When I Met Robin Henkel

It was about a fez.

I was working on a series of interviews with local rockers who'd had a taste of the big time for a story when I happened upon the Blue Guitar. At that time, the guitar shop was housed in an aging gray industrial building on India Street. I'd seen the giant faded blue guitar propped up on the shop's roof from Washington Street. I parked and went inside in search of rock stars.

The Blue Guitar back then was a wood shop connected to a dorm room full of amplifiers and guitars. It smelled like pine shavings and dust. There were posters taped to the walls. One of them advertised a Robin Henkel concert.

The name of Henkel rang a bell, but I wasn't sure why. It was really the picture on the poster that caught my eye: Henkel was wearing a fez. That's a type of hat shaped like a box with a tassel and generally worn by Middle Eastern men or members of a fraternal organization here in America known for driving little funny toy cars in parades. For various reasons, I owned a huge fez collection at the time.

Do the counter help know where I could find this guy? He did.

"Robin? He's in the back. He's giving a guitar lesson. Abut 10 more minutes, and he'll be finished."

While I waited, I wondered about the name Henkel: did you pronounce it Hinkle, like tinkle, or Henkel, more Germanic, with a short and explosive e, like eh? Hehn- kehl? This is what I was thinking when a compact man in a '50s plaid shirt bounded - not walked - into the Blue Guitar show room. He was grinning like an imp, same as in the gig poster.

I explained the premise of my magazine story. Then he told me his story. It was simple: he’d been in town playing in various bands for decades. Jumbalayah was the biggie. He knew everybody. Everybody knew him. He had a band at the time.

“We’re playing tonight,” he said, his voice a powerful baritone, “at the Mezza Luna in La Jolla.”

I got there around 10 p.m. When Henkel saw me walk through those restaurant doors, he leaned into the microphone and let out a bellow: Howwwwwwwwww! This I would come to learn, was how he noted the arrival of friends to his gigs.

Henkel's band, a five-piece with horns was cranking on what I would later learn was an original titled “Walking the Dog.” It was a rhythm puzzle full of boops and honks and downbeats and with a fat and undeniable James Brown essence. Frigging bam!

Aside from the band and the restaurant's owner, an older woman whose name I no longer remember, the place was empty at that late hour.

We sat and listened to Henkel's artful collage of sounds, ranging from country swing to funk to American jazz woven into a romping blast that insinuated itself into one’s nervous system like a happy pill. I worked on a glass of the house burgundy. The owner wanted me to eat. I wasn’t hungry. I wanted to dance, but she was too tired.

For the next dozen years or so, I would champion this band of Robin Henkel's to anyone and to everyone. His music was, and is, as infectious as a ride on a roller coaster. Like Bob Wills with his twin fiddles, Henkel had twin sax players and all of the rare and jazzy implications that a pair of horns bring to any music. To this day, he still has twin saxes at the core of his sound.

Henkel himself is known for playing on a variety of roached tri-cones and arch tops that have the same tweedy other-era ambience as does his attire. Sometimes he uses a slide. His style of soloing is unique in that it is pretty much restricted to the bottom end of the scale. He plucks heavy-gauge strings as if an archer shooting arrows rather than a guitarist working out a pattern. Roy Rogers schooled by Johnny Winters, is how I described him once.

In the dozen or so years since that first night, the Robin Henkel experience has expanded and contracted like a little nova. I'm talking about his big band now, the one that works out on alternate Sunday nights in the sweat box of Lestat's coffee shop in Kensington, not Henkel's solo blues guitar thing which in and of itself is another story entirely.

The big band's book has expanded too, these days to include a wider range comic oddities and TV show themes and jump and jazz blues stompers, played alongside Henkel's originals. Henkel has surely matured into the role of seasoned band leader, comfortable in the role, and with a tuned ear for what manner of charts will push his band to, and sometimes beyond, their limits. And more often than not, some kind of crazy, pure, manic magic is the effect.

Robin Henkel Band with Horns, Fri, Aug 17, 8pm, McCrea Music Company, 8361 Allison Ave, La Mesa (619) 698-7272 $15 ($10 students) all ages

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