Fresh off the release of Blue Mesa (Bloodshot Records) (read our review of it here), Luke Winslow King began his tour this past month with a run of East Coast dates. On Monday, this landed him at the renowned Mercury Lounge, a long standing venue in New York’s Lower East Side, mostly known as the place where bands such as the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs cut their teeth.
Speaking with Luke before the show, he was excited to finally perform the new material and return to the stage. It was certainly apparent from the get-go. They opened the night with “I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always,” a churning, bluesy stomp that showcases Luke’s ties to New Orleans and love of Delta blues. You could sense the band was “hittin’ the note” when Luke stressed the refrain of ‘I’m glaaaaad….,’ causing drummer Chris Davis to simply look up and smile.
They launched into their new material with “Chicken Dinner,” a soul-infused boogie anchored by Christian Carpenter’s steady bass line. Next up was “You Got Mine,” with opener Katie Lee lending vocals for the chorus. They slowed things down a bit for the middle of the set with “Blue Mesa” and “Farewell Blues,” the latter of which showcases Luke’s country/folk leanings, opting to use his fingers and a thumb pick to help tell the tale of a lover who is tired of waiting. The title track of Luke’s latest album is something made to play on a late summer evening driving through the southwest, with Luke crooning “The cactus wind is softly blowing…” eventually giving way to a haunting slide solo; Luke’s guitar prowess (both with and without the use of his slide) was in full effect the moment they tore into the first song, but this was just a hint of what was to come.
The second half of the set picked up the pace with “Born to Roam” and “Leghorn Women,” with “Leghorn” being a funky, Chicago blues influenced jam. Luke laid into his Fender Strat, echoing phrases from the “three Kings,” (B.B., Albert, and Freddie) with the crowd cheering him on after each solo break. Luke then dug into his back catalogue, pulling off “Cadillac Slim,” “Let ‘Em Talk,” and “Domino Sugar.” You could see it in his smile after “Domino” that few in the big city were having as much fun as they were on that stage.
The show stopper of the night, however, was easily “Thought I Heard You,” which demonstrated the dynamics of the band. Luke stepped to the front of the stage as both Chris and Christian sat back in the mix, only to have all of them crescendo into Luke’s blistering slide solo. More smiles. Luke brought the crowd back down to earth with “Break Down the Walls,” again with Katie Lee on backing vocals. The set ended with “Swing That Thing,” again with the band going full tilt, this time with the crowd joining in on the “swing that thing” call and response, followed by more “oooohs” and “ahhhhs.”
Throughout the set, each of them played with a sense of joy and charm that spilled out onto the venue, mostly by way of the blues. It’s a funny thing, the blues. It is often overlooked as a formulaic, “woe is me” form of expression, but try telling that to anyone who plays or appreciates it. It is the acceptance of struggle, but also the affirmation of the healing spirit, of hope. This past Monday at Mercury, the blues was all smiles.