The latest generation of Charleston bar-hoppers may not remember, but once, not very long ago, there was a special little blues club on John Street. It had just the right amount of grime on the floor and cigarette smoke in the air that is essential for any respectable juke joint. This riotous late-night party was Momma's Blues Palace, which closed its doors permanently in 2004, leaving the house band, Momma and the Misfits, homeless and with few downtown gigs.
But finally, locally celebrated singer Rhonda "Momma" Wall and her band, this time reincarnated as the Redemption Band, will be rocking the peninsula again. They'll be playing at Mad River on June 7 — their first gig on Market Street since 2006 — and as always, they're ready to put on a show.
"Momma never knows what's gonna happen," Wall says. "Nobody knows what's gonna happen until I put on my sunglasses and get on stage. All I know is it's going to be entertaining."
Joining Momma on stage will be her husband and lead guitarist James "Papa Dupree" Wall and her son JoJo Wall on bass. The difference between this version of Momma's band and those of the past can be found on keyboards and drums — played by Dale Roberson and Richard Hudson, respectively.
"The Redemption Band may be the best band we've ever had. We're making the best music ever," Papa Dupree says. "We don't invite many people all the way in, but we all just bonded immediately."
The Redemption Band's name comes from the Wall family's Sunday morning gig: they sing gospel at a local church. The name was an easy transition to the new band when the final members joined because, according to Momma, "singing the blues is like church for us."
Momma and Papa Dupree have been writing and performing their music together for 37 years — 19 of which have been with their son JoJo — and this show will be of even more familial significance since Papa Dupree retired as a special education teacher at the end of May. According to Momma, the band doesn't even rehearse before shows, nor do they have a set list. In fact, they don't even know what song will be the opener.
"I adjust to the crowd," Momma says. "If they want funky, I give them funk. If they want dance, I give them dance. If they want to cry in their beer, I give them cry in your beer."
Regardless of who is backing her, the main attraction has always been Momma herself. Her sultry stage presence and humorous anecdotes between songs have garnered a loyal following throughout the Lowcountry. These days Momma only performs once or twice a month, typically closer to her home in Cross, S.C. She turned off the microphone for nearly three years after the Palace closed, and the band drifted around Charleston playing various clubs. The venue's closing left a bad taste in her mouth, and since she'll be 63 next month, Momma decided to slow things down a bit.
The Mad River show will be the first chance for a new Charleston generation to see Momma shake and groove like she did for so many years as a downtown Charleston staple. Once again she'll be in her element and playing by her rules.
"Being an old blues singer, I've offended some people in my time," she says. "But you know, get a life, it's all in fun. Momma takes no prisoners, darling."