Robert Lighthouse

Robert Lighthouse

Whenever I describe Robert Lighthouse‘s guitar performances, I can’t avoid using the word “channeling“–which is a concept I reject. But Lighthouse provides the best evidence I’ve ever heard, and chips at my skepticism.

Close your eyes and you’ll hear Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, or Jimi Hendrix. Open them, and you’ll see a disheveled white guy in a musical trance.

The first time I saw him was at The Aroma Company, a bar in Washington DC known more for following hipster fads than as a live music venue. At the time the fad was cigars, so that puts the date around 1998.

The three-piece band was stuffed into a bay window at one end of the long, narrow space. I was further back in the cavern ignoring the music and talking with friends. Eventually, the background noise caught my attention. It sounded like Jimi Hendrix was playing up front–and I don’t mean like the millionth guitarist who has memorized “Purple Haze” note-for-note. Lighthouse was improvising in a state of inspired flow. It was as much like the actual experience of Hendrix for which I could ever hope.

I made a resolution that night to see Lighthouse whenever I could. During my ten years living in the DC area (which are now coming to an official end), I probably saw Lighthouse more than any other performer. I’ve seen him perform Rock, Folk, and Delta Blues. I’ve seen him at clubs, coffee houses, festivals, and busking at the Dupont Circle Metro. Once I even saw him sit in with a bluegrass band at Madam’s Organ.

Last Wednesday I made a point to catch him at Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, and took video embedded above.

Chief Ike’s Mambo Room is a strange little bar with surreal murals on the walls. One depicts Dwight Eisenhower in therapy with Sigmund Freud. I wish I’d visited this bar years ago.

I arrived with my head already reverberating from a recent heavy diet of Robert Johnson. The place was nearly empty. Five noisy guys dressed like Mormon missionaries shared a pitcher of beer–indifferent that they were in the presence of musical genius. A cute puppy wandered freely through the bar, stealing from Lighthouse what little attention there was to be had. But Lighthouse never seems to be performing for an audience, or even to be particularly aware of it. He has the affect of an introvert, his eyes focused on nothing in particular, which only adds to the perception that he’s channeling.

He has a low voice and an accent that you can’t quite place which are also part of effect. (Robert is originally from Sweden, which makes his musical calling seem unlikely or ironic. Or perhaps it just reveals how little I know about Sweden. Nothing about him reminds me of Ikea.)

I bought two copies of his latest CD, Deep Down in the Mud, and got them both autographed. We spoke, and it turns out Robert has connections to Flagstaff, where I now live. He hopes to visit soon. I’ll make sure he gets a welcome reception.

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