By Joel Francis
Guitarist Matt Stubbs, a veteran of blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite’s band and one third of the new blues act GA-20, thinks it’s time for a blues revival.
After all, Stubbs reasons, soul music had its resurrection with Lee Fields, Sharon Jones and the Daptones. Traditional country had a resurgence with Coulter Wall and Charlie Crockett.
“What I’d like to see is more traditional blues,” Stubbs said. “I think if more people heard this style of blues, they would like it. That’s a lot of why we make the records we do and why I produce the as I do. We’ll have people come up to us after shows and ask ‘What kind of music is this?’ I tell them it’s traditional blues.”
Traditional blues is more raw and primitive than what came later, when blues musicians – who often also worked as sharecroppers – migrated north from Deep South in the 1940s and ‘50s, settling in Chicago, Detroit and other northern cities.
The primarily acoustic blues from the Mississippi Delta became electrified to overcome the noise in the clubs and on the street. British musicians heard this amplified blues, absorbed it and imported it back to the United States on early albums by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and Fleetwood Mac, to name just a few acts.
“These days, if you go to a blues festival, you get a lot of the modern blues or rock take,” Stubbs said. “A lot of great artists do that, but that’s not we are doing. That’s not what I put on my turntable. I think when a lot of people hear the word blues, they think of guitar shredding and music derived from British blues and classic rock.”
On their second album, GA-20 pay tribute to Hound Dog Taylor, a less-celebrated figure from the Chicago blues scene. Stubbs discovered Taylor when he heard “Give Me Back My Wig” on a blues CD at 15 or 16 years old. Stubbs said that song stood out because it was a little more rough around the edges.
“That’s the kind of blues that’s always spoken to me,” Stubbs said. “I like it to be kind of raw.”
Taylor is a good fit with GA-20 for several reasons. Like GA-20, Taylor’s band The Houserockers featured a lineup of two guitars and drums – no bass. GA-20 (named after a vintage guitar amplifier) and Taylor also both caught the ear of Bruce Iglauer, founder of the blues label Alligator Records.
“Bruce started the label because Hound Dog couldn’t get a record deal at the time,” Stubbs said. “Bruce saw us before the pandemic and was interested in working for us, but we were already signed to Colemine Records.”
Stubbs brainstormed ways to make something work and realized it was approaching the 50th anniversary of Alligator Records and Taylor’s first album. He came up with the idea for Colemine and Alligator to pair up and recognize those anniversaries.
Music was always present when Stubbs was growing up in Boston. His dad is also a guitarist and the young Stubbs was always listening to his father rehearse and perform. When Stubbs heard Lenny Kravitz’ “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” his dad told him if he liked that, he’d probably like Jimi Hendrix. That opened a door to Albert King and Freddie King.
“When I was 16, I joined my dad’s band,” Stubbs said. “I went to music college, dropped out and started gigging as much as possible.”
In his early 20s, Stubbs got the chance to join blues singer Janiva Magness. That lead to playing with John Németh. One of the musicians in Nemeth’s stable was June Core, longtime drummer for Charlie Musselwhite.
“When Charlie’s guitar player moved onto other things, Charlie called me up and asked if I wanted to play guitar,” Stubbs said. “There was no rehearsal.”
That was about 13 or 14 years ago, Stubbs guesses. GA-20 grew out of a year when Musselwhite went on the road with Ben Harper and his band for a year. With nothing to do, Stubbs formed another band with guitarist Pat Faherty so he could work.
“Pat was a friend who came to a lot of my shows. He was into other music before the blues,” Stubbs said. “We started with two guitars and a harmonica for a gig or two. It ended up morphing into drums and two guitars with no harmonica.
“We had to keep the band lean out of necessity to make money,” Stubbs continued. “We started to sound pretty good, so I booked some studio time to record that first album. There were no expectations, it was just a fun project.”
Those session resulted in Lonely Soul, GA-20’s debut release, which featured Musselwhite’s harp on one track and was released on Colemine. The album hit No. 2 on the Billboard blues chart in 2018. A four-song live EP came out in September, 2020, when live concerts were shut down.
Now Stubbs is back on the road with both GA-20 and Musselwhite. A European tour and several festival appearances in 2022 are currently in the works. Stubbs said he hopes to put out another GA-20 album in May.
GA-20 plays Knuckleheads with J.D. Simo on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Go here to buy tickets online and get more information.
“I think the only place I’ve played in Kansas City is Knuckleheads,” Stubbs said. “I was there with John Németh and Janiva Magness. I played there before the venue across the street (Knuckleheads Garage) was open.”