WAR: LIVING UP TO THE NAME

Posted in Uncategorized on August 20, 2017 by midliferocker

(Photo By BradP)

A founding member of one of funk rock’s great bands hangs onto the name and tries to maintain its lasting legacy.

By Steve Houk

So how does a band end up getting named War?

I mean, that’s a helluva moniker to saddle yourself with, and then have to live up to. Not many more direct and in-your-face band names than that.

Well the story might surprise you, or at the very least it should amuse you. And who better to tell it than a guy who was there, War co-founder Lonnie Jordan, the only member of the original lineup remaining in this band called War.

It was 1969, in Japan of all places, where the Animals’ Eric Burdon was touring with his (hopefully) new post-Animals group, a bunch of talented mostly Afro’d, bell-bottomed musicians who had the exact funk vibe that Burdon was seeking. But his band still didn’t have a name.

“We went to a sushi bar for the first time, I never been to a Japanese restaurant, first time I ever had sushi or saki,” Jordan said on a break from War’s current tour that will bring the band to Wolf Trap on August 23rd. “So here I am, I’m young, big afro, bell bottoms, all of us were, and after we got done with dinner, we were walking with one of the promoters that was promoting the show, he was happy that Eric came down with his new band, and he and my manager Steve Gold and [soon-to-be War co-songwriter and producer] Jerry Goldstein turned around and watched us walking, we were all a little tipsy and buzzed from the saki. They looked at us and said, ‘My God, I’m glad I know you guys, otherwise man I would have started walking faster to get away because you guys look like you just came out of a battlefield.’ And that rung a bell in my manager and Jerry’s head, and bingo, they had decided on War. And later on, we pretty much caressed the name, realizing that the connection with our music is that we were like waging war against wars, like Vietnam which was happening at the time. Like raging against the machine, you know?”

Burdon would stay only two years, but this memorable band — a powerful blend of rock, funk, jazz, Latin, rhythm and blues and reggae — would live up to that daunting name and go on to sell 50 million records, be twice nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, and establish a reputation and musical legacy that continues to this day.  The guys who were playing music before Burdon came a callin’ had come straight outta Compton, honing and developing their sound in the ghetto before they got their break with the former Animal.

“We came from the streets,” the enthusiastic and affable Jordan said. “It was Howard (E. Scott), me, Harold (Brown), out of Compton, Long Beach, Harbor City, San Pedro. They had a band called The Creators, and they asked me to join them. Coming together doing talent shows in the different schools, then a few singles, everything we did was a street vibe. And that’s why to this very day I call our music ‘universal street music.’ ”

Jordan and his cohorts eventually got a new bass player, Peter Rosen, who fortuitously for them, owed some money to a buddy of future music mogul Goldstein.

“And that person was Bruce Garfield, so Peter called Bruce and told him, ‘I know I owe you the money, but I tell you what, you’ll make even more money if you come down here and listen to the band I’m playing with.’  So Bruce came down to listen to us, and Bruce said, ‘I need to go back and tell Eric about this new band because Eric is looking for a new band. He would love this band.” So he went back, told Eric, told everyone, and they all got together and came down to the club The Rag Doll and heard us play and Eric fell in love at that point.”

Jimi Hendrix with War co-founder Eric Burdon and Noel Redding

When they got back from Japan and that first tour, the guys and Burdon would record their first record Eric Burdon Declares WAR (1970), and War was off and running. Songs like “Spill The Wine” and “Tobacco Road” would establish their funk laced sound, while also exuding a then-unique multi-ethnic band vibe.  Also in ’70 at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, band friend and up and coming guitarist Jimi Hendrix would join War onstage for what would infamously and tragically be his last public performance.

“Jimi came down on a Tuesday night without his guitar, just hanging out. I said, ‘Where’s your guitar man? Because usually you always have a guitar hanging on you.’ So he said, ‘I promise I’ll bring it tomorrow.’ So he brought his guitar but no amplifier, we just had a little small little toy amplifier and he came up on stage and we all jammed for a whole hour on a ‘Mother Earth.’ Ironically, it’s weird that we did ‘Mother Earth’ and then he goes back to his hotel and dies the next day. I just had to look at it in a double entendre, like he went back to mother earth.”

War in 1976 (L-R, Papa Dee Allen (congas, percussion), Lonnie Jordan (keyboards), Harold Brown (drums), Charles Miller (flute, sax), Lee Oskar (harmonica), Howard Scott (guitar), and B.B. Dickerson (bass).

In 1971, the band went on without Burdon who, after collapsing onstage from an asthma attack, would move on to a solo career and today has rock and roll legend status from his days with both The Animals and War. Although arguably the height of the band’s popularity was during those Burdon days when “Spill The Wine” caused rampant funk dancing everywhere, War kept making great music with songs that are recognized and played frequently on radio and streams today, like “Low Rider”, “Cisco Kid” , “World is A Ghetto” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” among others, plus they would record the best selling album of 1973 World Is A Ghetto.

