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Mister Energy Man's Blues

Eddie Kirkland
Some Like It Raw: With a stinging guitar attack that never lets up, Eddie Kirkland's mercurial style is best heard live.

Eddie Kirkland has been sliding the blues since he was a teenager

By Nicky Baxter

TRUE FACT: When Eddie Kirkland was 12, he ran off with the circus; the Sugar Girls Medicine Show, it was called. "The show used to come to my town every year," the veteran bluesman recollects. "And ever since I was five years old, I always wanted to be a showman." Five years old? Wasn't that a little young to be considering career choices? "Well," Kirkland says in a scratchy voice, "I figgered I was old enough to do what I wanted to do. So I just up and joined."

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Kirkland immigrated to Dothan, Ala., with his teenage mother when he was still in diapers. But let Kirkland continue his story: "So one night--it was real late at night--I snuck out the house and crawled up underneath one of the [circus] tents. And they drove on out, headed for Kentucky," the bemused guitarist/ singer/harmonica player recalls. In due course, he was discovered. "I told 'em I wanted to be in the medicine show. They seen I had a harmonica and ask me if I knowed how to play it. So I jump up and do my stuff, 'cause I had already been playing for a li'l while."

The runaway child had developed a full-fledged act. The bit where Kirkland feigned as if he'd swallowed his harp, wheezing like an asthmatic, was what clinched his first gig. "Man, those guys was laughing so hard!" Kirkland has remained employed since that day. And he's never forgotten the importance of showmanship. A bundle of energy then, the dapper, turban-wearing performer displays no signs of slowing down, which is pretty amazing considering that the man turned 68 last month. Incredible, too, are the facts of Kirkland's life.

Like the time Kirkland left show business to join the army. He was 15. How'd he pull it off without parental consent? "Well, I had the [high] school sign the papers. Yep. Stayed in the army for a year and a half. Then they threw me out. For fighting." Seems a certain racist lieutenant from Alabamy couldn't keep at least one of his feet on the ground, electing instead to plant it between the cheeks of the young buck private. Why'd he have to go and do that? Kirkland won the fight but "lost" the battle, receiving a dishonorable discharge 16 months before his 18th birthday.

Still, you get the feeling that if Uncle Sam hadn't given him the boot, Kirkland probably would've gone AWOL anyway. The man just can't stay put.

IN FACT, Kirkland's nickname is "Mr. Energy Man," which is so corny only a publicist could have dreamed it up. Still, it's an accurate description. Trying to pin Kirkland down for an interview wasn't particularly easy. By the time Mr. Energy Man was located, it was time for sound check, and he could spare just a few minutes to talk.

"When I was with the medicine show," he recalls, "I made $12--good money in them days. But my career in show business has been tough." Still, some of his dreams have come true--like playing before thousands of blues fans. "I ain't rich, but I do all right. And I like what I do."

Given the mercurial nature of Kirkland's performance style, duplicating it on disc has been like shooting craps--sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. It's a little bit of both in the case of Eddie Kirkland Live! Some Like It Raw, recorded at the reputedly legendary Yale Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia. ("Home of Rhythm Blues [sic], 100 Years" reads the shameless self-promotional inscription directly above the hotel's name.)

Maybe Deluge Records wanted to capture Kirkland's rattled rooster vibe, or it could be that the label is just plain funny that way. Whatever: Raw kicks off in the middle of a Kirkland slide-guitar solo packed with enough Delta mud to stock a cotton plantation. Winding down, he commences exhorting the crowd to avoid hard drugs, singing in this bizarre Tennessee hoe-down cadence. "Stay away from that bag, y'all," he intones like a country drug counselor.

After another short, stinging ride on slide, it's "Thank you, goodnight, goodnight." And then he promptly launches into the next number. And the next. Kirkland, it turns out, is just warming up. Who cares if his supporting cast is an average white band and that Kirkland's guitar playing is at times somewhat erratic? Mr. Energy's in the house.

Eddie Kirkland plays Thursday (Sept. 12) at JJ's Blues Lounge, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara. Tickets are $10. (408/243-6441)

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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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