Still alive and ... slim
Bluesman Sarasota Slim, deeply committed to a shallow' aim
Those "Where Are They Now" specials that populate VH1, MTV and E! are as irresistible as a car crash. These shows invite you to slow down and gawk at the once-hip subjects, now fattish, wrinkled, with gray hair or none — cultural refugees in the aftermath of their 15 minutes of fame.
Such programs rarely feature blues musicians, however, because blues is never truly in fashion. Thus, ironically, blues artists never go out of style, never get swept up or away in the passing of fads. A guy (or girl) could do worse, actually, than navigate this slender but comparatively stable entertainment niche, never getting rich or famous, but still doing the thing you love as the years go passing by.
So it is for guitarist Sarasota Slim, aka Gene Hardage, a married man and father of two who has been performing for 25 years. Slim, 47, based in St. Petersburg, Fla., is no road warrior — Saturday's show at Darwin's is his first Atlanta appearance in more than a decade — but he's still a musician.
"I don't work as much as I'd like to, and you certainly can't make any money at it, but I like it," says Slim. "I'm just a real shallow person, I guess. I like to make 'em dance and get wild and do all the things that people do in a decadent nightclub. I'm just an old geezer who likes to see people having fun."
Slim admits to an extra measure of satisfaction when an audience member in the midst of reverie requests one of his own tunes without realizing it's an original. It suggests they find Slim's material every bit as satisfying as the far-ranging cover songs he plays.
"That's my biggest thrill," says Slim.
The ability to write original tunes, in fact, was essential in securing a record deal with the Italian-based Appaloosa label in the '90s. Slim discovered the label through a fellow musician, and quickly landed a deal — Europe offers a strong market for American blues — but the label's owner insisted on mostly original material. Slim was happy to oblige, and subsequently released four CDs on Appaloosa. He has since issued two CDs on his own Possum Phono-Graphics label: Snook Fishin' (1999) and Boney Fingers (2001), which exclusively feature originals.
Several factors separate Slim from the typical blues guitar-slinger mimic. Though known as a bluesman, Slim's repertoire includes heaps of funk, R&B, swing and even a taste of calypso. A seasoned player, he deftly mixes styles, tempos and dynamic levels to reach listeners, tapping resources as diverse as War, Wilson Pickett, Charlie Daniels (he does a slide guitar overhaul of "Devil Went Down to Georgia") and Jimi Hendrix (whose version of "The Star Spangled Banner" he covers).
Throughout, Slim brings steadfast integrity to his music and his instrument. He got his first guitar at 13, and Hendrix, Cream and the Allman Brothers Band made a mighty impression. Slim traced the performers who influenced these artists and discovered a common ground of blues guitarists, including Albert King, Elmore James, B.B. King and Otis Rush. Decades later, he's faithful to these pioneers and to the blues-rock inheritors who were his original inspiration.
To remain true to that spirit, expressing multi-facets of both himself and the blues (originators and innovators), expect Slim to bring at least five guitars to Darwin's. There's a Fender Stratocaster, with its classic, stinging tone; a warmer, more urbane Gibson 335; two slide guitars, tuned to different open chords for vintage country blues and Duane Allman-styled jamming; and yet another Stratocaster, tuned low for an unusual baritone effect. Here's a guy who clearly still loves the instrument and the effect it has on him and his audiences, even after all these years.
"When you grab a feedback note, a note that makes you happy," says Slim, "and you can see it go through the audience and they're happy, too, then you know you've hit the right note at the right time. You've got the right one."