After several personnel changes during the next twenty-plus years, including the murder of sax player Charles Miller, the band tried to unsuccessfully gain independence from Goldstein, eventually losing the band name War to a Goldstein lawsuit. In response, as Brown, Scott, Lee Oskar and a returning B.B. Dickerson (who had not worked with War since 1979) adopted the name Lowrider Band, Jordan opted to remain with Goldstein and create a new version of War with himself as the only original member, a decision that has obviously caused a rift between the founding members. Ironically, it has created its own war within the guys who went from the ghetto to superstardom together. But Jordan tries to be diplomatic and clearly still has love for his old friends.

“My relationship with the guys in the Lowrider band, all I can say about that is that I still have a lot of love for those guys, Lee Oskar, Harold Brown, Howard Scott, and of course the other guys that are not here today. But I have to say if there is any hate in their heart, they can’t help it. And because it’s automatic when people are upset about something that they’re not doing that they think they should be doing, but they’re the ones who made the decision not to do what I’m still doing. I still love them, if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I’m at and visa versa. So we just had a bad marriage, but we had great kids, which is our music.”

War 2017

Regardless of the issues with the original band members, Jordan remains ecstatic that he is still out there playing at 69, and giving audiences a heaping helping of the funk grooves that made War the legendary band that it is today.

“I know that my fans are my rock n’ roll hall of fans, so that’s what keeps me going, man. They uplift me and gives me a new fresh breath of air every time I perform on stage live. They need to be entertained. They need something different from what’s going on in the world today. And so do I. And that’s the bottom line. So it’s definitely a healing process for the mind, soul, spirit, body, everything.”

War with special guest Los Lonely Boys performs Wednesday August 23rd at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna VA 22182. For tickets, click here.

JONNY LANG: FOLLOWING THE SIGNS

Posted in Uncategorized on August 16, 2017 by midliferocker
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(Photo Credit Daniella Hovsepian)

A rock and roll mainstay often loves seeing the cards fall where they may when creating his special brand of music. 

By Steve Houk

Yep, it’s the stuff of rock and roll legend. The story goes that there stood a 12 year-old Jonny Lang, wowing friends and family on the front porch of a North Dakota lake house with his guitar by erupting into mindblowing versions of rock classics.

Then he stops, and launches into a stunning rendition of Jimi Hendrix‘ version of the National Anthem. Quite the monster roll for a 12 year old. You can just hear mouths fall agape. But even then, he was molding his future.

Almost three decades later, Jonny Lang is a musical success not only because of his superb guitar playing and songwriting, but also because he is often able to just let loose, let himself go, let things happen. And it’s those musicians who have influenced him over the years, including Hendrix, who Lang is indebted to for just that, for letting him be who he wants to be as a musician.

“Jimi Hendrix mostly is responsible for just showing me that you can be reckless and that’s okay,” Lang said before he took the stage at a festival in Washington state last week. “If that’s what comes naturally, you can be reckless and just not think about it, not have to craft a solo, you can just let it be this thing that’s happening in the moment. If you don’t land on your feet every time, it’s not a big deal. That’s part of the joy of it, and the first thing he reminds me of is that that’s okay.”

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Since his ‘tween days wailing away on that porch, Lang has established himself as one of rock and roll’s most durable and talented musicians, with a Grammy to his credit, top charting records over a 25-plus year career, and a reputation for both blistering guitar work and beautifully crafted songwriting. Fittingly, he’s also appeared on the star studded “Experience Hendrix” tour a few times. And his latest record Signs is in some ways an ode to those like Hendrix who came before, with an unvarnished feel that Lang loves to convey with his music.

“I think I just kind of had the thought that whatever the songs end up being,” Lang said, “it would be nice to have some of them harken back a little bit in their production approach to some of the older, more raw-sounding records like, you know, Howlin’ Wolf stuff and all that great, good, unpolished kind of stuff. It wasn’t like I wanted to make an exact record like that, but it was the stuff I was listening to at the time and have been re-inspired by it, so I think a little bit of that spirit of that made it on the record, you know?”

And that kind of rawness, spontaneity and also a sense of camraderie and willingness to let his cohorts contribute their own vibe spread to the making of Signs. 

“That’s my favorite part of the whole thing, is just sharing it with other people, and making it a joint effort,” Lang said. “I guess in the studio, what I mean is, not trying to steer every little thing into what I want. I love letting everybody just do what comes naturally and then after that if it needs a little nudge or something, do that. For the most part, we just went in the studio and had the sounds ready and just played the songs for the guys, acoustic guitar and let them do what they wanted with it and it developed into what it is now.

As well as loving when things evolve and come naturally when playing and recording, Lang is thrilled to just be making music for people who not only enjoy it, but have their lives inspired by it.

