Bad boys of blues
The 2014 Hawaii Rhythm & Blues Mele will field an exciting lineup of great guitarists at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater on Friday evening. This annual event features the Elvin Bishop Band, the Duke Robillard Band with Little Charlie Baty and the Tinsley Ellis Band.
From his days in the mid-’60s with the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band, through decades as a solo artist, Elvin Bishop has maintained his appeal with an unbridled enthusiasm for performing a winning combination of good-time blues, funky R&B and humorous country-flavored tunes.
“It’s an unconscious choice I made a long time ago,” Bishop says about his playful style. “I understand the tragic consequences of life as well as anyone, but presented with a choice, you can either cry about it or laugh about it. So you might as well have a good chuckle if you’re able to.”
Bishop often likes to narrate his droll tales with a conversational style of singing. “I don’t have the greatest voice in the world,” he explains. “I can’t entertain people singing the phone book like some people can. So when I write a song, I tend to be extra careful about making sure the words are good and carry a story well. I feel if I’m not keeping the listeners interest by pure virtuosity, then I have to keep them hooked into the story.”
Raised in Oklahoma, Bishop has a fondness for his rural roots that has long pervaded his work, but it was blues that hooked him and led to his migration to Chicago, where he was soon hanging with legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert Collins and Magic Sam.
As a co-lead guitarist with the legendary Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bishop helped spur the American blues revival of the 1960s and change the course of rock.
The group’s innovative 1966 album, “East West,” was crowned by a landmark, 13-minute instrumental masterpiece, weaving from blues to jazz and Indian-flavored rock. The twin lead playing of Michael Bloomfield and Bishop paved the way for the extended rock jam.
“I was certainly lucky to be in that company at the time, with that caliber of musicianship and creativity,” Bishop says. “It was the best thing that could have happened to me. We played six shows a night, every night, for two or three years at the same club in Chicago. It left me with high standards for the rest of my career, the idea of how a band operates and the level of intensity you had to maintain to keep peoples’ interest.”
Leaving the Butterfield band, Bishop found fame in the 1970s as a solo artist, releasing a string of popular albums from “Rock My Soul” and “Let It Flow,” to “Struttin’ My Stuff,” which featured vocalist Mickey Thomas on the hit, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” Other hits at the time included, “Travelin’ Shoes,” Struttin’ My Stuff” and “So Fine.”
Playing a Southern boogie style of rock, Bishop was often joined by members of the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels bands. “At that time, there was the Southern rock category, which was very popular, and that tends to be the one and only time in history when there has been a known category that I halfway fit into,” he says, chuckling.
Honoring some of the greats who influenced him, he released in 2008 the Grammy-nominated album, “The Blues Rolls On,” featuring a star-studded lineup of B.B. King, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, George Thorogood and James Cotton.
“I thought of the people I loved the most and had a chance to play with, and the ones who influenced me the most when I was younger, and thought of artists today who could do justice to some of those tunes,” he says. “I was lucky to get guys like B.B. and James Cotton, Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes to play on it.”
His latest release, “Elvin Bishop’s Raisin’ Hell Revue,” was captured live on a 2010 Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise.
” ‘Raisin’ Hell Revue’ is less indicative of Bishop’s recent rejuvenation and more an example of the totality of his long and brilliant blues experience,” praised the Cincinnati City Beat. “One of the recognized masters of the slide sound, Bishop runs his ‘Revue’ through its paces, setting a course that includes blues, gospel, doo wop, soul and Zydeco.”
For guitarist Duke Robillard, who B.B. King proclaimed as “one of the great players,” the blues spoke to him at the tender age of 6.
“The sound of the 12-bar blues progression just grabbed me,” Robillard recalls. “And in 50 years of playing, I’ve never run out of ways to express myself through it. I consider so many kinds of music rooted in blues, from early honky tonk country music to Chuck Berry, whose flip sides (B sides of singles) were sometimes slow blues. “
Beginning with the group Roomful of Blues, then with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and later heading his own group, this remarkable guitarist has never felt limited by musical borders. Early on, he realized the similar roots of various forms of American music, from jazz and R&B to rock ‘n’ roll and country, and assimilated these styles and techniques into his own playing.
“I never thought of boundaries,” he says. “From a very young age, I saw a correlation when I heard Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood.’ The infectiousness of the song is because it’s really the blues. Whether it’s jazz, big band or funk or rock ‘n’ roll, it’s all blues. And my lifelong thing is to play as many ways as I can express myself through it.”
When guitarist Jimmie Vaughan left the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robillard stepped in as his replacement. “It was kind of a nonbrainer,” he explains. “When he was leaving, Jimmie said, ‘Call Duke.’ “
In recent years, he’s worked with a number of esteemed artists, including Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. He played on Dylan’s Grammy-winning, “Time Out of Mind,” and briefly toured with the legend last year. “It was great to be part of that record,” he says. As for the tour, he adds: “It didn’t work out. I realized I prefer to do my own music.”
On albums like, “A Swingin’ Session,” and his latest, “Independently Blue,” Robillard showcases his prowess as a brilliantly accomplished, versatile guitarist.
“I wanted it to touch on a lot of things, from 1920s New Orleans’ blues to rock ‘n’ roll, many styles,” he says about his most recent recording. “All the styles are like a palette for me to pick from.”
For more than three decades, Little Charlie Baty and his group, the Nightcats, won over audiences and critics with a diverse repertoire that ranged from urban Chicago blues and jump blues through swing and rockabilly.
In their early days, the band primarily played Chicago blues, often backing legends like Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton and Charles Brown. In time, Little Charlie and the Nightcats become known as pioneers of the West Coast jump blues/swing revival.
“We were never the kind of band that went into the studio and said we were going to make a record like Muddy Waters did in 1952,” Baty explained in an earlier Maui News interview. “You can’t top a blues master; all you can do is try to add your own contribution.”
Retiring from the band in 2008, Baty performs these days with his own groups, Organ Grinder Swing and the Little Charlie Caravan, and occasionally plays with the Golden State-Lone Star Revue, a cross-country meeting of the minds between California and Texas musicians.
The Village Voice praised: “Little Charlie Baty plays as much guitar as Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy put together. He is one of the swiftest, most fluent guitarists working in any genre.” And Guitar World noted: “Baty’s straight blues playing is eye-popping. He stretches solos to the breaking point, skittering on the edge, where one wrong note will bring the whole thing crashing down.”
Initially inspired by British invasion bands like The Yardbirds, The Animals, Cream and the Rolling Stones, Tinsley Ellis’ love for the blues was sealed at the age of 14. Ellis recalls being mesmerized in the front row of a B.B. King performance, when B.B. broke a string on Lucille and changed it without missing a beat, then handed the broken string to Ellis.
His albums include “Georgia Blue,” “Storm Warning,” and “Fire It Up,” which featured guests like R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, guitarist Derek Trucks and Rolling Stones’ keyboardist Chuck Leavell.
Rolling Stone declared that Ellis “achieves pyrotechnics that rival early Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.” The Washington Post raved, “Tinsley Ellis is a legitimate guitar hero.” And Guitar World proclaimed: “Ellis stands alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter, and that ain’t just hype.”
* The 12th annual Hawaii Rhythm & Blues Mele, featuring the Elvin Bishop Band, the Duke Robillard Band with Little Charlie Baty and the Tinsley Ellis Band, kicks off at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. Tickets are $45, $55 and $65 (plus applicable fees). Call 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.