Portlanders will have the chance to say goodbye on Sunday to one of the towering talents of the local blues scene, guitarist Jim Mesi, who died on March 4 from complications of emphysema. He was 69.
He was also stone brilliant, an incandescent guitarist who first appeared on the scene with Paul deLay and Lloyd Jones in the seminal Portland blues band Brown Sugar in the late 1960s. Mesi played with many musicians since then, but notably with the Paul deLay band for years, the Losers Club with fellow Portland legend Steve Bradley, and fronting his own Jim Mesi Band with a crew of Portland music veterans for the last decade or more.
He was universally respected for his inventive and exuberant style, which could range from an achingly sweet, subtle Sleepwalk played with volume-knob swells and chiming harmonics to the speed-picking sturm und drang of Miserlou. It wasn’t just locals who revered the man, either: He counted guitarists such as ZZTop’s Billy Gibbons as fans, and the Jim Mesi Band web site shows him onstage with Les Paul, backstage with B.B.King.
I first met Mesi more than a quarter-century ago when I was writing a story about the derailing of the deLay Band when Paul deLay got busted for selling drugs. I didn’t expect that to be a fun interview, both because of the subject and because Mesi was a legendary figure. But he turned out to be a great guy and a true character, a man who’d rear his head back and laugh explosively, a bit of a loon in the best possible way – a man who appreciated the finer things in life, such as hot rods and monster movies. (Somewhere, there’s a photo of Mesi with the original Robbie the Robot…)
I remember many a night watching him play and wondering how he did it; where all those ideas came from. He himself didn’t know, as he said in a memorable scene from Pierre Ouellette’s loving tribute film The Losers Club: The music just came to him and flowed through him. By all means, watch that video, because seeing Mesi is believing: He’s fine on recordings, but part of the show is to see this man with his black hair slicked back, dressed as sharp as any Jersey wise guy, wielding a flame-painted custom-built Stratocaster and reeling off effortless variations on a 12-bar blues.
Pierre Ouellette’s film The Losers Club, featuring Mesi.
Jim Mesi Memorial
3 p.m. Sunday, April 7, Milwaukie Elks Lodge, 13121 S.E. McLoughlin Blvd., Milwaukie. Admission price is a donation at the door to the Mesi family and a charity.
The roster of talent for Sunday’s memorial is stellar: Lloyd Jones, Curtis Salgado, Ed Neumann, D.K. Stewart, Sonny Hess, Lady Kat, Rae Gordon, Peter Damman, Doug Rowell, Robbie Laws, LaRhonda Steel, Norman Sylvester, Too Slim, Dover Weinberg, Alan Hagar, Paul Jones, Beth Willis, Scott White, Mike Moothart, Randy Lilya, Johnny Moore, Jim Solberg, Marty Henninger, and many more.
Sound: Dana Monroe. Stage: Jim Hurley.