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Stalking The Blues In Corn Country

April 10, 1985|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

LINCOLN, Neb. — It's 8:30. It's Saturday night. And the pressure is on. In one hour, the James Harman Band will take the stage at the Zoo Bar for the last of four nights in this Midwestern town where excitement is usually spelled "Big Red," the nickname of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football team.

The five-man band is 1,500 miles from its Orange County home, and leader James Harman is wrestling with a tough decision. The 38-year-old, Alabama-born singer-harmonica player is well aware that as each minute passes, more than 300 "Lincolnites"--as one resident referred to the townspeople--are anxiously waiting in the small bar for the arrival of the group that over the last four days has become the hottest ticket in town.

Finally, Harman makes up his mind. "I've got to try some of that Quarterback Crunch," he announces to the young woman who has been standing impatiently behind the counter of Lincoln's Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor.

Yes, the show must go on. And it will. But first, there must be dessert. No wonder the group titled one of its records "This Band Just Won't Behave."

Parked outside the ice cream shop is one of the two vans that is transporting the musicians, two crew members and their equipment through 10 states on this three-week tour of the Midwest. As Harman climbs in, drummer Stephen Hodges volunteers to drive back to the hotel, where they still have to get dressed and join up with the other band members: guitarists Hollywood Fats and David (Kid) Ramos and bassist Willie J. Campbell.

Some groups might be sitting nervously backstage just minutes before playing to new audiences in an unfamiliar town. But these guys, back at the hotel casually changing clothes and making jokes, are cool.

A few minutes later, Harman, Hodges, Campbell and Ramos pile into the van and head out to meet Fats, who is already at "The Zoo," as the locals call it. As they drive through the deserted streets, Campbell, realizing that the show is scheduled to begin shortly, requests a time check.

The van pulls up to the club's back door and Hodges notes that a line of customers extends down the sidewalk--repeating what has happened for the last three nights--despite the fact that the temperature is in the 40s and dropping.

In fact, there's been so much excited talk about the band's stop in Lincoln that only the night before one of the guests in the audience was Nebraska Gov. Robert Kerrey, this state's pop music-loving answer to former California Gov. Jerry Brown.

At last the band members weave their way through the long, narrow club and take the stage to begin another 3 1/2-hour offering of their infectious amalgamation of blues, soul, gospel and rock music. A few couples get up to dance and already the 4-by-6-foot area that passes for a dance floor is packed.

So far, Lincoln has been a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively, for these veterans of the intensely competitive and sometimes spiritually dampening Southern California music scene.

In Orange County and Los Angeles clubs, the Harman band has been a regular attraction for more than three years. Harman himself has been performing professionally for about 20 years.

The group is one of hundreds--some even estimate thousands--of Southern California performers vying for the attention of overworked club owners, often jaded and trend-conscious audiences and the always sought-after record company talent scouts.

To music fans in Lincoln, the appearance of the Harman band is a special event. Yet it's not because people here are starving for quality music or because there's any special lure about a Southern California band.

True, the Zoo is one of only three clubs in town, and one of those features Top 40 bands, not original music. But the Zoo also happens to be one of the premiere blues clubs in the country, and it has seen most of the top names in the field, from guitarists Albert King and Son Seals to Chicago duo Buddy Guy & Junior Wells and harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite.

As a result of their frequent exposure to top blues and R&B acts, Zoo regulars know what they like when they hear it.

Following the first of the band's three sets for the night, Kim Schellpeper, a 27-year-old high school teacher up from Omaha, looked around at the elbow-to-elbow crowd and said, "It hasn't been like this in here for a long time. The last time a band of this caliber was here was last summer when Buddy Guy and Junior Wells played here.".

Because Harman would be performing in Omaha the following night, Schellpeper had come to the Zoo, which she used to frequent when she was a student at the university, for an advance look at the band she had heard touted by other musicians who had been through Lincoln in recent weeks.

"When the Robert Cray Band (from Seattle) was here last month they told everybody that 'If you're going to check somebody out, you gotta see these guys,' " she said.

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