At BJ’s Lounge in the Ninth Ward, Monday nights are always anything but dull. Normally the home base of King James and the Special Men, who traditionally kick off the week with their nasty, sweaty brand of vintage New Orleans R&B, the corner bar has this summer been the province of guest stars Guitar Lightnin’ Lee and his Thunder Band. The Lower Ninth Ward-born bluesman, a former student of “Boogie” Bill Webb and Jimmy Reed, has filled in over the past few weeks as the Special Men make their first foray up the East Coast and their debut at New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Monday night, July 15, was a little more crowded than usual as Lightnin’ concluded his first set of swamp pop and blues. Just before midnight, fans taking a break from the smoke-filled air outside got a hint at the reason why: first, Li’l Band O’Gold guitarist and frontman C.C. Adcock parked his black Cadillac beside a hydrant on Lesseps Street at the corner of Burgundy. A group of polite Englishmen spilled out, greeting the crowd of onlookers cheerfully, as Adcock remained outside on his cell phone, giving driving directions to someone who didn’t know the neighborhood: “OK, you’re on St. Claude Avenue?” he said. “No! Don’t go over the bridge!”
Adcock slipped into the bar and strapped on his guitar soon after, navigating the band through the Rolling Stones’ version of Louisiana bluesman Slim Harpo’s “Hip Shake.” Who he’d been directing on the phone became clear shortly, as Guitar Lightnin’ announced with a flourish: “Ladies and gentlemen, C.C. Adcock, and my very good friend, Robert Plant!”
Lightnin’ had met the former Led Zeppelin frontman in early 2007, during a tribute to Fats Domino at Tipitina’s in celebration of “Goin’ Home,” the 2006 Fats benefit album produced by the Tipitina’s Foundation. Adcock and his Li’l Band O’Gold had been paired with Plant in recording a track for the project, which led to a musical friendship that landed the group six opening slots for Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters band; Li’l Band O’Gold and the Space Shifters play the Mahalia Jackson Theater together Wednesday night, July 17. In town a couple of days early, Plant had, apparently, decided to make the most of his trip to South Louisiana.
BJ’s Lounge doesn’t, technically, have a stage. An archway, festooned with Christmas lights and “Happy Birthday” pennants in preparation for blues guitarist Little Freddie King’s birthday party next weekend divides the bar from the performance area. During regular evenings, the space beyond the arch is an extension of the bar, with comfy seats and eccentric posters on the walls. As Lightnin’s band played Monday, the Sensational Space Shifters, and Plant, hung out there, smiling and tapping their feet. When Plant took the mic, performing Slim Harpo’s “Sugar Coated Love” and “Got Love if You Want It,” as well as Earl King’s “Lonely Lonely Nights,” the Chess Records classic “Hoochie Coochie Man” and others, the Thunder Band slowly switched out with the Space Shifters, playing an easy, laid-back juke-joint jam session.
The bar was crowded, but frankly, a jam-packed room at BJ’s amounts to about 75 people. Ian St. Pe, the native New Orleanian co-founder of the buzzy garage-pop band the Black Lips, was in town visiting his family and had stopped in for a beer. Told why it was so crowded, he said, “You’re kidding,” and muscled to the front for a look.
At BJ’s Monday night, Plant was less of a performer than an enthusiastic, participating visitor. He teased with a two-second quotation of the Zep’s “Ramble On,” then briefly fronted the Thunder Band, rousing the crowd into a singalong for the opening hollers of Jesse Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” before slipping away quietly to the living-room area of the rear stage. As a Sensational Space Shifter sang lead, with a combined backing band, on “Let The Good Times Roll,” Plant was visible in the back of the room, sipping a Miller High Life; grinning ear to ear, he pulled out his cell phone and shot video of the action.