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Mr. Airplane Man's Delta dreams

By Ted Drozdowski

AUGUST 31, 1998:  A rain's peeled the edge off a steamy August night in the Mississippi Delta. But a two-piece jukehouse band are roaring on stage in Clarksdale's Crossroads bar, doing their best to put it back on. The slide guitar wails like a trapped panther. The singer shouts her blues in the flat-footed style that's echoed through the hills below Memphis longer than buckshot. And the drums drive like a plow mule -- albeit one tuned to a comfortable gait by years of muscling through sun-baked cottonfields. The twist is that the band laying this down are just visiting town. From Boston, of all places. They're two 28-year-old women who call themselves Mr. Airplane Man. But even after they 'fess up, the jammed-in crowd's too busy whooping for more songs to give a shit.

When they're back at home, Margaret Garrett and Tara McManus can often be found in front of a certain liquor store in Central Square or by the entrance to the Harvard Square T station. These are favorite haunts for Mr. Airplane Man, especially when the rent's due. Settled onto the sidewalk, Margaret sings and plays an old Kay guitar through a battery-powered amp. Tara bangs the hell out of a plastic five-gallon pail. Their rumpled cardboard box starts filling up with dollars as passers-by stop, taken by the Southern magic of Delta slide guitar and the sultry beat. It's a raw, exciting, even exotic sound in a city where the blues is largely defined by musical clichés. Not only does it lure shoppers and tourists, it's starting to draw rock-scene hipsters to Mr. Airplane Man's night gigs in pubs like the Plough & Stars and Brendan Behan.

"It all started with Howlin' Wolf," Margaret offers. Yet that's not quite right. She and Tara have been friends for 20 years. They skipped rope together as girls and discovered punk rock as teenagers. Then, while Margaret was visiting Tara in San Francisco three years ago, they heard Howlin' Wolf. Tara was already into the rhythms of Africa, Haiti, and Cuba. Margaret had formed the Sonic Youth-informed outfit Blow at college in Worcester. But Wolf, a gutbucket-voiced literal giant of the blues, rang like a bomb blast in their heads.

"All we had was this crappy transistor tape recorder," Tara recalls, "and we'd drive around San Francisco with the car windows up and the music at full volume. We'd walk around the streets with the tape recorder pressed to our ears all day."

Thus inspired, they returned to Boston and set out to be a band. For Tara, that meant learning drums from the dirt up. Margaret delved into open D tuning and slide. Together they listened and practiced, and they began to write songs like the hoodoo chant "My Hand" and the Delta vignette "Rain So Hard." This January, they started performing.

What's staggering is that they capture a sound rarely heard outside little Mississippi towns like Rolling Fork and Holly Springs. Their guitar, vocals, and drums combine in a rough-but-right mix that's pure hypnosis -- all sizzle and body-swaying thump, infused with their own punk-rock energy. They perform a music that's not at all about virtuosity or grace; it's about bedrock emotions and getting stoned and laid, exhaling life's bad air and breathing in a little freedom and joy . . . even for just a Saturday night. And Mr. Airplane Man's audience is responding to that primal appeal.

"I see no difference between Howlin' Wolf and Iggy Pop," says Margaret, which explains the slide-and-glide covers of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" and Gun Club's "For the Love of Ivy" that meander into their sets. "We do a million Howlin' Wolf songs. We took our name from one of his songs; we're like a Howlin' Wolf tribute band. And [Mississippi hill country musician] Jessie Mae Hemphill. When I heard Jessie Mae's 'Standing in the Doorway Crying,' it was like seeing a picture of something you've always dreamed about."

Those are old dreams, with deep connections. "I'm finally figuring out that the part of the blues that draws us both in is its African roots," Tara explains. "What I'm listening to now is Gnawa music, from West Africa. With repeating bass lines and high falsettos, it's the same as blues. They set up this repetitive thing that allows for a whole range of other things to happen around it."

"People always ask, 'The blues is so simple, why do you want to play it?'," Margaret continues. "The real question is, 'Why would I want to play anything more complicated?' It's simple, it's repetitive, it's heavy. That's what I've always liked in music."


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