“I just love creating and playing music for people, and hopefully inspiring people too. Just being somebody who can bring music to them that will help them like it’s helped me in my life. I love it, and it doesn’t go too much deeper than that for me. I just think it can be so many different good things to different folks at so many different places in their lives. It can all come together at a concert and agree on this thing, but they each have a different experience. It’s amazing to me. Art is just amazing like that, so it’s cool to be able to be a part of stuff like that, you know?”

Jonny Lang with special guest Zane Carney performs at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets, click here

WALTER TROUT: TRUE BLUES SURVIVOR

Posted in Uncategorized on August 13, 2017 by midliferocker

One of the blues’ most spectacular guitar men survives the biggest challenge of his life by doing what he does best.

By Steve Houk

You don’t have to go much past the title of blues powerhouse Walter Trout‘s 2015 record to see what kind of survivor he is.

The superb Battle Scars is a glaring symbol of what Trout has gone through the last few years, a coat of arms that speaks to a level of sheer guts and endurance that is intense even by rock and roll standards.

And thankfully for all those blues fans worldwide who know full well about his prowess on both the guitar and as a songwriter, Trout is doing damn well thank you, considering he was literally knocking on heaven’s door a scant two years ago. And two years after he almost died, he has a brand new record due out in late August aptly titled We’re All In This Together, featuring 14 songs he wrote for some of the blues genre’s most dynamic players to play, including his mentor John Mayall, Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, Randy Bachman, Charlie Musselwhite, Edgar Winter, Mike Zito, Robben Ford, and his son Jon Trout.

For guy a few breaths from the end, Trout is happier than he’s been, well, maybe ever.

“I’ll tell you something man, I feel like I’m in the best time of my life right now,” Trout said during a break on his current tour which brings him to The Hamilton in DC on August 17th. “Part of it is that I feel great physically, I’ve got a lot of energy. I’m playing, I think, probably better than ever. I’m 66 and I’m still moving up the ladder, which is exciting. Plus I got a great family, a great career, and I feel really good. I know that I have, I don’t want to say, a second chance, because to be perfectly honest, I should have been dead in my twenties from drugs, you know? This, to me, is my third chance. I know that we’re all on borrowed time here, and I’m trying to make the best of every day. I just feel great, you know?”

(photo by Bob Steshetz)

Still one of blue music’s most electrifying guitar players in his mid-sixties, Trout did the rock star thing and lived and partied hard for decades, playing in bands with blues legends like B.B. King and John Mayall, as well as a stint in Canned Heat, and also establishing himself solo as a leading blues guitar ace with a knack for solid lyrics.

But it all came back to bite him in 2013 when Hepatitis C finally ate up his liver and it was literally down to the wire to try and find a life saving transplant. Luckily, Trout got a new liver and a new lease on life, but instead of writing about that new lease, he wanted people to know what he went through, and what kind of battle scars he has after surviving a truly terrifying near-death experience.

“When I wanted to do another album after coming out of the haze,” the likable Trout said, “at first I wanted to write like, ‘Hey, I made it and I’m alive and I’m so happy and everything is so beautiful, and something like the singing of a bird reduces me to weeping mass of jelly,’ you know? Write about the beauty of life that I never quite saw this intensely before. I kept trying to write songs, and they were coming out smell the roses and the sunshine’s beautiful, and it would have been great for Helen Reddy, or Olivia Newton-John, or the band that did “Afternoon Delight,” something like that. I said to my wife, ‘I’m going crazy. I have all this music, but when I try to write lyrics, it’s this cliched, trite bullshit.’ She said, ‘Well, you know what you’re avoiding. What you really need to do is write about what happened to you, it might not be fun but you need to do it because it will be therapeutic.’ She said that to me and she went out shopping for the day. She got back five hours later, and I had written six of the songs on (Battle Scars). And I finished it the next day. The whole thing took two days, it just came out, man. I didn’t try to put on any filters, I didn’t go, well, I’m supposed to be a blues guy, this song better be a 12-bar or something. Whatever came out, just came out.”

After Trout survived almost dying, it took him a good long while just to get even the most basic guitar chops back. But he scrapped and scraped and worked through both intense physical and mental pain, all just to teach himself how to play again.

“I had to relearn how to play. I got back out, I couldn’t play. I would watch videos of myself playing and I would go, I don’t know who that guy is, I can’t even relate to that person. I started over. I remember saying to my wife, ‘Look, I just figured out how to play a G chord.’ I also remember saying to her, ‘This is the most painful thing, I mean, I don’t know how anybody does this, my fingers are on fire, and …’ So it came back. I worked literally, it was like five hours a day I sat on the couch and I did that for a year.”

Trout endured almost unbearable frustration as he tried to regain the high end guitar skills that had gotten him to where he was before he fell ill.

