Wes Race’s Cryptic Whalin’! 


By Ken Shimamoto 

A few years back, when I briefly played second guitar for Lady Pearl’s B.T.A. Band, subbing for a muso who was also a schoolteacher and so used to like to miss the last set of their regular Sunday night soirees at the now-defunct Swing Club at Evans and Allen, one of the highlights of the night invariably came when Wes Race would get up and flow verse over Ray Reed’s version of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ toon “Mr. Charley” (the one about the kid with the st-st-stutter).  

The Kansas expat boho poet-spoken word artiste’s bluesfan credentials are impeccable: cat was there, Chicago in the early ‘70s, hangin’ at the Jazz Record Mart, scribing for Living Blues, roadying for Hound Dog Taylor (the real ‘riginator of the ultra-primitive fucked-up blues as co-opted by young upstarts like Jon Spencer, Jack White, an’ like that). Back home in Wichita in the ‘80s, Wes connected with Texas-based bluesicians including the Fort’s own Juke Jumpers, and he relocated here in the ‘90s, his hipster jive patois and unique selection of hats making him an unmistakable fixture on the local blues set.  

Up till Cryptic Whalin’!, Race’s only released recordings were a couple of tracks on the two CDs of hallucinatory blues guitar wizardry he produced for the late Robin Sylar. Now, ex-Juke Jumper Jim Colegrove has assembled a “who’s who” of Fort Worth blues talent (dubbed “the Sumterraneans,” a piece of wordplay that works on a coupla levels) to back Wes on this, his debut full-length. Wes’ brand of spoken jive has a lineage traceable back to bebop scat-man Babs Gonzalez and boho comedian Lord Buckley. Non-initiates could probably best relate it to Tom Waits’ monologues, but the proximate model for both Waits and Race is probably Ken Nordine, a voice actor who cut a series of “word jazz” LPs in the late ‘50s.  

Opener “Shot Time” is a new setting for a poem Wes originally cut with Robin Sylar for the guitarist’s Bust Out CD, a version that was more impactful because the accompanying musos left more room for Wes to spout his spiel. The loping, laid-back “Shotgun”-style groove laid down by the players here – including ex-Juke Jumpers Sumter Bruton (guitar) and Rene Ozuna (sax) and Ruf Rufner on organ – is fine, but the continuous string of solos indicates that Wes’ vocal might only have been added to the track as an afterthought. In “Ludella Small Blues,” Wes casts a judgmental eye on a ‘70s Wichita groupie gal, with Colegrove and his Lost Country pianist Jeff Gutcheon doing a credible job of recreating the sound of those ‘60s Otis Spann-Robert Jr. Lockwood duets on Barnaby – lovely stuff. 

The entahr Lost Country band turns up on the western swing-flavored “Ragmop Reality,” and again, the busy accompaniment (including backing voxxx) threatens to overwhelm Wes’ prose poem, the best bit of which concerns a fractious Hound Dog Taylor gig “at Notre Dame, of all places.” The down ‘n’ dirty “Bright Boy’s Boogie” (with a real boogie woogie pianner courtesy of Fort Worth Business Press journo Mike Price) is lowdown enough to carry you back to the glory daze of the New Bluebird Nite Club, if you’re old enough to remember ‘em, with high-larious lines like “I shared a bong with King Kong / Did some stalkin’ with Christopher Walken…Next stop is Damita Jo / Who likes to flash-o her gash-o on my cash-o.” (And no parental advisory sticker, even.) Next we leap into the 21st Century with “Madam Fu-Fu’s Dream Book,” a surrealistic piece with sizzling electronic backing by sampler/remixer Harry Hoggard. One wonders what the folks at the Keys Lounge will make of this. 

“T-99” marks a reunion of sorts for the Bruton-Price Swingmasters, who used to hold forth at a coffeehouse in Cityview a few years back. Sumter digs deep into his T-Bone Walker bag while Mike tickles them ivories real pretty and Wes serves as our guide on, um, a sexual tour of the Wild West Side. On “Cryptic Cocktail Mix,” Bruton and Price essay sprightly James ‘n’ Wes-esque organ trio funk, of which the Organ Queer Aficionados will undoubtedly approve. (Note to self: Must remember to catch Red Young the next time he brings his B-3 to Ovation.) 

“Dreaming at the Dig Palace” is a twisted film noir-ish odyssey with minimalist “Peter Gunn Theme” backing worthy of the White Stripes or any number of latter-day two-piece “dirty blues” outfits. (Listen closely and you’ll hear directions to Wes’ crib…almost.)  “Voodoo-ola” is the loosest item here, Colegrove and Ozuna both blowing freely without stepping on Wes’ spiel, and sesh MVP “Snake-Eyes” Valdez kicking the traps. Baptized in Bop” is a smoky, after hours blues that shuts it down with cool papas James Hinkle (guitar) and Johnny Reno (sax) sittin’ in. 

Myself, I’ve got a ton of stuff like this at home (by the likes of ‘60s revolutionary/blues scholar John Sinclair, expat Brit journo-novelist Mick Farren, and Ohio poetry rawker Dan McGuire), but admittedly, spoken word’s an acquired taste, with or without musical backing. Still, if you dig well-played blues and jazz at all and have a literary bent, you owe it to yourself to hear this. Go see Sumter at Record Town and ask for it – and tell him I sent ya. 

Shabam indeed!