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Monday, May 7, 2012

Saturday Blues Brunch w/ Otis Clay @ ARJ's Panache Lounge

May 5, 2012

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Excel at what you do for long enough in the public eye, and you become a legend. Be generous enough with your accessibility, and those who admire you can also call you a friend.

So appears to be the case for Otis Clay. The 70-year-old R&B/blues/gospel survivor had a full band concert booked at Evanston's Northwestern University last Saturday evening. That could have been enough showmanship for one man of that age for one day. But when friends at Milwaukee radio station WMCS, one of the nation's few commercial outlets to acknowledge Clay's ongoing artistic relevance, invited him to play at a morning event, he couldn't resist the offer.

The fact that Clay has a new album dropping this month probably didn't hurt the odds that he would make the trek of 100 miles or so last Saturday morning from his Chicago home to ARJ's Panache Lounge, one of Milwaukee's premier watering holes for grown folks with a taste for blues and classic soul. And speaking further of taste, there was the food—food that could well have struck a chord with Clay's memories of his Mississippi childhood.

Clay came in for veteran Milwaukee DJ Phil Anderson's "Saturday Blues Brunch." That's not only the name of his six-hour Saturday morning amalgamation of blues, Southern soul and old-school R&B, but since March of this year, also a get-together the first Saturday of every month featuring the kind of grub that complements his grooves. Chicken smothered in gravy, grits, sausage, baking powder biscuits, seasoned American fries, rice, scrambled eggs and a fruit salad bursting with citrus, melons and blackberries filled the serving trays in a back room not far from ARJ's pool table. The opportunity to see Clay technically was free; the meal was $10—and well worth it.

From what Clay told the crowd at ARJ's, his relationship with Anderson and Milwaukee audiences goes back at least 40 years, roughly coinciding with the era of arguably his most enduring hit, "Trying to Live My Life Without You," which he made a Top 25 R&B single eight years before Bob Seger rocked a remake into the pop Top 5. Clay recorded many songs before and after that number, including some stirring gospel work, the local favorite likely being "When the Gates Swing Open." In the '90s, that song closed the late O.C. White's Saturday afternoon show on one of the last of Milwaukee's full-time black music AM signals, WNOV. Clay had plans to sing newer numbers, but it didn't stop at least one ARJ's patron from shouting out a request for it.

That's not to say Clay didn't get in a bit of gospel, after a fashion. He concluded his brief set with his rendition of "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," the Joe South song that provides the title to the 2008 album that garnered Clay a Grammy nomination (he said it didn't much trouble him that Gerald Levert won in the same category). Though not a gospel song in the strictest sense, Clay's ingratiatingly gravelly tone wrung at least as much empathetic godly feeling from it as much of what Bobby Jones may have hosted on his sacred music showcase on BET the next morning.

Otherwise, Clay stuck to tunes from his next long player, Truth Is. Based on the three songs he sang from the album, Clay seems to have found a zone in which his finely aging instrument explores a space where fairly funky, slightly disco, late-'70s/early-'80s urban radio sensibilities find commonality with the suave grittiness of Southern soul practitioners such as Sir Charles Jones or Willie Clayton. It's fitting stuff for an underappreciated stalwart such as Clay. And it should be a shoe-in for play from Anderson and other like-minded radio-show hosts with a similar aesthetic.