New Orleans standard “Junco Partner” (written in 1940 by “Drive’em Down” Willie Hall) is an allusion to needles, dope and the warm confines of Angola prison. It’s a theme for the downtrodden, and (according to liner notes in Dr. John’s “Gumbo”) a lyrical battle cry for the pimps, swindlers, prostitutes and jailbirds. Redemption never takes a note. It’s been borrowed and rearranged by greats like Professor Longhair, The Clash and Fats Domino. It’s the ultimate dirty song, praising the almighty smack and the ditches in between.
It’s intriguing that local blues duo Junco Partner embraces this classic theme song for the culture that clamors under society’s surface sheen. Naming your band after narcotic bliss is either a ploy for cheap attention (doubtful, since most people have no clue what a junco partner is), or purists’ attempt at lending credence to their inner blues encyclopedia.
Whatever the case, my attention was harnessed to Junco Partner for a recent gig at Mo’ Daddy’s. Authentically hopeful, I pined for hardscrabble over city sleek.
Mo’ Daddy’s space summons the greasier side of blues. Framed pictures of Son House, Willie Dixon, and other blues barons adorn the walls on each side. Plush red leather couches ease the room into sophisticated mellow, and heart-friendly food like fried chicken and waffles fill the spaces between the music.
Junco Partner fits nicely into the background, with music reminiscent of Mississippi hill country, fortified wine and tin-roof rain taps. The band is a twosome: Mars “Slow Foot” Fariss (Dobro, electric guitar), whose earlier stints include Acoustic Syndicate and The Laura Blackley Band, and upright bassist Chris “Bad Hand” Kew, whose tour trotted with Hypnotic Clambake and Steel String Theory. The pair sometimes blooms into a trio (with drummer “Little George” Waterman) when the venue wants juke-joint ambiance.
The music never strained for attention. The duo seemed to respect the small (thanks to the vice-presidential debates) audience and vice versa. No one tried to outdo the other.
Be forewarned: This is strictly blues with flecks of R&B dotting the sets. The noodling stays al dente; overboiled jams don’t exist. Yelling out requests seems moot. Instead, sit back and watch two men respectfully curate the blues.
Songs born on 78s frequently appeared, and blues history lessons ran throughout the sets. The paradisiacal pitfall of the Big Easy came with guide Professor Longhair. “Fifth Beatle” Billy Preston asked “Will it Go Round in Circles,” and Mississippi John Hurt’s three-finger style recalled the humid hug of Avalon, Miss.
Treading somewhere between the Wood Brothers and acoustic Hot Tuna, Junco Partner impresses without showboating. Both nimble-fingered, each member approaches his words and compositions carefully. They should. Adopting a band name from a New Orleans staple means one better own the blues. Yet, storied genres rarely attract large crowds in Asheville (unless you’re, say, B.B. King). Blues means pigeonholed, and most music addicts here need a varied diet.
Still, Junco Partner was a great first course before the evening gluttony. Never overwhelming, but like an intricate appetizer, their Thursday night show sat in the mind well after the weekend indulgences faded.
Junco Partner plays at Cajun Connection (549 Highlands Road, Franklin) on Friday, Oct. 31. 9 p.m. Info: 369-6288.