Johnny Rawls proved to be a bluesman after my own heart when I noticed that his red Stratocaster displayed a sticker with one of those traffic-sign slashes through the song title "Mustang Sally." Clearly, he's opposed to such a moldy, house-rockin' tune—a cliché to many fans—played to appeal to the drunken masses.
On the other hand, he did refer to himself in the third person—"Johnny Rawls, Mississippi bluesman"—as if extending a business card, several times during his two sets Friday night at Plaza Palomino. But such showbiz staginess can be forgiven of such a powerful, experienced performer, one who has been playing and on the road for more than 40 years.
Rawls, who was last in Tucson in February, performed in Suite 147 at Plaza Palomino, a retail space transformed into a pleasant listening room by the folks behind the Rhythm and Roots concert series. It's a simple, unthreatening space, adorned mostly by black drapes, exposed duct work, wood-tile flooring and some sculpted accents. The seating is slightly chaotic, but that ceased to be an issue as soon as Rawls exhorted the audience to fill the dance floor. He said he didn't want the concert to be the sort where the crowd just looked at him for a couple of hours.
Playing a combination of electrified Delta blues and uptown soul, Rawls sang with a voice equal parts honey and rum. He played guitar so effortlessly that he didn't seem to be working very hard. But this assumption was belied by the sizzle of his well-practiced solos, whether he was playing a Memphis-style stroll, some 1970s-era soul-funk or a mess of mean ol' Texas blues.
Rawls' backing band was composed of some of Tucson's best players: drummer Ralph Gilmore, bassist Steve Grams and tenor saxophone player Alex Flores, whose solos often got the spotlight, thrillingly re-creating a raucous juke-joint explosion of proto-rock and classic R&B. These guys seemed to hit the sweet spot on every tune, even if it was basic 12-bar blues. Their performance was all the more impressive considering they didn't rehearse with Rawls in advance.
Comedian Robert Mac opened the show. He told about 20 minutes of jokes, and some people laughed.