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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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At the Brink Lounge, Duluth bluesman Charlie Parr sings of rough characters
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Parr shaded his guitar leads with sad, pretty chords.
Parr shaded his guitar leads with sad, pretty chords.
Credit:Scott Gordon

Saturday night at the Brink Lounge, you could buy a tea towel with a woolly mammoth on it and the name of Duluth acoustic bluesman Charlie Parr. A man at the merch table explained that Parr ran across this musical-tea-towel tradition while touring in Australia, but he couldn't explain what the woolly mammoth was about.

Well, the woolly mammoth turned up in the lyrics of Parr's first song, as a metaphor for a man who doesn't quite feel welcome in his hometown under dark circumstances. It was one of several rough characters people in the usually sterile-feeling venue would hear from during Parr's two sets of blues and folk covers and originals: A bitter old man, a burnt-out liquor-store owner, the victims of the Titanic.

Looking a lot more frail and gaunt than he did during a show a few years ago at Café Montmartre, Parr switched between a 12-string acoustic and a beautiful Dobro that he said was made in Madison. He also accompanied himself by stomping with his boot heel on a percussion box that appeared to be made from a small drawer.

It took a few songs for Parr's foreboding baritone to emerge in full - he often favored a high twang that came out one side of his mouth. Whenever he pulled out the Dobro and a slide, the fingerpicked melodies came out frantic but in command. On "Dead Cat On The Line," he didn't simply draw his leads from the blues scale, but shaded them with sad and pretty chords, to illustrate the story of a man who "spent my 80th birthday all alone" and lashes out indignantly at those who'd presume to help him, as he languishes in a rented room above a bar.

After the song, he explained that its inspiration came from a 1930s preacher who did a good trade selling 78 RPM records of his sermons. The phrase "dead cat on the line," Parr explained, originated with a sermon about how "the telegraph machine will make you promiscuous ... the hit parade in 1931 was bleak."

Even when his between-songs talk delved into more blues-specific arcana, Parr spoke with authority and humor. His performance of a Leadbelly song, in which "blood come drippin' down" and "they whipped Him up the hill for me," was never less than earnest, but he described it to the crowd as "the Easter story condensed into two and a half or three minutes' worth of gore."

His other stories were funny, too, especially one about driving into the country to visit a shut-in gunsmith who sold him the shotgun barrel he used to make the slide with which he still plays. He introduced another song with a story about playing chicken with a cropduster in a soybean field. He explained that he'd manage to eat an entire pie in the car, on his way to Madison from Winona, Minn.

His set reached into the traditions of Irish folk, with "First Unto This Country," which he recorded for his recent album Keep Your Hands On The Plow (which features contributions from two of Duluth's other treasures, Low's Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker). Parr displayed an appreciation for the macabre slapstick of the blues with Blind Blake's "Rope Stretchin' Blues," which begin with the lines, "I caught a stranger in my home and I busted his head with a club."

The set climaxed with "God Moves On The Water," a Blind Willie Johnson song about the Titanic's sinking that has become a Parr standard. It's a little demented to think that God put that iceberg there just to spite man's hubris, but that's what makes the song tempting, and Parr's fingerpicking and urgent vocals captured that, particularly with the repeated line "people got to run and pray." He outdid himself with the final song, an a cappella version of the traditional "Ain't No Grave," with just himself and the audience stomping along.

The young Macyn Taylor opened the show with a short set, displaying skillful fingerpicking and a folk repertoire, plus an impressive finger-tapping instrumental. She at first seemed like an odd match for Parr's rugged folk and blues, at least until she switched tunings and pulled out a slide to play Robert Johnson's "Ramblin' On My Mind." OK, it was hard to believe the slight Wisconsin native when she sang, "I've got mean things on my mind," but she pulled it off with taste.

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