The four members of The Sultans have collectively been playing music in the Rogue Valley for something like 150 years. The individual members have been so prolific for so long that when, three years ago, they formed The Sultans to play Chicago-style R&B and blues music, they decided to keep things interesting by switching to new instruments.
Front man and lead vocalist Detlef Eismann has played tenor sax with The Fabulous Savoys since 1958, but on a Sultans gig he plays piano. Dal Carver has played piano with countless local acts since the mid-'70s. With the Sultans, he becomes a bass player.
Jeff Addicott is the junior member of the group. He's played bass with just about everyone in the region since he rolled into town more than 15 years ago. In this band, he plays the drums. Harmonica player Pat Barlow first played with Eismann 40 years ago at the old Log Cabin on the Plaza in Ashland (where Louie's is today).
Barlow is the only member of the band who actually plays his main instrument. His harmonica rig — the amplifier and microphone he plays through — is as vintage as the tunes the band plays. He bought the microphone out of a Montgomery Ward catalog 60 years ago. The amp is a Sears Silvertone that's almost as old. This is precisely the kind of equipment that the Chicago blues players of the '40s and '50s would have played through.
Barlow grew up in Wisconsin, where he learned his musical chops from members of the same demographic that created the Chicago sound — folks who were part of the migration of Southern agricultural workers who came north to the cities of the Midwestern rust belt to find industrial work.
Using sound equipment like the stuff Barlow's been packing around all these decades, they electrified old country blues and made it urban music. Barlow bought his gear back when it was still current. His sound is an authentic throwback — not a late-model affectation.
Guitarist Craig Martin — himself a 40-year veteran of Rogue Valley music halls — sat in with the band the night I was there and got into the spirit of the thing by digging through his extensive guitar and amplifier collection to match Barlow in achieving gear-appropriate sound. He played an old hollow-body Kay guitar (Kay was one of the companies that manufactured guitars for the Sears catalog) through an ancient Bogen brand amplifier.
The amp looks like an old, heavy-duty, portable record player. When in operation, the top folds back to reveal a mad-scientist scene of glowing glass vacuum tubes and old, hand-soldered circuitry. Like Barlow's, Martin's playing has the benefit of picture-perfect, vintage tone. Audience members could close their eyes and imagine being transported back in time.
Eismann's outstanding vocals (in conjunction with his song selection) are the star of the show. In a flannel-gray fedora that matched the color of his swept-back hair and trim mustache, the man hunched over the piano and by turns growled, crooned and shouted into the microphone. From the old standard "Stars Fell on Alabama" to Louis Jordan's "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" to a Ray Charles-like interpretation of "Georgia," Eismann kept the R&B coming and had the audience eating out of his hand.
"Detlef's a force of nature," says Carver. Barlow echoes the sentiment, saying, "I think he's the best singer within 500 miles."
The mutual respect among the musicians is as evident as the fact that they are having fun onstage — their set was scheduled to end at 11 p.m., but they continued to play until midnight.
As the show progressed, the band got loose and expanded the evening's possibilities. A bass-playing alumnus of the Fabulous Savoys (circa 1979) named Joe Warnick happened to be in the audience and was pulled up on stage. This freed Carver up to move to the piano — which, in turn, gave the crowd the opportunity to hear Eismann play his tenor saxophone. Later, a guy at the bar who's not from around here and only in town for a few days (and who none of the band members had ever met before) took a few turns at the piano.
The Sultans play the second Tuesday of every other month at The Wild Goose, 2365 Ashland St., Ashland. The next show is at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 13. Eismann will play with the Fabulous Savoys Sunday, June 30, at Touvelle Lodge, 9367 Table Rock Road, Central Point.