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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Review: B.B. King and Buddy Guy

The true story of Cadillac Records

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

Social Distancing Spins – Day 21

By Joel Francis

Days blur together like a Michel Gondry dream sequence, but the vinyl never stops.

Slowdive – self-titled (2017) During their original run, the English quintet Slowdive delivered three albums that blurred the lines between shoegaze and dream pop. For their first album in nearly a generation, the band is once again operating in the sweet spot of dreamy guitars and ethereal vocals. Slowdive manages to maintain a consistent mood without feeling repetitive. I’m not sure I would have appreciated them as much during the grunge era as I do now, but this reunion album still serves as a soothing antidote to a stressful time. There’s nothing better than putting this on and letting the world float away for the better part of an hour. Favorite songs include the single “Sugar for the Pill” and “Falling Ashes,” which became even more of a favorite after seeing them perform it in concert.

Bruce Springsteen – The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) The Ghost of Tom Joad is typically compared to Nebraska because they are both acoustic albums, but this is really unfair to Joad because it isn’t trying to accomplish the same thing. The songs on Tom Joad are fully realized acoustic performances complete with violin, pedal steel and a full band. The songs are some of the Boss’ best, as well. I love the title track in all its arrangements, especially the one with Pete Seeger reciting the lyrics over Springsteen’s guitar. “Youngstown” is a concert staple, yet “Dry Lightning” and “My Best Was Never Good Enough” don’t seem to get the recognition they deserve. “Across the Border” remains particularly relevant in the current xenophobic culture. Overall, The Ghost of Tom Joad has more in common with Devils and Dust than anything else in Springsteen’s catalog. It’s his best album of the 1990s.

Tom Waits – Alice (2002) Tom Waits threw his hat into the ring of releasing two albums on the same day when he released Alice and Blood Money simultaneously in the spring of 2002. Of the two, I prefer Alice, which features more ballads and generally less abrasive material (not that Blood Money is a bad album). Really, the two albums complement each other like less contrived versions of the Brawlers and Bawlers collections on the Orphans box set. Blood Money says “Misery is the River of the World” and Alice cries “No One Knows I’m Upset.” Pick a pill, red or blue. Either one leads to sonic delights.

Margo Price – Live at the Hamilton (2016) Margo Price is a throwback to a time when women like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt could move the needle in Nashville. Sadly, I don’t know how much traction she and fellow spirits the Highwomen will get. Either way, her songwriting and spirit can’t be denied. This set features Price and her band onstage in Washington, D.C., 24 hours after election day. (I was set to attend an in-store that same night but couldn’t muster the motivation to leave the house, an ironic stance now.) They perform several songs from her debut, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and cover Billy Joe Shaver, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell and breathe new life into Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Houston Stackhouse – Worried Blues (2017)

Rev. Leon Pinson – Hush-Somebody is Calling Me (2016) There’s a great record shop in Memphis, right around the corner from a restaurant that used to be a hair salon and built their eatery around the old fixtures. Both are worth a stop. The shop, Goner Records, has an incredible selection of delta blues albums that is expertly curated. I typically pick out a half dozen albums that look intriguing by artists I’ve never heard. The person behind the counter is always happy to describe each album and I buy as much as I can afford. This process has never let me down. It also led me to these albums, released in the 2010s but compiled from recordings made in the 1960s. Both contained fingerpicked, acoustic Delta blues. As expected from his title, Pinson works a lot of gospel in his songs. If you can’t make it to church (or don’t want to go) put this on instead.

Prince – Art Official Age (2014) It is lazy critical shorthand to say a given new album is an artist’s best since his or her most recent critical masterpiece. The new album usually doesn’t measure up and music fans end up with piles of reviews where each subsequent release is hailed as a return to form and compared to the same previous classic.

So let me try it now. Art Official Age is Prince’s best release since the Love Symbol album. The funk workouts are on par with the best jams on Musicology and 3121 but what gives Art Official Age the nod is “Funknroll” a track that combines soul, funk, rock and electro to surpass its title and give Prince his best dance track since “P Control.”

See how easy that is?

If you are curious about any of Prince’s post-heyday releases and feel overwhelmed by the number of albums he put out across the last 20-or-so years of his life, Art Official Age is a solid place to start.

Review: T-Model Ford

(Above: T-Model Ford wants to cut you loose.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few links remain to the golden age of Delta Blues. Most of the artists are dead, and the generation that followed grew up cities far away from sharecropping plantations. T-Model Ford’s appearance at Davey’s Uptown on Thursday night was a rare opportunity to witness firsthand the roots of the blues.

Ford drew a diverse group of about 60 fans, spanning several generations and including bikers, punk rockers, hipsters, musicologists and the curious. What they got was either an embarrassment of riches or way too much.

