- Written by Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
The American Blues/Rock guitarist extraordinaire talks to Bluebird Reviews about the making of Pierced Arrow, the new album with the supergroup The Rides and also about his future with The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band
(Photo by Greg Logan)
Two decades in the music business and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, one of the most iconic blues and rock and roll artists worldwide, sounds and looks as in great shape as ever.
Shepherd is one of the architects of the contemporary blues/rock renaissance and it is not a surprise to see his artistic path often crossing with giants of the music business, going through the re-discovery of the traditions and the history of the last half a century of American music.
In this respect, by working with the supergroup The Rides, Shepherd has been able to explore even further, together with his fellow bandmates Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg, his love and passion for American music at 360 degrees, something that Stills and Goldberg share too with the Louisiana-born artist.
Pierced Arrow is the band's second album and is the ultimate America's songbook. The record is a true homage to this great country, celebrating half a century of music history. From Rockabilly to R&B, blues and soul, the album takes an impressive turn to the band's highly acclaimed debut album Can't Get Enough. Bluebird Reviews is wondering whether taking such turn was the the plan all along for Pierced Arrow or did the new songs changed their shape during the recording process. "Well, we didn't really have a plan, except that we wanted to go ahead with The Rides and make another great album together. The songs got their shape at Stephen's house, just like what we did on our first album. We wrote the songs over there between myself, Stephen and Barry and we brought also in Kevin McCormick (rhytm section bassist) to join us on some of the songwriting sessions. We never meant to steer the album towards one direction or the other and as a result, you can hear many different musical influences on Pierced Arrow. I think that this new record really further defines the sound of The Rides. It's the sound of a true American band that started as a blues band and then gradually spread its wings towards the genres that made the music history of our country, just like you mentioned. In Pierced Arrow there is blues, there is some old school, vintage rock and roll and much more. Our goal was fundamentally to do a great album and to be able to follow the lead that the songs we were writing were taking us to".
When listening to Pierced Arrow, there is a real feeling that Shepherd, Goldberg and Stills were having a real good time recording the album and letting it loose. A sign that, perhaps it didn't take long for The Rides to write and record the new album. "Well, it took a little while, to be honest but not because it was hard to make it but because of our personal schedules. We finished our first Tour in November 2013 and got back together, at Stephen's house, around the end of January 2014. We immediately started writing songs for the follow-up of the Can't Get Enough album but my schedule and Stephen's schedule with Crosby and Nash was so busy that we had to search for opportunities to reunite over the course of 2014, when we were at home in the same time. That is what we did and since then, at any possible opportunity we got together every few months and wrote new songs at Stephen's place. We gradually wrote Pierced Arrow over the course of 2014 but, by the end of that year, we figured that we had enough material and songs to go into the studio and record the new album. The recording process started at the end of January 2015 and then we mixed the album in March 2015. Our hope was to get the record out in 2015 but the mixing process took a little bit longer then we had expected. Stephen had to leave in the middle of the mixing process to go to Japan with Crosby & Nash and during that time I was offered to go on Tour with Van Halen in the United States for the entire summer, offer that I accepted. Those circumstances forced us to postpone the release of this album until this year. It took a while to get us finally here and to be able to release Pierced Arrow but if you would have taken all the obstacles out of the equation, to write and record the album happened relatively fast. We normally like to record our songs on the first or second take and we still approach our music that way. We tried to record everything in the most authentic and organic way as possible, with very minimal overdubs, which is always the way in which we like to make records".
Pierced Arrow is an album that took many fans by surprise in a great way. Bluebird Reviews doubts that this new record carries any "leftover" track from the recording session of the first album. "You are correct, there were not. There were some ideas that came up, on the first album, by jamming together that then developed further in the studio when we finished the first album. The outcome of those jams though did not make it on the Can't Get Enough album and we did not think they were worth revisiting, while making the second album. There were, however, some songs that we recorded for our new album that were not included on this record. There were a couple of extra songs that I am not sure whether in future they will show up or not on one of our next records, you never know".
