ON THE COVER North Coast Journal banner

Blues Talkin'
Interviews with the headliners

by   BOB DORAN


    Some say the blues is a scale with flattened thirds and sevenths or a 12-bar structure with a simple chord progression. Others say it's a feeling, a way of life.

    At Blues by the Bay Vol. 4, the two-day event that takes place at Waterfront Park in Eureka this weekend, you will hear the blues in many forms. Performers include several fiery guitar slingers, a young singer from Colorado who mixes gospel, jazz and reggae with her blues, a couple of bluesmen from Louisiana, a keyboard player who's working on his blues doctorate, and one of the founding fathers of raw Southern soul.

    How do all of these disparate styles fit together under the blues umbrella?

     

    Mighty Mo Rodgers (photo at top) is looking for the answer. His master's degree thesis at California State University Northridge is titled "Blues as Metaphysical Music: Its Musicality and Ontological Underpinnings."

    "I got tired of blues being put down as uneducated music created by illiterates," Rodgers said in a call from Los Angeles. "I wanted to show that blues is a profound music with spiritual ramifications and philosophical foundations.

    "Blues is an existential music. The foundation is freedom. Ironically it came from a people who were not free. Blues takes in the totality of a people who came through the Diaspora across the middle passage. People who lost everything: their names, their religion, their gods.

    "Blues came as a gift from God to deny the lie of our nothingness. It came as an answer to the question: Who am I? It wasn't merely a response to the brutality of slavery.

    "Blues is what I call the holy howl, the voice that says, `Remember me.' When Afro-Americans invented the blues they did it to tell their story and all blues is a vernacular text, as Henry Louis Gates talks about in Signifying Monkey. We are an oral people as Alex Haley said in Roots, speaking of the Griots in Africa. There's a straight line from the talking blues of the '20s to hip hop."

    Rodgers grew up in East Chicago, Ind., near Gary. "It's a steel mill town. It's grimy and in bad shape today, but in the '50s there were a lot of jobs."

    In high school Rodgers played music by Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis with the Rocketeers, a rock 'n'roll band. He didn't last long in college and after dropping out he took off for California to try to make it in the music world.

    He joined a soul band that ended up backing Brenton Wood, a singer who had a surprise hit with "The Oogum Boogum Song." You can hear Rodgers' Farfisa organ on the follow up, "Gimme Little Sign." In the '70s he went on to produce records including an album called Sonny and Brownie by folk bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.

    Rodgers became a staff writer for Motown but left in 1983. "Disco was in. Hollywood seemed stupid, and I was tired of being part of a package where I didn't control my own destiny, so I just quit." Instead of playing music he became a teacher. Then in 1998 he put his own record together.

    "I had all of these songs, I had never stopped writing. Five years ago I started playing again, working the songs up and touring. I went in the studio and took a year and a half putting the record together, paying for it myself using credit cards. I put it out on my own small label and looked around for distributorship. I started getting these incredible reviews: Living Blues gave it a great review, a French magazine raved."

    Ultimately Blues Is My Wailing Wall was picked up by Blue Thumb, a division of Universal which is a division of Polygram now owned by Seagram LTD which just completed a $34.4 billion merger with the French company, Vivendi.

    "Music is a billion dollar business in America and if you go into any club from Singapore to Stockholm, you will find American-derived music. It could be rock 'n' roll, it could be hip hop, it could be heavy metal, but it will be a form of the blues text.

    "It was a text first, it was storytelling. It was a chant in the fields, it was call and response, it was the song of the slave ships. It started as a text telling a story and that's where it's going to end up."

    Mighty Mo plays Sat. July 8, 2:40 p.m.

     

    [photo of Joe Louis Walker]Joe Louis Walker plays his blues on a guitar. It's music that goes back as far as he can remember.

    "When I was kid my mother and father would play blues all of the time on the record player or the radio," he recalled in a call from his home in Pittsburg, Calif. "I liked it so I gravitated towards it. I had four cousins who were all musicians. I hung out with them and when I got old enough I joined the family band."

