GA-20 BRING THE BLUES

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.

See GA-20 in Kansas City, Mo. at Knuckleheads on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

“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.”

Follow GA-20 on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

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Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite: Social Distancing Spins, Day 55

Social Distancing Spins – Day 55

By Joel Francis

With today’s entry, we cross the 300 album threshold for social distancing spins. How many more will be added? As much as it takes for everyone to be safe in public.

George Harrison – Brainwashed (2002) George Harrison’s final album appeared 15 years after his previous release and a year after his death. Of course, this meant Brainwashed received far more attention than it would have otherwise, but the extra press didn’t diminish the fact that Brainwashed features some of the most consistent songwriting and playing in Harrison’s catalog. Certainly being able to cherry-pick the best work from such a long period of time works in the album’s favor, but the songs all hang together as a relaxed portrait of the Quiet Beatle abandoning any pretense of chasing a hit and meditating on the same themes of spirituality and mortality that go back to “Within You, Without You” and “The Inner Light.” The tablas and sitars of those Beatles songs have been replaced with acoustic guitars and ukuleles. Although completed after Harrison’s death by his son and fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne, Brainwashed never feels incomplete or patched together. It is an incredible, cohesive parting gift from a major talent.

Carolyn Franklin – Chain Reaction (1970) Carolyn Franklin may not have the pipes of her older sister Aretha, but then again, few people did. What she is also sadly lacking on Chain Reaction, her second album and first for major label RCA, is a sympathetic producer. Most of the songs on Chain Reaction are drowned in strings and the type of earnest production that sunk many of her sister’s better moments on Columbia. Also, curiously, despite penning the hits “Angel” and “Ain’t No Way” for her sister, Carolyn Franklin didn’t write any songs for Chain Reaction. The album is pleasing – Franklin is too good a singer for it to be a bust – but also leaves me wishing she had punchier production like Aretha was finally receiving at Atlantic at the time Chain Reaction came out.

By the end of the decade, Carolyn Franklin was all but out of the music industry, although she did appear as one of her sister’s backing singers in The Blues Brothers. Sadly, Carolyn Franklin died from breast cancer in 1988.

J Dilla – The Shining (2006) J Dilla’s third album was more than halfway done before the revered hip hop producer succumbed to lupus six months before The Shining’s release. As such, it feels a little incomplete as an album and rushed as a tribute. There are some amazing moments to be found here, to be sure. Common and D’Angelo ride a sample of the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” into the spiritual stratosphere. As a bonus, the version on The Shining is 60 heavenly seconds longer than the one on Common’s album Finding Forever. Another high point is the Pharoahe Monch feature “Love,” built around Curtis Mayfield and the Impression’s “We Must Be in Love.” Less successful is Busta Rhyme’s pointless profanity on the introductory cut and MED and Guilty Simpson’s waste of a great percussive track on “Jungle Love.” Solid contributions from Black Thought and Dwele make up for these missteps, but it’s hard not to wonder if executive producer Karriem Riggins had waited a bit longer he could have found stronger contributors for all the tracks. Then again, maybe Busta and Guilty Simpson were already in the can when Dilla passed. It’s hard to know for sure. What is definite, however, are Dilla’s skills as a producer (and MC, as he shows on the final song here). Gone too soon at age 32, any time with Dilla is well spent.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy in This Land (2018) Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite won a Grammy for their first album together, so a sequel was inevitable. Funny thing, though – I like No Mercy in This Land even more than the first one. Chemistry wasn’t a problem before, but it feels like the two musicians play off each other even better this time around. Maybe all the time on the road broadened their musical rapport. The songs here, again all written and primarily sung by Harper, are uniformly excellent. Musselwhite knows exactly how to dart around Harper’s voice and guitar, to accent and punctuate without getting in the way. The song “Love and Trust” first appeared on Mavis Staples’ album Livin’ on a High Note two years prior (and discussed back on Day 41). It’s hard not to miss her husky, soulful voice on this version. Otherwise No Mercy in This Land is the blues at its best.

Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody (2017) The days of the Flaming Lips being able to write a catchy pop melody along the lines of “Do You Realize” or “She Don’t Use Jelly” were well behind them when they started work on their 14th album. Instead, the songs on Oczy Mlody – Polish for young eyes – float in the same atmosphere, equally informed by hip hop beats as much as psychedelic prog rock.  As such, most of the songs tend to blend together. One of the sonic experiments that stands out is “There Should Be Unicorns.” I’m not going to attempt to decipher the lyrics, but the song itself is a wonderful mix of bells, drum machines, droning synthesizers and falsetto vocals. The arrangement is captivating on its own terms, but also screams for a remix with someone rapping over the top. Album closer “We a Famly” (featuring Miley Cyrus on backing vocals) is the closest thing to a single here, bringing this unsettling yet satisfying anthology of fairy tales to a close.

Jenny Lewis – On the Line (2019) Before the release of On the Line, I was more of a Jenny Lewis appreciator than a fan. Then I had the opportunity to see Lewis in concert at the Ryman Auditorium a few weeks after On the Line came out. That night converted me, in no small part because the material from On the Line is so strong. A Southern Californian bacchanal, On the Line is steeped in the 1970s MOR sound of Carly Simon, Carole King and Stevie Nicks. Lewis processes the death of her mother and the end of a long relationship with help from studio aces Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers), drummer Jim Keltner, Beck, Don Was and, unfortunately, Ryan Adams. The lyrics are peppered with references to Elliott Smith, Candy Crush, the Beatles and Stones while the music swoons like someone stepping into a sunny Los Angeles afternoon fighting a hangover.

Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (2012) The second album from Los Angeles-born R&B singer Miguel starts with what sounds like a sideways interpretation of the synth and drum line to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Miguel, however, is more about the sexual than the healing. What keeps the album from being a one-topic wonder, however, are the masterful arrangements that make each song feel like a different psychedelic fantasy. The soundscape grows even more fascinating as one discovers the snippets of the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” and the Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” casually slipped between the futuristic soul spells.

A closer look at the lyrics, however, reveals that Miguel isn’t as interested in the sex as much as the intimacy. He confesses to wanting to the lights off in “Use Me” and wants to play paper, rock scissors in “Do You.” The reverie ends with “Candles in the Sun,” an entrancing song that asks hard questions about living in poverty and being ignored by the larger society. It’s a somewhat surprising end to an album that has been so inward-focused most of the time, but it also fits with Miguel’s passions. He feels everything so deeply that it is all magnified, especially the existential questions that can’t be easily answered.

Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine (1978) It’s been a while since the excellent Drive soundtrack brought synthpop bubbling back to the surface alongside bands like Cut/Copy and Phoenix. But really, from Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby in the ‘80s to Chvrches and Shiny Toy Guns today, the shiny, synthetic music pioneered by Kraftwerk more than 40 years ago has always survived in one form or another. The Man-Machine didn’t start this movement – that honor mostly likely belongs to Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk’s previous album – but it built upon the concept of layering minimalist songs until they form something more elaborate and inviting for the dance floor. As a result, The Man-Machine became the defining album in Kraftwerk’s catalog. In fact, when I saw the band nearly five years ago (time flies!) they performed every song from the album. To make it even more exciting, they had actual robots come out and perform “The Robots” for the first encore.

Florian Schneider played an immense role in taking Kraftwerk from the primitive nob-twiddling on their early albums to the expansive synth masterworks that defined their best songs. I’m not versed enough in the band to tell you where he added to specific songs. The group likes to remain fairly nebulous. Even seeing them in concert, it looked like four men at podiums. However, Schneider was a founding member of Kraftwerk and present on all their albums through Minimum-Maximum. He also got name-checked by David Bowie on Heroes, and that’s enough street cred for me. Sadly, Schneider died from cancer in late April. The next time you’re on a dance floor, moving to a pulsating synthesizer, or tearing down the highway humming the melody to “Autobahn,” remember this pioneer.