The Rides - (From L to R) Stephen Stills, Barry Goldberg & Kenny Wayne Shepherd
By the sound of what Shepherd just said, such songs that did not make it for the album's final tracklist may see the light of the day, perhaps, on a possible live album in future. "Maybe, why not? We are recording all the shows that we are doing on the current Tour and we did the same with all the shows we did on the first Tour together too. I have been thinking about, maybe, putting together some performances from this Tour with some from the first Tour and perhaps releasing one live album or maybe two live albums, which would be very interesting".
Pierced Arrow, among many highlights, also unveils a phenomenal delivery of Gladys Knight & The Pips' classic I've Got To Use My Imagination but in the version made by the great Bobby "Blue" Bland. "Well, that was certainly my most favourite version of that song. I mean, I just love the way that Bobby Bland recorded that song. It is my personal preference, I just love his take even more than the Gladys Knight's one. When we did the first Tour, that's when we started playing that song at first. As you may understand, on our first Tour, at that time we had only one album to play and there was obviously not enough material to carry a show for an hour and a half. So we had to look into each other's catalogues to find additional songs to help and fill in the set every night. We did some of Stephen's songs, some of my songs and then I started looking for some songs that could have been good enough and fitting enough for the live shows. When I heard the Bobby Bland's version of I've Got To Use My Imagination, I thought "This would be a great song for us to do". So we did that on the first Tour and we realised that it worked very well with the audience. So much so that we decided that we were going to record our version of that song on the second album and that's what we did".
The band's name perfectly defines the musical journey The Rides are on and the love for vintage cars that Shepherd shares with Stephen Stills. The guitarist and singer/songwriter, among many cars he owns, has got also a couple of splendid vintage Dodge in his eclectic collection. BBR is wondering, using a language close to Shepherd's heart, whether The Rides pushed enough the accelerator on this album as much as the artist would do on one of his Dodge's. "Yes, I would say so (chuckles). The music, the concerts, our whole relationship and cameraderie as artists, it all takes you on a journey that it's pretty much comparable to an experience one can have by driving a fast car, just as you said. It's that special feeling of having your foot firmly planted on the floor of your car, shooting away on the highway and watching the world go by. I would certainly say that this experience with The Rides resembles for me that type of wonderful feeling. We are a high energy band and there may be times when we push hard on the accelerator, while playing or some other times we can slow down a little but the engine of our band would always remain as smooth as one of the cars you just mentioned".
Life In The Fast Lane is a song from the glorious band The Eagles that sums up well the rhythm of Shepherd's career in the music business. An unstoppable musician, Shepherd always works very hard and tour relentlessly for the best part of every year. After The Rides Tour is over, will this hugely talented artist release new material as The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band anytime soon? "I have been writing songs and making several trips down to Tennessee over the past several months, writing with new songwriters that I have never written with before and working with some of the people that I have been writing with my whole career. So, in answer to your question, yes, I have been writing songs and a new album is in the making. At the moment, I am not exactly sure how the next album it's going to sound like, to be honest with you. We have been writing different kind of songs, some of which sound like nothing I have ever done before and I am not trying to steer the album in any direction in particular. I am just writing songs and going where the music takes us while we are writing. I would anticipate that by the end of this year, I'll be in the studio recording the new album, which should be probably coming out by some times next year".
The new The Rides album sees also Shepherd harmonizing with Stephen Stills on a couple of songs. In BBR's view, one of such songs, Virtual World, represents one of the most intense musical moments on Pierced Arrow. An experience that must have been truly special for the blues/rock titan. "It has been amazing. It was something I would have never expected to do in this band. I figured that, within the band, I would have been singing just lead vocals, just as Stephen would have but I didn't really anticipate us becoming a harmony group. When that happened on a couple of tracks of the album, it really felt like a truly remarkable experience. I mean, Stephen is legendary when it comes to harmonize. When I think about the great artists he has been harmonizing with throughout his career, people like Neil Young, David Crosby, Graham Nash, just the idea that my name is now added to that fantastic list, makes me feel really happy and proud".