    Walker grew up in the Fillmore District in San Francisco, but now he lives east of there in the Delta, the Sacramento River Delta -- not the Mississippi. At 19 he was living in an apartment in San Francisco when guitarist Mike Bloomfield moved in. Bloomfield had left Chicago where he was part of the Butterfield Blues Band.

    "A lot of people would come out from Chicago and stop over at the house, people like Carey Bell and others."And through those Chicago connections Walker got wind of an opening for a rhythm guitar player in the Otis Rush band and headed east.

    "I went out for a while and played a little music, but I wasn't cut out for it, I wasn't a Chicago kind of guy so I didn't stay long. At the time Chicago was pretty polarized racially and I wasn't used to that, coming from the Haight-Ashbury and the Fillmore District.

    After returning to the West Coast, Walker decided to take a respite from the destructive lifestyle of the blues. When he was younger he sang in church and he found solace in the music. For 10 years he performed with the Spiritual Corinthians, a traditional gospel group.

    "Gospel and blues are like cousins, just like the blues and jazz are cousins. It's all roots, different branches of the same tree."

    In 1985 Walker was invited to join the Mississippi Delta Blues Band. A promoter used the name for a group assembled annually for a European tour.

    "He would get different musicians to be the front man: Sam Myers was out front for quite awhile, then a friend of mine, Cool Papa. I went with my friend Eddie Ray; we were out front one year.

    "I'd been playing gospel for 10 years and I'd stopped playing blues. I'm sort of a restless musician and I was ready for something new. I actually went over to Europe to get some money to make a demo to send out to the record companies. I did that and got a recording contract."

    The album, Cold as the Night, was released on High Tone Records.

    "It was a mix of everything I'd done before: playing with my cousins, living with Bloomfield, playing with gospel groups and soul groups, playing with fusion groups.

    "I'm not a pure 1-4-5 24/7 blues guy, I'm a combination of a lot of things. The best way I heard it put, was by my ex-ex-ex-old lady. She said, `You know you're all over the f-ing place.' And that's exactly what I am -- all over the place."

    Fans and critics have lauded his forays into different styles: Great Guitars paired Walker with an all-star collection of bluesmen, and on Preacher and the President he worked in Muscle Shoals with Stax/Volt soul man Steve Cropper. His latest, Silvertone Blues is a rootsy acoustic collection.

    "It's the only straight-up blues record I ever did. There ain't no funk on there, no soul, nothing but blues."

    Silvertone finds Walker working with Alvin Youngblood Hart. The two bluesmen met years ago when Hart was working in a guitar repair shop.

    "We'd have a lot of fun because we both play like 10 instruments. I'd do these acoustic shows sometimes at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley and he'd come down and play. We got to be good friends. I told him if I ever did an acoustic album I'd let him know. It finally happened."

    Joe Louis Walker plays Sat., July 8, 4:20 p.m.

     

    [photo of Alvin Youngblood Hart]Alvin Youngblood Hart, blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, is a second generation country bluesman who started with the folk blues of artists like Leadbelly and mixed in ideas and influences from all over the map. He was raised in the Bay Area but he grew to love the rural blues he heard on regular visits to the South.

    "I'd go visit my grandma in Mississippi in the middle of nowhere and I'd see people living the lifestyle of 100 years ago," he said during a phone interview from his home in Memphis, Tenn. "The music was just part of that, a thread I could bring forward."

    While his debut, Big Mama's Door, established him as a master of the acoustic Delta blues, his 1998 release, Territory, was completely different, an eclectic set that shifted from Bob Wills-style Texas swing to classic blues, through an electric Capt. Beefheart cover, back to the blues and into ska. On his latest, Start with the Soul, released just a month ago, he works with a rock combo.

    "That's one way to keep enjoying music. It's like food, you keep it varied. I don't concentrate on trying to stick to any tradition. I just try to sing and play well."

    Hart will sit in for part of Walker's set Sunday; what they will do is still up in the air. "I know we'll have some fun and cut loose," said Walker. "I have to see what he wants to do. And Alvin loves to do the opposite of what he is expected to do."

    Alvin Youngblood Hart is special guest of Joe Jois Walker and plays Sat., July 8, 4:20 p.m.