“Learning it again, I didn’t know what else to do. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’ I could still remember positions, I could remember scales, where they were. I could look at the neck and go, ‘Okay, if that’s a bar there that’s a C,” but I could not do it physically. It was like being 10 years old, and you try to play a chord and it burns your fingers, and then your fingers crack open. I had to retrain the muscles because I had lost 120 pounds, and that was all muscle. I didn’t have the strength in the beginning, the strength to press the string down to the fret. I couldn’t get a note out. Not only was it practicing the guitar, but I worked with weights with my forearm muscles, and I worked with weights with my fingers and stuff like that, to redevelop the strength to do it. Little by little, it came back. I remember the first day I bent a string, we were celebrating, you know? Playing a bar chord, I went, ‘I just played a bar chord, and all the notes were ringing, there wasn’t a thud.’ We’re like, ‘Yeahhh!'”

Marie and Walter Trout embrace after Marie introduced Walter at his first appearance since his transplant, at Royal Albert Hall in London

But it was an annual Trout family tradition that poignantly showed him he was ready to fire up the amplifier for real and get back to business.

“I got home September the first, and the first time I tried to play in front of people was New Year’s Eve. We do a concert to the neighborhood, my family and I. My kids, we set up the band in the front yard, we’ve done it for years, and at the stroke of midnight, we play classic rock songs until the cops come, and all the neighbors come out. I played two songs with my kids, to see if I could do it. I did ‘Born to be Wild’ and “Fortunate Son.’ I played them, and at the end I was done. My hands hurt, but I actually did it, and I played a solo and I sang. I was like, ‘I think I may be able to do this.’ But that was only about eight minutes of playing. I kept working on it, that was January the first, and then the first time I got back up on a stage was June 15th, at Royal Albert Hall.”

And that comeback performance at one of the world’s most revered venues was the memorable moment Trout realized he had truly survived.

“It was a bunch of musicians doing Lead Belly music, Van Morrison and Eric Burdon among others. My wife introduced me, and said it was my first time back, and God, it was really emotional, she and I just stood there and wept. It was fucking heavy, man.”

(photo by Gary Moore)

Trout’s new record We’re All In This Together is clearly a way for him to exorcise some of the demons from the Battle Scars period, to put the intensity of the recovery behind him, and just enjoy being alive and playing the blues.

“Now was the right time for this record,” Trout said recently. “Battle Scars was such an intense piece of work, written with tears coming down my face. I needed a break from that, to do something fun and light-hearted. This album was joyous for me. It was quite a piece of work to get this record together, but I guess I have a lot of friends, y’know?”

And as for the future of the music that not only is in his soul but saved his life? Just like he feels after making it through his near death experience, Trout knows in his heart that the blues are alive and well.

“There’s so many young players coming up, so many young guitar players out there, and some good black players again, too. In many ways, in the ’60s I think, the blues kind of became in some ways the music of white college people. If you go to blues festivals, there’s not a lot of black people there. But now there’s a lot of young black guys playing blues, which hadn’t happened for a while, and there’s a whole batch of young guitar player singers. I think the blues is healthy as hell and has a great future, you know?”

Walter Trout with special guest Matthew Curry performs at The Hamilton, 600 14th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20005. For tickets click here

CINDY BLACKMAN SANTANA’S RHYTHMIC JOURNEY

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on August 10, 2017 by midliferocker

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Keeping the beat solo or with legends, and even marrying one, is only one part of this very special lady’s rhythmic journey.

By Steve Houk

From the moment she arrived in this world, it was the tapping. The rhythm. The beat.

There had to be some force of nature driving it, or given the intense spirituality that still courses through her to this day, it was likely a higher power at work.

“Both my Mom and older sister tell me that when I came out, I was always finding something to tap a rhythm on,” Cindy Blackman Santana told me on a break from the current tour she plays drums and percussion on in her husband Carlos Santana‘s band. “My Mom said I even found it in tapping on her back as a baby. She always said to me, ‘I thought that was maybe something you’d grow out of. But you never did.’ I love playing the drums. I won’t even call it a career, I’m going to call it my existence in music, but I always just wanted to play drums. Whatever the capacity was, I just wanted to play because I love doing it.”

For Blackman, it really was never a question, what she would be spending her life doing. Percussiveness is engrained in her soul, and is truly what has guided her through her very successful 30-plus year career, all in an industry where female drummers are few, opportunities can be scarce, and where she experienced both gender and racial prejudice.

But from her early days under the loving tutelage of legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey, to being the driving rhythmic energy for Lenny Kravitz, to jamming with jazz legends past and present, and now up to her current stint as her hubby Carlos’ drummer extraordinaire, Cindy Blackman Santana has established a stellar and respected reputation as one of the best instrumentalists in the music business.  She and the Santana band play Merriwether Post Pavilion on August 15th.

From those days as a beat-tapping baby, Blackman always felt the drums, they spoke to her, she seemed to pull the rest of the music aside and feed voraciously off the drum parts.

“When I would listen to a record, the drums were the instrument that would always stand out to me,” the kind and affable Blackman said. “I didn’t even know what they were at a very young age, or even what they looked like, but that was just the thing that always attracted me. Then once I saw them, oh my goodness, I completely fell in love with the drums. When I got my first drum set, changing the drum heads and smelling the wood inside, that just even got me, you know? I loved the feel of drums, the look of drums, the smell of drums, the role that a drummer plays.”