Fliers promised Ford would be performing with a band, but his only backing was Gravel Road drummer Marty Reinsel. Together the pair coaxed a sound that distilled nearly every traditional variety of the blues into one long shuffle. The guitar-and-drums duo played with a simplicity the White Stripes and Black Keys could only imagine.

There was no set list. For two and a half hours, including a 20-minute break, Ford flipped through the vast blues songbook in his mind and played whatever started coming out of his fingers. The results included well-known songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “My Babe” and Ford originals such as “Chicken Head Man” and “Cut Me Loose.”

Seated on a cushioned chair, Ford looked completely relaxed. During the glacial pauses between verses he gazed across the room, a gentle smile on his face as if he had no cares in the world. Across Ford’s lap was Black Nanny, a Peavy electric guitar that looked like it had been stolen from a hair metal band. Ford twice called it the best guitar in the world.

Regardless of their origin, most songs were based on a two-chord shuffle that had nowhere to go and was in no particular hurry to get there. Most songs ambled along for about five minutes, several stretched to nearly twice that length. Ford’s smooth singing was almost stream-of-conscious, picking up verses halfway through, mixing stanzas and inventing new verses altogether.

Reinsel’s drumming was the element that held the set together. He held back on most songs, altering his emphasis ever so slightly to keep the endless boogies from becoming monotonous. The more aggressive rhythms on “Chicken Head Man” had a Keith Moon energy.

Between songs, Ford massaged the arthritis in his right hand. After one number, he declared it “Jack Daniels time” and downed the contents of the shot glass sitting on his amplifier. He told a story about getting married last week and told the women in the room that “If she flags my train, I’m going to let her ride.”

But what was hypnotic for some was tedious for others and near the end of the first set the chatter from the bar in the back of the room threatened to take over the space. After a 75-minute set, Ford took a break which eliminated many of the less-dedicated fans.

If the night had stopped there no one would have felt shortchanged. No one is sure of Ford’s age, least of all the man himself, but most peg his birth sometime during the Harding administration. Unlike many bluesmen, Ford didn’t start playing guitar late in life and didn’t record an album until 1997 when he was discovered by the Fat Possum label.

The hour-long second set reprised many of the favorites from the first set, including “Sallie Mae” and “That’s Alright.” By the third go-round of “Hoochie Coochie Man” what started as innocent started looking senile. It didn’t stop anyone from dancing, though. As a friend said at the end, when you’re 90 years old you can play the blues any way you want.

Keep reading:

Little Arkansas Rocks

(Above: Al Hibbler, who wrote “Unchained Melody,” attended school for the blind in Little Rock, Ark.)

By Joel Francis

At a recent concert in Fayetteville, Ark., jazz legend Sonny Rollins remarked at how happy he was to be playing Louis Jordan’s home state for the first time.

Arkansas has never been known as either cutting-edge or influential. Not even Bill Clinton could save Arkansas from being a backwoods punchline – it’s the West Virginia of the Midwest, for readers who are mystified by what lies west of Virginia – but it’s spawned an amazing number of influential musicians. There’s Johnny Cash, who was born in Kingsland and raised in Dyess, and his brother Tommy, of course. Legendary Band drummer Levon Helm, who hails from Marvell. Those are the ones everybody knows.

Incredibly, soul legend Al Green was born in Forrest City. One of Green’s influences, gospel/rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was born in Cotton Plant. Contemporary gospel star Smokie Norfull was originally from Pine Bluff. Delight brought us Glen Campbell, Colt was Charlie Rich’s first home and Conway Twitty was born Harold Jenkins in Helena. John Hughes, a pedal steel player who worked Twitty and numerous others, came from Elaine.

Louis Jordan (Brinkley) aside, the Natural State has also produced jazzman Joe Bishop from Monticello, who wrote the staple “Woodchopper’s Ball” and free jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (Little Rock).

The state’s greatest legacy might be the amount of blues it birthed, including Luther Allison (Widener), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (Helena), Son Seals (Osceola), Jimmy Witherspoon (Gurdon), Roosevelt Sykes (Elmar) and Robert Jr. Lockwood (Helena). West Memphis was the first stop north for many blues players. Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Big Boy Crudup and B.B. King all stopped there for a while. Stax pillar Rufus Thomas was a longtime West Memphis radio host.

The name Jim Dickinson (Little Rock) may not be familiar, but his work with the Dixie Flyers, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Big Star, the Flamin’ Groovies, the Replacements, Mudhoney and the North Mississippi Allstars – which features his sons Luther and Cody – has been heard the world over.

On the pop side, founding Evanescence duo Amy Lee and Ben Moody are also both Little Rock Natives; R&B slickster Ne-Yo was born in Camden and Perryville begat Shawn Camp, who has written songs for Garth Brooks, George Strait and Brooks and Dunn.

Arkansas may be a forgotten state that ranks in 32nd in population and 29th in area, but if you can’t experience its Ozark Mountains in person, it’s at least worth a musical road trip.