     

    [photo of Tommy Castro]Tommy Castro says his music is a mixture of blues, soul and rock and roll. "My influences include traditional blues, soul music, those classic Stax things. My favorite stuff is that post-war Chicago blues, and the swing blues of T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles -- all that stuff that happened a long long time ago," said Castro in a call from his home in the Bay Area.

    "But I'm not a guy who grew up in 1945 in Chicago. I was raised on rock and roll in the '60s so I've also been influenced by the Rolling Stones and by James Brown. All those things mesh together and it comes out sounding like me."

    Castro worked his way up in the Bay Area blues scene, sat in on jams in the South Bay then moved to the city and started a band. A taut sound and relentless club gigs quickly earned his group a rep as the best bar band in town and he knew it was time for the next step.

    "From the start I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to make good records. I wanted to get the band on the road and tour the world. We wanted to go as far with it as possible."

    Asked his opinion on where the blues is going, Castro hesitates. "I guess I think it's none of my business where the hell the blues goes," he says with a laugh.

    "I'll write songs that come from my own experience for the most part so that it comes from a real place, from the heart. It's just basic and to the point. I think that's what the blues is all about."

    Tommy Castro plays Sun. July 9, 3:50 p.m.

     

    [photo of Nina Storey]Nina Storey is at home in Boulder, Colo., taking a break from the road, "doing a zillion things that are not as glamorous as performing, but plugging away, pushing the cause." The cause includes promoting her third solo album, Shades, by hitting the festival and club circuits.

    At 26, Storey has already been working for more than a decade. She started singing R & B professionally at the age of 15.

    "I listened to a lot of music growing up so I developed my own style based on music I'd heard like Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday and Billy Joel, so it was a bizarre mix.

    "I've always been drawn to music that has compassion and soul, music with some sort of truth behind it. Blues was something that I connected with sooner than with any other type of music. I was always going towards the bluesy soulful vein."

    Storey plays at a lot of blues festivals, but she also performed at the Lilith Fair and was the final performer at Woodstock. But is she a blues singer?

    "I tend to flip-flop when I'm asked that question. Blues is a major component of what I do, and I think it's inherent to my songwriting. But it depends on what you think the word means. I think the blues is about passion and that you don't necessarily have to be heartbroken to feel something painful or to express something that transcends your being.

    "I feel blessed that I can play to a group of high school kids, play the same thing at a blues festival, or a biker bar in the middle of God-knows-where, perform for my grandmother's friends who are in their 70s and 80s, and have this incredible warm wonderful response from all of them. For me that's the ultimate compliment."

    Nina Storey plays Sun. July 9, 1:10 p.m.

     

    Cathy Lemons is from Dallas, Texas but today she calls San Francisco home. Before moving west she played with Anson Funderburgh and Stevie Ray Vaughan. After relocating she landed a job with harp player Mark Hummel and toured for several years with boogie man John Lee Hooker.

    For the last decade she has led her own bands and last year she released her debut album, Dark Roads, on the Saloon label. She put it together with her longtime partner and bassist Johnny Ace who was part of Boz Scaggs' band when he played at the Muni. Steve Freund, Rusty Zinn and Tommy Castro all contributed guitar licks. And the word is Zinn, who turned in a smokin' set at Blues by the Bay Vol. 2, will come along to lend a hand.

    &nbsp&nbsp&nbspdays at the festival will feature a taste of Louisiana. Each day before the headliner takes the stage there will be an electrified New Orleans-style second-line parade led by "Dr." Richard Ross and the latest incarnation of his Soul Twisters. Percussionists Danny Montgomery and Ed Campbell,. bassist Ken Lawrence and horn players Randy Carrico, Julie Froblem and Sam Maez and will join the doctor playing the music of New Orleans legends like Professor Longhair, the Meters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas and Fats Domino.

    Cathy Lemons Blues Band plays Sat. July 8, 1:10 p.m.

     

    [photo of Tab Benoit]Tab Benoit is from Houma, Louisiana, a small town in the bayous. He grew up listening to Cajun music and zydeco, but instead of learning accordion he took up guitar. In traditional Cajun music the guitar seldom takes the lead, and at first he was content to play rhythm. But when he heard the music of John Lee Hooker and B. B. King, he found the sound he was looking for -- the blues.