The Rides are currently touring the United States (see the band's full schedule on their website http://www.theridesband.com/) but on their schedule there is no mention of touring European countries or any other part of the world so far. "Well, I wish that there was the chance to tour out of the States but I can't say that there is. I have been trying to push for an European Tour schedule at least but it is a little bit complicated to do that, with this band and this organisation. I don't know whether that might happen, I wish that would really happen but at this moment in time, I couldn't possibly say".
Kenny Wayne Shepherd is not just a phenomenal and versatile musician but also somebody with a deep knowledge and understanding of the roots of one of the music genres that he loves the most, which is the blues. The Guitarist released, almost a decade ago, a wonderful live album and music film about the tradition and the history of the blues through the tales and the songs of some of the most influential blues artists. The CD/DVD is called 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads and it is one of the most impressive music documents of the last century on the importance and the influence that blues had and still has in contemporary music. BBR is hoping that Shepherd, one day, will be able to do a follow-up of that memorable project. "Well, it is my intention to release a follow-up to it. The plan was to have much more work accomplished on this project than we have but honestly, with my band, with touring and now having a second band with The Rides and touring with them too, I have not had a lot of extra time, lately, to work on the next 10 Days Out Mach II. It is still something though that I intend on doing and hopefully, soon, I hope to find the right time slot to allow me to pursue this project so close to my heart".
The Maverick guitarist from Shreveport has played and still does with the elite of blues and rock, from BB King to Eddie Van Halen, not least his fellow compadres in The Ride's project. Before parting company, we ask Shepherd whether there are any musicians, of the past or present, that he would have loved to record with in his splendid career. "Well, to be honest, I don't sit around thinking about stuff like "I want to work with this guy or this other guy". I just let things happening and see, in the end, with which artists I was meant to play with, you know? For the longest time, I never had the opportunity to play with Eric Clapton until several years ago, when I was able to play with him on stage. I mean, to record with him, that would be fantastic but, I reckon is hardly ever going to happen because he is very focused solely on doing his own albums. Basically, I am open to make music with anyone that really makes sense to me and I can make some great music with. I think that as long as I remain open to that idea, you never know what it might happen!".
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
Pierced Arrow is out now and it can be purchased via Provogue/Mascot Label Group
- Written by Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
(Photo by Mark Bicham)
When it comes the time to work hard on creating and playing music, very few people in the world does that better than a blues or a rock musician. The Shreveport, Louisiana-born guitarist and singer/songwriter Lance Lopez knows that very well. Since he moved to Texas at the tender age of 13, Lopez had the opportunity to be "raised" musically by outstanding artists such as Johnnie Taylor and Lucky Peterson, two instrumental figures in Lopez's growth as a guitarist and singer/songwriter.
Lopez is now considered one of the best guitarists of this generation worldwide and universally recognised by fellow musicians and music press as the heir of the great Texan tradition of blues/rock guitar.
After a few year's hiatus of releasing new material, Lopez has now been involved in two records just released, one as a member of the supergroup Supersonic Blues Machine called West Of Flushing, South Of Frisco, the second as a solo artist, releasing a live album called Live In N.Y.C.
In a super-busy moment of his musical career as this one that Lance Lopez is living right now, it must be not easy to balance many things at the same time. "It actually helps me to stay very busy. It makes me much more creative when I am that busy, as long as I don't get too tired. When I am moving and travelling and playing and working on many different things, I find working on many things very helpful to me. It keeps me excited and happy, thinking about all those things happening and to look forward to. When I am working between different projects, it is important for me to do the right amount per time on each project, in order to keep things very fresh. It's all about balancing but to be busy, it's something that certainly helps me to stay very focused and creative".