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Art Blakey and Cindy Blackman Santana

Jazz drummer Tony Williams would be her first big influence, but it would be the legendary Blakey that would take her under his wing after she arrived in New York at 23 after leaving Berklee School of Music in Boston. Blakey, who died in 1990, not only adored her as a person, but clearly saw enormous potential in her, and sensed her innate drive to soak up everything she could from one of music’s true drumming virtuosos.

“Art Blakey was like a papa to me, he called me his daughter,” Blackman said affectionately. “I used to babysit his kids, I was at his house almost every day and he told me so many stories and so many things and he was just so loving. I never took a formal lesson from Art, but it was all much better than a formal lesson, because everything that I saw and experienced when I hung out with him was a lesson. A lesson in music, a lesson in life, and he was so pleased and proud to share the lineage and the history of drumming, of jazz, of being a black person, you know? He was so incredible in sharing all of those things, and being a good human being.”

Blakeys’ protectiveness was never more evident than in something he said to her one night at his home. “He looked right in my eyes and said, ‘Cindy, don’t ever get in any trouble.’ And I said, ‘Huh?’ He said, ‘Because I’m not a person who’s looking to get into trouble, but if somebody ever did something to you, I’d have to kill him. I’d go to jail and I wouldn’t be able to play anymore!’ Yeah, it’s still one of the most amazing periods in my existence hanging with him. It was just such a blessing.”

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Cindy Blackman Santana (left) on tour with Lenny Kravitz (far right)

Amidst recording with a slew of past and present jazz legends through the 80’s into the 90’s, collaborating on their records and also making her own, Blackman began perhaps the most fruitful professional relationship of her career with Kravitz, one that started with two highly unique audition experiences.

“First, Lenny asked me if I would play over the phone and I did. I was excited, I was just playing and I was hitting the drums pretty hard. I got back on the phone and said, ‘Well, I know that was pretty loud, could you hear anything?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I could hear it, I’m in L.A., can you fly out here right now?’ ”

When she arrived at the L.A. manse Kravitz was staying at, she thought it was going to be just her playing for Kravitz, but soon realized that was not the case at all. Still, things turned out for the better.

“I saw somebody come in with a snare drum, and then somebody came in with a stick bag, and another cat with a bass drum pedal, and I’m like, ‘Oh no, these are all drummers.’ This friendly, no strings attached get-together was all of a sudden this big audition, thanks to his management and unbeknownst to Lenny. So after I played, he said, ‘Okay, the auditions are off, that’s it, I choose Cindy.’ I walked out of the room and his manager said, ‘Well man you’ve got like 38 other guys in there, it’s not really fair that they’re here and don’t get to play.’ So he auditioned everybody, and the next day said, ‘I still like Cindy better.’ So I learned the music, I rehearsed with the band, and then at the end of two weeks, we did the first video that I did with Lenny called “Are You Gonna Go My Way?”  At the end of the 18-hour shoot, they walked me outside and Lenny said, ‘So, you want to join my band?’ I said, ‘Sure, okay, when does it start?’ And he started laughing and he said, ‘It started two weeks ago!’ After a while, it was like they were all my brothers and I was their sister. And we really understood everybody’s flow, you know? It makes about 16, 17 years that I’ve played with him.”

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Cindy Blackman Santana and Carlos Santana release doves at their 2010 wedding (photo courtesy CBS)

Life took an unexpected turn for Blackman when she was introduced to Carlos Santana, and it was not only a musical kinship but their deep spirituality that eventually brought them closer together, resulting in Carlos proposing to Blackman onstage in 2010.

“When I met Carlos, when we started to get to know each other and started talking, I’m like, ‘Oh, this cat is really spiritual. I really like that, but I don’t want to be involved with a musician.’ I’ve done that, so I don’t think so. But he won me over because he’s so spiritual and he was right where I was in terms of what he was aligning himself with spiritually, and where he was at in terms of spirituality. And so that really was the major thing that was the bond for us. I believe that I was where he wanted a partner to be spiritually. We both did a lot of work on ourselves and we were both at a certain level spiritually, but definitely always searching to get more in line with our heart centers, with our light and with the creator’s light. It was really the major thing that bonded us.”

As well as the skins, Blackman is also lending her ample writing chops to the Santana sound as recently as their new record with the Isley Brothers, Power Of Peace, including the song “I Remember” which she wrote and sings. “To me, music is completely spiritual, it’s the way you ultimately connect with your higher self, and the universe. It’s also how you share light with millions of people. The music speaks, channels good energy, and makes a difference in people’s lives.”

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And as they have grown together as a couple, Blackman and Santana have found a spiritual bond that envelops them both. “It’s beautiful because that kind of light never dissipates,” she says glowingly. And as for what happens onstage during their current tour? Sounds like that legendary Santana magic is shared by his bride of seven years as well.

