Blow Your Face Off!!!!
By T.E. Mattox
t's not often that I write about an upcoming event or show, but having
attended this one for the past few years, I feel duty-bound to scream
and shout about it. I'm referring of course, to the annual Rod Piazza
Birthday Blues Party hosted by the birthday boy himself at the American
Legion Post No.79 in Riverside. This year just prior to the arrival
of Santa, Rod
and Honey Piazza will once again invite all their blues friends
out to the Inland Empire for a day-long, good old fashioned knock-down,
drag-out harp blow down.
The party this year is slated for Sunday, December 16th,
lights the candle at 2PM and promises another stellar line-up. James
Harman returns, as does Billy Watson, the multi-talented Lynwood Slim
makes his first 'party' appearance, the Mofo Party Band, Little Barry
G, and as is tradition for the Holiday, some very special 'surprise'
The Piazza's arrive 'in style' for the annual event.
The Piazza celebration is probably the closest most
of us will ever get to experiencing some of those legendary gatherings
on Chicago's Southside during the 50's and 60's. An event where friends,
fans and fellow musicians all come together for a full barrage of raucous,
high-energy 'blow-your-face-off' blues harp one-upmanship.
Rod told me how the tradition got its start. "I
was down at a car show at the American Legion Hall at Fairmont Park
and went inside and I noticed what a cool little stage they had, just
like the 40's and 50's. I looked at it, it looked like a place that
you would see a Muddy Waters or a Little Walter or somebody, you know?
It's got a short stage and a wooden dance floor that flexes. The vibe
was just so period and everything, I go, 'Man I'd love to put on a gig
in here and have a little blues party.' So I decided to try it and talked
with Bobby Castillo down there, my buddy, and he set it up so we could
have it in there. And we tried it once, twice, three times and this
will be the fourth coming up."
Rod experienced a serious case of Blues Déjà
Vu as he reflected on the Legion Hall. "I didn't know that I
had played there in the 60's with George Smith. Richard Innes, my drummer
from the Bacon Fat Band told me, 'Don't you remember Rod; we played
here, me, you and George.' I didn't even remember, man."
This event always brings out the very best in blues
harp players, including one of my favorites, James Harman.
"Yea, James Harman will be there, you know everybody
always loves James, he puts on a good show. I'll have Lynwood Slim for
the first time. Lynwood had some health problems but he's back on his
feet and doing real good. He's a great singer and harmonica player and
that should be something that people really enjoy. And then I'm bringing
in my friends from Fresno, the Mofo Party band. They're like a real
energetic band; they've played all over the world and they're really
an entertaining outfit, so that'll be their first time (at the Birthday
Party) and of course we're bringing back Billy Watson and Barry G."
Johnny Dyer and Rod Piazza backstage at the American
Legion. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
One of the regulars of this event has always been the
legendary Johnny Dyer.
"I don't know if my buddy, Johnny Dyer will
make it or not. He's always invited but his health is failing him a
little bit, so depending on that, whether he'll show up or not. He'd
love to be there, but it'll just depend on how he's feeling on that
day." Then Rod adds, "But they'll be some other cats
that will be unannounced."
A memorable Piazza birthday set with surprise guest
fronting the Red Lotus Review.
Over the years your birthday show lineup has incorporated
an incredible number of new artists and young blues talent. "Yea,
its shows they normally wouldn't get on." Piazza says. "With
me it's not based on how many you're gonna' draw; it's based on what
you play. That's why it's the people you've seen on there."
Remembering that Rod once told me when first starting
out, he too was invited up to play onstage, it was at the Ash
Grove in L.A. by a man who would become his life-long friend, George
'Harmonica' Smith. It seems with the blues what comes around
comes around. "Yea, that's exactly what it is, man. You
know, shoot, these guys have been coming to watch me play for so long,
they're ready to get up there and do their thing."
The party atmosphere of this event is so relaxed and
festival-like that friends and fans often find themselves sitting next
to or shaking hands with the very performers they just saw onstage.
And according to Piazza, that really should be the norm. "Well
realistically, there's not a big ego thing for anybody who's really
a blues player, you know? You play them all, from the tiniest little
places to the big festivals and there ain't no room for an ego, so when
you meet these guys, most of them are pretty easy to talk to and that's
the way it should be."
Rod Piazza celebrates another year like only he
can. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
One of the returning highlights of this Piazza Party
is a man often referred to as 'Icepick.' Currently 'tearing up clubs'
across Europe, I was able to catch up with James Harman, albeit briefly,
and he says there's no way he'd miss the party. "Yeah I am certainly
lookin' forward to Rod's gig again; I'm always happy about partying
with them... we go way back."
You guys have been pals for quite a few years?
"I love Rod; he has been a good friend since
my move to California in 1970. We've always had a ball playing together.
When I'm playin' standin' next to Rod we have a hard time not laughin'
the whole time... I never tire of listening to him play all that great
stuff so effortlessly... sometimes we laugh so hard we can barley keep
playin'. Back in the day we had George Smith up there with us challenging
us to keep comin' up with more interesting stuff... and for me Rod's
party is a tribute to George and those great nights we used to enjoy
at the Golden Bear, Ash Grove, Troubadour and Lighthouse which are all
gone now. We used to also frolic at little places like "Small's"
on 53rd and Avalon... those were wonderful times."
James Harman blows the chrome off his Mississippi
The authentic blues atmosphere that surrounds Rod's
annual event provides both artist and fan with the 'look and feel' of
those early days when blues harp was king. Harman agrees. "I
believe any folks who really like this kind of music should make a point
of gettin' themselves to these shows and enjoyin' it while we're still
around, 'coz the future of real blues is a dimly lit chart at best.
The world seems to be focused on digital technology, video games and
quick-edit pop videos of disco/rap sounds that neither come from the
heart and soul, nor give you that feelin' you can only get from 100%
authentic stories of the human condition, backed by instruments that
run on human breath and dexterity. I advise everybody to mark their
calendars and make an appearance at Rod's birthday show on December
How can you argue with a guy named 'Icepick?'
Billy Watson, James Harman and Rod Piazza in a round
of 'Yea, but can you top this?'
Rod Piazza's Birthday Blues Party starts at 2PM at the
American Legion Hall, Post No. 79, 2979 Dexter Dr. on Lake Evans in
Fairmount Park, Riverside, CA. Not that you need one but an additional
incentive that proves that Christmas does comes early
show will only set you back $20.
Since it's your birthday Rod, anything you'd
like to add? "Just that I appreciate so much that everybody
has supported it for three years and that I know that nobody has left
there disappointed with the talent that they've been able to experience
and it's going to be the same good time this year."
I can't wait.
Piazza and the Mighty Flyers; Life
on the Road (with Charlie Musselwhite); Frank