Despite being a very prolific songwriter and an excellent guitarist and singer, it has been a while now since Lopez released either a studio or a live album (Handmade Music was his last release in 2011). Given his extensive touring schedule, Bluebird Reviews is wondering whether this was a stop gap from releasing new material that he chose purposely to do or Lopez thought that the time was not right to release a new album until now. "There were many different things happening that stopped me by releasing new material. I needed to find a new record company. The right one for me with the right deal, which has been for some times a major issue to resolve. Also, with putting out albums and especially working with Fabrizio (Grossi, producer and fellow compadre on the Supersonic Blues Machine project), I just wanted the albums to be very good and I wanted to be satisfied with them. I did not want to put out something just for the sake of it. We spent, therefore, a lot of time working on those recordings and making sure they were absolutely hundred per cent fantastic, before we released them. Those were really the main reasons. After I have been touring Europe, I think it was 2013, I came back to Texas, in the States, where I have been for the last three years writing more music, more songs and working on the SBM album. It has been a long time coming for new music to be released but that gave me the opportunity to focus on all these projects and ensuring I was releasing the right material at the right time, just when I was completely satisfied with them".
Bluebird Reviews has been talking to Lopez's brother in arms on the Supersonic Blues Machine project Fabrizio Grossi a little while ago. Through his larger-than-life personality, he brought to us all the excitement that Grossi, Aronoff and Lopez felt in recoding the band's debut album and how great it was working with so many music giants and fellow musician friends on the record. Our website was wondering whether Lopez felt as well that the album was going to be so incredibly magic too. "Yeah, absolutely. When I began working with Fabrizio, we felt immediately a great connection, musically speaking. We realised almost immediately that we were meant to work together. I knew it was going to be phenomenal, especially considering how much work we put into it. We really took our time and we really worked very hard on every single aspect of that album. That's what I like about Fabrizio so much. He is a hard working man and he likes to be a perfectionist, two things we certainly have in common, when it comes to music. The special connection between us made to work on the album being a very enjoyable journey, although hard to achieve. I have always worked very hard on producing and ensuring that all aspects of the production side were perfect on each of my previous records and I am aware that not everyone is happy to do that, in this business. Everybody just wants to hurry up their records and get them finished, while with Fabrizio, we just decided to finish the album when we felt the time was right. Many producers and many engineers don't like always to do this and that was really a major factor that made working with Fabrizio a fabulous experience. Now that the album is finished and it is out, it is nice to seat back and appreciate all the hard work that we put into it".
(Supersonic Blues Machine - From Left To Right Kenny Aronoff (Drums), Fabrizio Grossi (Bass), Lance Lopez (Guitar, Vocals))
Together with the Supersonic Blues Machine album, this extraordinary artist has also released a live album recorded in New York City and our website asked Lopez whether recording the album in NYC was a purposely pre-planned idea or did Lopez rather thought that, among all the live recording taped, the NYC performance was the most satisfactory for him. "That was not really planned. What happen was that the late great Johnny Winter invited me to perform at his 70th birthday party and he wanted me to perform for him, which was a big honour for me. Rather unfortunately, that was going to be the very last birthday party for Johnny (Winter passed away few months after). That night, given the very special occasion, we went on stage, played our socks off and give it all because we knew that was something that myself and the band did in Johnny's honour, not imagining in the slightest that a couple of months later, Johnny would have sadly passed. Rather unexpectedly and shortly after Johnny's passing , Paul Nelson, who was Johnny's manager and I was also working with, told me that they recorded that performance and were so enthusiastic on the outcome that they really wanted to release it as a live album. I told him I was going to check the recording out and see whether it was good enough for me to be released. When I heard it, it really blew me away, I thought it was fantastic. I saw somebody's video recording of that night on YouTube but obviously, the perception of sound you get from a roughly recorded video is completely different from a proper sound recording system. We had some engineers in New York mixing the live tracks and when I got the final mix sent back to me, I thought it was so wonderful that I really wanted it to release it as soon as possible. I didn't want to use Johnny's name for the promotional aspects and did not want to release the album shortly after Johnny's passing as a sign of my deep respect for his music and his artistry. I felt that now the time was right to do so and honour the memory of such a great musician and friend of mine in a very special night of music. That is the reason why the album wasn't released earlier".