“You know, as close as I am to the situation, I’m still always amazed by Carlos, because his energy and his zest for not only finding new music to play but also keeping all of the music at a certain energy level and level of quality is just beautiful to behold. It’s a wonderful experience and the music soars, and he would have nothing less. If it doesn’t soar, you would hear about it.”

Santana (with drummer Cindy Blackman Santana) performs Tuesday August 15th at Merriwether Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy, Columbia, MD 21044. For tickets, click here.                  

KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD KEEPS LAYING IT ON DOWN

Posted in Uncategorized on August 8, 2017 by midliferocker

(photo courtesy White Mountain Boogie and Blues Festival)

A blues guitar master reveres the past while also savoring the new sounds it inspires.

By Steve Houk

There is almost always a seminal moment in a musician’s life, that instant, that blink of an eye, where they hear something, or see someone play, and think, “Now THAT’S what I want to do for the rest of my born days.” It can happen when you’re 5, 15 or 50, but when it happens, a sometimes life-changing musical journey begins.

For Kenny Wayne Shepherd, his came at the ripe old age of 7, yes, seven, when his radio personality/music promoter Dad got him into a Stevie Ray Vaughan show. There is no seminal moment more crystallizing for any musician than Shepherd had that night, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I remember that concert, it was a pivotal point in my life,” Shepherd, 40, said from England on a break during his current tour. “I was always interested in music and always drawn to the guitar. I’d had a few plastic guitars my Grandma gave me, but man, once I saw him play, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I need a real guitar instead of these little toy guitars, and I want to be…I want to do that.’ And, it wasn’t that I wanted to be him, it was that the way he affected me man, even at seven years old, I was completely blown away, completely entranced and moved by what he was doing up there. I was so fixated on him, it’s like the whole freakin’ world could have blown up around me and I would have been oblivious to it. So I just wanted to learn how to affect people that way with that instrument. And I got serious about learning how to play guitar from that moment forward.”

Seven year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Stevie Ray Vaughan meet at a 1984 SRV concert (courtesy KWS)

For years now, watching Shepherd play has no doubt done the same thing for budding wannabe guitarists worldwide. Thirty-three years after his SRV epiphany, Shepherd is considered one of the blues’ most exceptional and spearheading artists, having released six #1 blues albums, garnering five Grammy nominations, collaborating with legends like most recently in side project The Rides with Stephen Stills, and cementing his place on the top shelf of the present day blues guitar masters. And he’s not laying back, he’s doing the opposite, with a stellar and somewhat different new record, Lay It On Down, just out this month. Shepherd plays two nights at Ram’s Head in Annapolis August 14th and 15th, both shows are sold out.

Shepherd recorded Lay It On Down in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, not a first for him, but certainly always a very meaningful experience.

“The studio had just been built when we did my last record there,” Shepherd fondly recalls. “And we really enjoyed working there, so when it came time to do this record, that’s where I wanted to do it. That’s where I was born. That’s where I was raised. My family’s there. That’s where I found my love for music and guitar. It’s just something that seems right about creating music in my hometown.”

Shepherd didn’t do anything that different as far as the recording process on Lay It On Down, but the result is a premeditated departure in overall style from his previous efforts, with an Americana/country roots-based approach, yet of course replete with more of Shepherd’s shredding guitar magic.

“The last record was all traditional blues and it was cover songs, it was like a soundtrack of my childhood, you know? So I felt that it was appropriate for this record to be more contemporary and new sounding, to have all new songs rather than cover songs, ‘cuz if you’re doing cover songs, you kind of have a road map in front of you, you know? But when you have new songs, that’s what making a record is all about, is getting really creative in the studio all in a room together making the record. Not like going in there with it all planned out from the get-go. And so we’d go in there with my basic demos, acoustic guitar and vocal, and then we start building the album one song at a time. And, it’s a pretty cool process, I love doin’ it.”

Despite the new sounds on Lay It On Down, Shepherd has always been a die-hard advocate of the core music that got him playing for real in the first place, the blues. So any highlight reel of his career must also harken back to his stunning two-time Grammy-nominated DVD/CD 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads (2007), an epic journey through the backroads of blues history that saw Shepherd sitting on front porches and jamming in juke joints with some of the blues’ most talented players, as in some cases, most unheralded as well. It was one of Shepherd’s aims on the project to be sure those who had been forgotten didn’t stay that way for long.

” ‘10 Days Out’ was my attempt at creating a unique project to show my love and appreciation for blues music, the genre as a whole, and for blues fans too. But it was also to help give exposure to some of these blues musicians that were really talented people but never got to the level of someone like, B.B. King, for example. So we put them together in a project with B.B. King, put them on that same level with guys like him, and the same with guys from Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s bands, hoping to expose some of them to a greater audience, hopefully. The really sad thing is like 16 or 17 of those people are now dead, and like six or seven of them died before the project came out. Just goes to show that none of us are going to be around forever. And so there’s a lot of great musicians that are out there, and we need to appreciate them while they are here.”

