film “The Blues Brothers” kept popping into my head, in which legendary Memphis bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn proclaims the band’s sound to be “powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline.”
What I mean to say is these guys could go back in time to play behind Elmore James and never miss a beat! Their repertoire included one indisputable Blues classic after another, with “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “Got My Mojo Workin’,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Dust My Broom” being among my favorites.
Speaking with Mr. Malone between sets, I learned that he and Mr. Green are brothers, originally from rural east Texas near the small town of Centreville, which is known to Blues fans as the home of one Samuel “Lightnin’” Hopkins.
I also found that we shared a love for the late Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn, whom Mr. Malone credits with “opening a door for me to all the great Blues artists who inspired him, such as Big Bill Broonzy.” In theory at least, anyone could become a rock ‘n’ roll singer, but for a white man to sing the Blues convincingly requires making a special connection to another culture. “You have to have the feel for it,” Mr. Malone commented, adding “You can’t sell it to people if you don’t have that feelin.’” Terri and I are sold on that very thing, and we’ll be looking forward to another chance to take in their set when opportunity presents itself. Blues Rock-It has written several original tunes and has their own unique take on several of the Blues standards they perform, material with which Mr. Malone said they plan use on an album in 2020.
Pearl Button Museum director Terry Eagle joined Blues Rock-It capably on harmonica for two songs, and was delighted with the evening’s program, suggesting that this may be only the beginning of a series of musical events that will serve not only as fund-raisers, but also to heighten awareness of our town’s unique story.
“The pearl-button industry of Muscatine is a fascinating chapter of American history that deserves to be more widely known,” Mr. Eagle told me after the show. “Our hope is that tonight will be the start of something special that will help promote that.”
The museum is currently operating under their winter schedule of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, but will resume a Tuesday-thru-Saturday schedule beginning in March. It is is located at 117 W. 2nd St. and is nothing less than a civic treasure. If you or your children are not fully aware of Muscatine’s past, I urge you to make it a point to get on down to the Pearl Button Museum in the near future.