I never got to hear deLay, who died in his native Portland in 2007, live. Having devoted way too many college nights to intense study of great local and touring blues masters at one of the nation’s great blues clubs, Antones, I was too snobby (not to mention too busy covering other music after moving here) to imagine that Oregon could produce great blues comparable to what I’d so often heard in Texas, except for maybe Robert Cray. By the time I realized my error, a year after moving to Portland, deLay was gone, stolen by leukemia at age 55
So the fact that even a deLay newbie like me so enjoyed Wayne Harrel’s new musical shows that his songs and story (even as fictionalized here) are plenty compelling for any blues lover — not just those trying to relive deLay’s glory days performing at the Fat Little Rooster.
That’s because this show wisely keeps the spotlight on deLay’s masterfully crafted, often wryly humorous music, not the characteristically contrived story frame, and enlists a stage full of powerful performers to deliver it. Even though the show, ably directed by Judy Straalsund, happened in the backroom of a southeast Portland piano store, Michelle’s Piano Company, if I closed my eyes, I could imagine I was back at Antone’s, minus the clouds of cigarette smoke.
Harrel, a veteran playwright twice nominated for Oregon Book Awards, hangs the two dozen sturdy deLay songs on a thin yet supple frame: the whole show happens in approximately real time, at a club performance on the last night before deLay (called Mo DuPree here) must report to prison. (The real deLay, who’s credited as co-author, served 41 months for drug trafficking.) Between songs in his last two sets, as an impatient cop hovers to haul him off to the hoosegow when the clock strikes midnight, DuPree is unexpectedly visited by a trio of female figures from his past, all of whom turn out to be phenomenal blues singers, of course. Their brief dialogues, and those with his band, touch emotional milestones in his life, each illustrated by an appropriate deLay tune. Some of the conversations take a lot longer than an actual club audience would sit through between songs, but it was easy to suspend disbelief.
The big dramatic conflict revolves around DuPree’s gradually growing fear that the band, which understandably wants to keep working while he’s locked up by performing his popular songs, is conniving to replace him with a new lead singer, and this final night of surprise appearances amounts to an audition. DuPree must overcome the self-centeredness and insecurity that contributed to his addictions and other bad behavior to accept that this new arrangement is better for everyone, including him, keeping his songs alive and royalties rolling in.
It’s a strong dramatic set up, and evidently, that’s pretty much what happened to deLay, too, with the fabulous Linda Hornbuckle fronting what became the No deLay Band until his return from incarceration and addiction, when he rejoined the band, won awards and accolades and made the music that cemented his legacy.
We don’t get to see that happy ending in this show, which smartly sticks to the dramatic unities. But we do get to see his transformation, and hear his songs: “Love on a Roll,” “Fourteen Dollars in the Bank, “What Went Wrong?” “Slip Stumble Fall,” “I’ll Quit You Tomorrow (just in the first half!), “Ocean of Tears,” “Remember Me.”
They’re delivered with blithe panache by the real stars: the band. Keyboardist Dave Fleschner’s smart arrangements edge a bit toward rock from pure blues, and he also contributes keyboard bass and tight, eventful piano solos. Fleschner, the show’s musical director, also enjoys a few moments of actual dialogue, plus provides a quick, concise narration of the backstory of Moe’s bust when it would be too contrived to slip that into dialogue. The ever-sturdy Carlton Jackson, better known for big band jazz than blues rock, not only drives the band but also gets the best line of the night. Hank Shreve supplies a crucial multifaceted component — scorching, soulful blues harp, organ fills, and lead and harmony vocals.
Though named Best Guitarist in the solo/duo category at the International Blues Challenge and best Traditional Blues Act by Cascade Blues Association, Rice plays very little, being otherwise engaged in singing and acting, but the other musicians do so much that you surprisingly don’t feel the absence. He and the rest displayed great chemistry and fun onstage — after some early stiffness, they presented like a real working band.
Rice, a University of Oregon music school graduate on the cusp of 30, doesn’t play deLay’s instrument (blues harp) or sound much like him, but who could? His Steve Winwood-style blues shout vocals are eloquently expressed, consistently affecting and accurately sung. But while he’s a solid performer who adds a sympathetic character to the action, the fresh-faced Newberg native comes off too young, too uniformly sweet-natured and too dramatically inexperienced to believably play a wounded, middle-aged coke trafficker and sometimes heartbroken blues veteran like deLay. And his frequent brief pauses while apparently trying to remember lines drained energy from the dialogue segments, which could also probably stand a bit of trimming. Like everyone, he’s here for his fine musicianship, which doesn’t matter so much in secondary roles, but casting that crucial but hard-to-fill multi-purpose lead is probably the show’s biggest challenge going forward.
The second is finding a way to keep the crack band together for an extended run, because they’re all excellent musicians. And the tremendous trio of supporting singers — Saeeda Wright, Lisa Mann, and LaRhonda Steele— were easily worth the price of admission.
Harrel has presented this exuberantly enjoyable show, created with the full cooperation and support of the deLay estate and the Paul deLay Band, in various incarnations and venues over the years, and it still feels fresh, warm and friendly. In fact, it’s almost too easygoing, never quite plumbing the depths of anguish and darkness that fuel the deep blues, and must have haunted parts of deLay’s life, whether he he wore it on the outside or not. The stakes feel too low — the protagonist never really seems at risk. That might be fixable via re-casting and maybe a little rewriting, but whatever happens, I hope Harrel and a Portland producer will find a way to bring this entertaining dose of deLay’s story and music to the full production it deserves, whether it’s on a stage or in a club. For those of us who unfortunately missed out on a legend, it’s the closest we can get to the real thing.
Want to read more about Oregon theater and music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!