As reverent as he is of the blues of the past, Shepherd is clearly glad to see things like the GRAMMYS bringing back the new blues categories, and he relishes the fact that blues music can remain true to the legends while also breaking new ground.

“I’m glad that they put that category back, because it acknowledges that there are new artists coming along, and people that are trying to take the genre and move it forward into different directions. If you look at popular music, any kind of popular music, and you trace it back to its roots, you’re inevitably going to wind up back at blues. And so that’s why you’re able to take it and do so many different things with it.”

And it’s that next batch of blues musicians, some who are starting out as young as Shepherd did, who will hopefully strive to keep the blues alive for generations to come.

“I think there’s no shortage of interest in blues music, no shortage of young people trying to play blues music, just go on to YouTube and type in blues guitar and you’ll see all kinds of kids both male and female doing it. I think for the genre to continue to be relevant and new and innovative, I think that the contemporary form of blues music should be acknowledged and appreciated as well. And I think it has been, and it will continue to be. I know it continues to grow, you know, I think it’s in great hands.”

And what about that seven year old that’s sitting there mouth agape air-guitaring to a 40 year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd? As Shepherd puts it, inspiration and all-important recognition for those who came before have thankfully been part of the blues game since the beginning.

“Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter what kind of music you do, or who you are, if you’re successful and you affect people with your music, then that means you’re going to inspire other people with your music. And there’s inevitably going to be somebody that is going to come along and be inspired by you. That’s what happened when people like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton were all inspired by these amazing blues artists and became just massively successful. I think that in blues music in particular, you have a history of giving credit where credit is due, and acknowledging your influences and your inspirations. Clapton was always very quick to point out his love for blues music and the artists that he loved that inspired him, and helped him to become Eric Clapton. So in that regard, I think blues artists have largely gotten the acknowledgement that they deserve, and if I can inspire someone, then all the better.”

MICHELLE BRANCH: SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE

Posted in Uncategorized on July 29, 2017 by midliferocker

Once a superstar at 20, Michelle Branch had to suffer hardship before a Black Key helped her rediscover success and happiness.

By Steve Houk

One never knows how life will go. And sometimes, it takes adversity and a little fate to get back to a light that once shined so brightly.

Take singer/songwriter Michelle Branch for example. A musical prodigy as a youngster, she self-produced her first record at 17, and by 20, had two platinum albums as well as a Grammy singing with Santana. Life was kicking ass.

Ten years later, she found herself with two unreleased records, being released from her label, as well as enduring a split up with her longtime husband and a child in the mix. Life was kicking her ass.

But fate as well as piles of talent and guts has played its lucky hand for Michelle Branch. Now she has a critically-acclaimed new record, her first in 14 years, and a new lease on life in more ways than just her music. Branch feels that if things had taken another track, she might not be in the perfect place she finds herself in.

“Yeah, if those albums came out, I don’t know if I would be in the position I am in now,” said Branch on a break from her current tour supporting her new record Hopeless Romantic, which stops at 9:30 Club on Friday August 4th. “I got to make an album I’m immensely proud of, one that I didn’t have any label involvement in so I had no one telling me what to do or what they expected of this album, I was really able to make the record I wanted to make. But I also found love throughout the process, I fell in love with my producer while we were making this album, and I’m now living a life that I didn’t ever see for myself.”

That producer is Black Keys’ drummer Patrick Carney, who also co-wrote the record, and whom Branch and her 12 year-old daughter recently moved in with. When the recording of Hopeless Romantic began, romance was not in the air, yet respect and collaboration, and Carney’s desire to help Branch break out of her somewhat stimied existence, grew into something more.

“He’s just such an advocate of the underdog and he’s always like ‘Damn the man!’,” said Branch. “And he just saw this puzzle that had all the pieces and no one was there to care or put it together, and he’s like I want to help to get this out. So it was, you know, like I said, everything happens for a reason. The two of us feel like it was divine intervention. It was supposed to happen, for sure. And now I have a touring drummer who’s, ha, really good. Even if you aren’t a fan of mine, if you’re a Black Keys fan, you can come watch Patrick play my old songs with me.”

patrick-carney-michelle-branch-album-dating-couple

Michelle Branch and Patrick Carney

Hopeless Romantic is a wrenching, emotionally charged record that reeks of her at-the-time divorce, but is still replete with that gutsy, powerful Branch voice. And the depth of the songs resounded for both Branch and Carney as the recording progressed along with their new relationship.

“When I started this album, started writing the album, I was going through a divorce and then for the first time was dating, which was in Los Angeles.” Branch recalled. “And then I started the album with Patrick and we weren’t romantically involved when we started the record, so the songs that were written really started with losing love and trying to find it again. But in the end, they were about really finding it. And when, I was trying to figure out a title for the album, it just was kinda obvious that Hopeless Romantic was the right fit.”

