This Set Is Brought To You By The Letter “H”

Most shows by The Westside Sheiks follow no organizing principle whatsoever. This one did. That’s why we released it as an album.

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Most shows by The Westside Sheiks follow no organizing principle whatsoever. We open the book, close our eyes, and point. There are some 80+ songs in that book by now — a mix of originals, alongside songs by everyone from Mississippi John Hurt, Bessie Smith, and Leroy Carr, to Mance Lipscomb, Victoria Spivey, and Jelly Roll Morton.

Saturday, November 30th, 2019, was a little different.

One of the enjoyable challenges of a Sheiks show is trying to ensure that we don’t know what’s going to happen — what we’re going to play, or how we’re going to interpret any given composition. The easiest way to hit that goal is to bring in new songs for every show. No mean feat, given that we play several shows every month — and we don’t always manage it. But on the 30th, we had two newly-written songs to debut: Howlin’ at the Moon and Six White Horses.

Given that one title started with “H” and the other with “S” we made the unprecedented decision to give order to the show — in proper Sesame Street spirit, we elected to have the first half of the set brought to you by the letter “H,” and the second half brought to you by the letter “S.”

Maybe it was the relentless downpour outside, and the uncharacteristic intimacy of the space. Mission St. BBQ is a small venue, but it’s usually full when we play. Not that night. That night, the torrential rain and flooding streets kept most folks at home. So it was a truly small audience. But the room was just right. The piano sounded better than it ever has. Maybe the moisture in the air warmed the old wood up. The national sounded big, brassy, and percussive — just like it ought to.

Whatever it was, it was an unexpectedly special night.

Best of all, the recordings came out wonderfully. They’re live, they’re raw, they’re strictly guerrilla-style. But they’re real.

Ahab was on fire. Jonathan “Captain Ahab” Dryden is a staggeringly accomplished pianist, and he played things that night that you just can’t — and won’t — hear anywhere else.

You have to understand. None of this is really planned. The tempo? Who knows. We played “Dutch was the Master” a good 20 BPMs faster than usual. It popped. It percolated. It was fantastic. “Hong Kong Blues,” on the other hand, we played much slower. It slid along delightedly. Arrangements? What arrangements? There’s a full minute of solo guitar at the head of “Shake Hands and Tell Me Goodbye,” and the song concludes with a totally unexpected piano workout that’ll blow your mind — ragtime never sounded like this before. The endings? Never planned. Rarely nailed. But always dramatic.

The point is, it’s just a zen thing. Strictly in the moment. November 30th was a special moment.

So, we’re doing something a little different with the recordings. We’re offering them as an actual album. On Bandcamp. New location for us. But we love their arch artist-centricity. We’ve been interested in being here. Now, we’re here.

Browser or App. Take your pick, and stream away. One track? All tracks? All good. Bandcamp allows us to basically operate on the honor system. You pay what you want. Single track, no money? Go ‘head, take it. Whole album? All yours for as little as $1. Feeling flush, and love what we do? Want to keep us going long into the new decade? Pay $100. Pay $1000. It’s all good, all the time.

There are 13 songs here, right now. 7 “H” songs and 6 “S” ones. Some originals, some interpretations of songs by other artists. Plus, with that minimum $1, and you get 3 bonus tracks. Two originals (including something we affectionately refer to as a “mutant mambo”), and an arrangement of a Sleepy John Estes tune. And, the PDF lyric book, with all the lyrics to all the originals.

Ready to listen? You’re invited. Please enjoy. We played our asses off for two hours straight without a break, and we’ve curated 16 of the finest cuts for you to groove on. So groove on.

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