Tom Walbank and The Ambassadors, Love Blister

Club Congress, Saturday, Jan. 21

Tom Walbank and the Ambassadors, indeed.

By the time this hits the streets in Tucson, Tom Walbank and his Ambassadors (Tom on guitar, vocals and harp; Mike Bagesse on guitar and Dimitri Manos on drums) will be in Memphis, Tenn., representing Tucson, the state of Arizona and the gritty tradition of primordial, authentic blues at the International Blues Challenge. As Arizona's official entry into the competition that draws something like 130 acts from all 50 states and from around the world, they will have a chance to rub shoulders and strut their stuff with blues acts from near and far. And Tom and the Ambassadors stand as good a chance as any to walk away with the prize.

If there's one thing Tom and the Ambassadors can do predictably, it's grabbing a crowd and making blues believers out of them. They can take a room (any room) and instantly turn the listeners into a shimmying, rocking, booty-shaking blues mob. On Saturday night, he played to a crowd of loyal locals, out-of-towners from Phoenix (openers Love Blister seemed to have brought a crowd to check their polished, new-wave-by-way-of-Queen-harmonies power pop) and quite a crew of revelers hanging on from Dillinger Days earlier in the day.

The setup is simple perfection: two guys in natty suits and ties sitting on folding chairs and squeezing sparks out of their guitars while the drummer lays down a primal beat. The key is the simplicity: a few chords played with mesmerizing intensity and total belief in the healing power of a boogie beat; this is what The Gun Club called the "Sex Beat." They did originals like "Goin' Back to thee Country" and "Howlin' Tomcat." They covered classics like Muddy Waters' "19 Years Old," Lazy Lester's "Sugar Coated Love" and John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen'"--and they had so much fun playing that one, they did it twice. Coming back for a second set, they brought the house down with an a capella version of the Son House gospel shouter "John the Revelator."

How hot were Tom Walbank and the Ambassadors? Golden Boots, scheduled to play a set between their two sets, opted out, figuring there was no way to match their energy. That pretty much says it all.