Branch’s obvious musical talent started very early, and she has poignant, vivid memories of where some of her first songwriting took place and how music became her heart early on.

“I remember being like 8 years old and swinging on my swing out in the yard making up songs. As early as I can remember, I was always making up songs or I would go through my Grandma’s book of old standards. And I didn’t know how to read music so I would see the lyrics and I would make up new melodies to the lyrics. I was always making songs up. And thankfully my parents had really amazing taste in music and they always had records on in the house, and you know I’d listen to The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac, that’s like in my DNA.”

And now Branch has her own little girl who, along with her, is enduring some of life’s unexpected changes. The sentiments she relays to her daughter could be lyrics from one of her own hopelessly beautiful songs.

“She just left the other day to go spend the summer with her dad so we can go on tour. I told her, I was like, you know nothing bad ever happened from too many people loving you, or too many people in your life. I told her it doesn’t mean we’re replacing someone, we’re just adding someone to your life. No one gets replaced. So far I don’t have too many eye rolls yet.”

Michelle Branch with special guest Haerts performs Friday August 4th at 9:30 Club, 815 V ST. N.W. Washington, DC 20001. For tickets, click here.

LONG LOST SONG IGNITES A BOND

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 29, 2017 by midliferocker

A song that sat unsung for decades sparks a unique and exciting collaboration.

By Steve Houk

It’s a really cool thing when something written long ago can be resurrected in the present day, and made to shine bigger and brighter than it ever did before. It can happen in film, literature, poetry…oh, and music.

Take 15 year-old guitar prodigy Nicky Renard for example. She took a song left dormant by Swedish-born musician Max Foxx, 59, decades ago and woke it up, jostled it around and lit a fire under it with her burgeoning, clearly exceptional talent. And lo and behold, “Grovy Lane” was not only reborn and is out on Spotify and iTunes, but the two are working on a full album of songs featuring some top notch players, including an American Idol-winning singer.

“The basic parts [of “Grovy Lane”] I composed in 1976, and I wasn’t able to make it anything better than it was, it was actually quite a bad song, so I never did anything with it,” Foxx said as he and Renard were recording in the mountains of northern Europe. “It was dormant until last year when Nikki picked it up and made a complete song of it. It had been just the chords and she added all the other parts.”

Listening to “Grovy Lane”, you can surely hear some prog-rock influenced licks, and some hard rock influences, but it’s definitely a distinct sound highlighted by Renard’s wondrous older-than-her-years guitar playing.

“Max had only composed the acoustic guitar chord progression of the verses and choruses,” Renard said. “The song was left forgotten until last autumn when we were just sitting around jamming. We played with it for a while, I composed a few parts such as the intro and solo, he added a bridge, and suddenly, “Grovy Lane” was a complete song.”

The collaboration has been a wonderful surprise for the two, but Renard’s sheer, innate talent is no surprise, and has been developing for several years.

“When I was ten, it was kind of funny, because I think we watched some kind of movie about a rock and roll band,” Renard, who enters the 11th grade this fall, recalled. “I just thought it was really cool. So for my birthday, I really wanted a guitar. Luckily, my parents got me a Yamaha acoustic 3/4 guitar and I started playing quite a lot for about half a year. Then it slowed down for some reason, but when I was thirteen, I started playing more and more and more again. That’s when I realized that I actually really loved playing guitar. I started dedicating a lot of time to playing guitar.”

“It started early last year, when her level of guitar playing picked up rapidly,” Foxx added. “She started to compose songs, there is a song which will not be on the record, she composed it entirely by herself. When I listened to it, I couldn’t believe it. She was just fourteen at that time and it’s a really, really good song. And because of the quality of the music, alot of professionals in the industry have listened to it, and they can’t believe it’s hers. Based on that, we started to play together intensively. I would say second half of last year and that’s how it started.”

Once word of Renard’s talent got out, the pair found themselves in a Nashville studio courting one of the industry’s top voices, American Idol winner Caleb Johnson, to be a part of the evolving magic, and to make Grovy Lane a reality.

“We believed in our song and we wanted someone really good,” said Foxx. “We saw some guys, good singers, but not right for our job. Then the chief engineer at Southern Grand Studios played us Holding On with Caleb Johnson. I decided on the spot, I want this guy. My opinion, I would say he’s one of the ten best rock singers currently on this planet. We contacted his manager and he listened to our early version of the song, and we ended up together.”

The pair are looking to finish the record this fall when they hit the studio for three weeks starting the 9th of September, then there may be some talk of a tour. But bottom line, it’s Foxx’s wise knowledge and Renard’s constantly flourishing playing and songwriting chops that make it a great partnership.

“In very little time, she can add bits and pieces and just convert a bad song into a good song,” Foxx says proudly. “At the same time, I can do the same thing with some stuff she has. It’s a magic collaboration. The only thing I can say, especially when she’s playing her solos, when I’m watching it, I only wish I could have done that when I was fifteen.”