    These Blues Are Mine is his fourth album and his first for the Vanguard label. It demonstrates his stripped-down style and shows the range of his influences. Originals like "Crawfishin' and "Bayou Boogie" are mixed with covers of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya," Willie Dixon's "29 Ways," an acoustic take on Memphis Slim's "Mother Earth" and several instrumentals by his prime inspiration, Albert Collins, the Texas bluesman known as the "Master of the Telecaster."

    Tab Benoit plays Sat., July 8, 3:50 p.m.

     

    [photo of Walter Washington]Walter Washington, a.k.a. "Wolfman," is another Louisiana native; born and raised in the Garden District in New Orleans. In a call from the Big Easy, he said that a deejay, Poppa Stoppa, deserves the credit for his early music education.

    "He was on WBOK, the only station at the time that played rhythm and blues. He's play Bobby Blue Bland, Little Willie John, B.B. King, all those cats along with spirituals."

    His own music career began in the choir of the New Hall Missionary Baptist Church.

    "My momma and my auntie encouraged me and my cousin, Ernie K-Doe, to sing in the choir because we always liked to sing.

    "Nobody had a guitar or knew how to play music at the time, so I took it on my own to play guitar. I made my first one out of a cigar box, a clothes hanger and some rubber bands. Then an old man we called Uncle Davie, he bought me my first acoustic guitar. My cousin, K-Doe, bought me my first electric. He had some money from making that record `Mother-in-Law.'"

    Washington went on the road for the first time with Lee Dorsey, another New Orleans singer who scored a couple of national hits, "Ride Your Pony" and "Workin' in a Coal Mine." After two and a half years he came back to New Orleans and landed a job with Irma Thomas, mostly touring on weekends which allowed him to play around town during the week and establish a reputation. He joined with Dorsey's bass player to form an R&B band called the A.F.B.'s.

    Washington says there's a difference between blues and rhythm and blues. "Blues gives you the foundation, R&B is the body and funk, well that's the mind."

    His band, The Roadmasters, came together 15 years ago. Back home they number as many as 10, but on the road the band includes seven: Washington on guitar, a two-piece rhythm section, keyboards and three horns.

    Walter Wolfman Washing and the Roadmasters play Sun. July 9, 2:40 p.m.

     

    [photo of Wilson Pickett]Wilson Pickett, soul music legend, closes the show Sunday night. He's the man behind "In the Midnight Hour," "634-5789," "Mustang Sally" and "Land of 1,000 Dances."

    Pickett got his start singing in Baptist choirs in his hometown, Prattville, Ala., and on the streets of Detroit, where his family moved when he was a teenager. After working for four years with the gospel-harmony group, the Violinaires, he hit the national airwaves in 1962 singing "I Found a Love" with The Falcons, an R&B group that also included Eddie Floyd. Pickett soon ventured forth on his own, signed with Atlantic Records and eventually hit his stride working at the Stax/Volt studios.

    "In the Midnight Hour," recorded in 1965, topped the R&B charts, broke into the top 40 on the pop chart, and inspired musicians across the country. Wolfman Jack adopted it as his theme song, all bar bands included it in their repertoire and dozens of acts recorded cover versions.

    In 1991 Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he was almost invisible during the '90s. He says he basically just stayed home. He resurfaced in 1998, pulled out of retirement by Dan Aykroyd for the movie Blues Brothers 2000 where he sang "634-5789" with Eddie Floyd and Johnny Lang.

    But Pickett is not merely an oldies act, as evidenced by his showing this year in the Blues Foundation's W.C. Handy Awards, the blues equivalent of the Grammys or Oscars.

    Pickett's 1999 release, It's Harder Now, his first in over a decade, was selected "Comeback Blues Album of the Year" and "Soul/Blues Album of the Year." And "Wicked" Wilson Pickett was chosen "Soul/Blues Artist of the Year."

    Wilson Pickett plays Sun. July 9, 4:20 p.m.


IN THE NEWS  |  CALENDAR

Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com

North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2000, North Coast Journal, Inc.