Checking out the setlist, the material handpicked for the live album belongs mostly to Lopez's last studio album Handmade Music, with the sole exception of the crowd-pleaser El Paso Sugar (from the Higher Ground album) and a brand new track, Tell The Truth. We asked Lance Lopez whether there was any particular reason why the Texan artist decided not to add anything from a solid, beautiful record such as Salvation In Sundown. "Well, we were still, at that time, touring the Handmade Music album after a couple of years of its release, therefore it felt kind of natural for us to play tracks mostly from that album. What you hear on the album, it is just a condensed setlist of what we used to play on regular nights at that time. We generally played each night tunes from that album but also from the Salvation In Sundown album and my previous ones too. However, for the set at the BB King Blues Club in N.Y, we had to condens and shorten the setlist but still wanted to include the fans favourite El Paso Sugar and a song that is yet to be released on any of my studio albums, Tell The Truth, which is a song on which Fabrizio and I have been also working on for a future studio album".
The live album clearly reinstates the stature of Lopez's talent, a true performer at the peak of his game. But does Lance Lopez follow any particular ritual before he goes onstage? "I just like to warm up beforehand. I must make sure that the band is very well rehearsed and that my amplifier and all my equipment work properly. Then I like also to take some time before the show, say half an hour before going on stage and play some guitar backstage. That helps me to get in the moment, in that special zone in my head because when I then go onstage, in the middle of some of those guitar solos, I go to a different place in my mind and every time that special moment feels like living a spiritual experience. That is why I feel I need to take that time before the show, to start channeling that kind of experience and share it with the fans".
(Photo by Sanders Photography)
Chris Reddan on drums and Mike Nunno on bass provided a fabulous backbone to this artist's thunderous guitar style and vocals on Live In NYC. "I actually lived in New York City many years ago for a while and Chris Reddan was a long time drummer for Popa Chubby. Mike Nimmo played with Lucky Peterson and various blues artists so I have known them both for a while. When I was touring the East Coast, I would use them as my rhytm section. Chris has worked for many great blues and rock artists and he is one of the number one drummers in blues/rock and one of my dearest and best friends. We all have a very good connection and Mike is absolutely one of the best bass player in New England and the whole of the East Coast. To play with those guys, that night, was a magical moment and I am really glad we managed to capture that moment in time and frame it forever on this record".
Lance Lopez's incredible talent as a guitarist has been compared to geniuses of the instrument, like Hendrix, Winter or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Many tend to forget though that he has also one of the most intense, powerful and deep voices on the current blues/rock scene. To be not recognised adequately for the quality of his vocals must be something that may disappoint Lopez, sometimes. "I am also a vocalist, you are very correct and I guess that, often, my guitar playing and the solos I do onstage might overshadow that aspect of my artistry. To be honest with you, I am not overly disappointed about that because I know that it is something that, my fans or whoever has listened to my studio albums. are aware of and appreciate a lot too. On this subject, working on the Supersonic Blues Machine album was also extra special because it gave me the great opportunity to showcase even further my skills as a lead singer, due to the amount of fabulous Special Guests playing guitar that we had on the album. That allowed me to relax a little and free me up, as a guitar player and focus more on the singing side".
Deep inside, many artists dream to reach immortality through their music. But how would Lance Lopez love to be remembered in a hundred years in an imaginary universal musical encyclopedia? "Nothing too fancy, maybe just the fact that I was the torchbearer of the next generation of blues/rock music. I feel I definitely followed the footsteps of those great artists of the past and present, people like Johnny Winter, Billy Gibbon, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King and all the greatest that came from the US state where I live. What I would love to convey as well, is also that I have tried to be the best musician that I could possibly be, playing in such a great band like Supersonic Blues Machine and performing with many artists, not just from Texas or American but worldwide for international audiences".
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
Live In NYC and the Supersonic Blues Machine album West Of Flushing, South Of Frisco are out now and available on Amazon
- Written by Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
There are no other genres in the history of music able to tell stories like the blues does. Some of those stories may have a happy ending, some other a less happy one. Still, they are genuine real life stories, whose players often go through hard existences, highs and lows, good times and bad times. The genuinity and honesty of those life tales is what creates the empathy, the real connection between artists and the blues fans.
Through the last quarter of a century, very few directors have been able to portrait the spirit and the message of the blues as well as director Scott Rosenbaum has been able to do with his new film, Sidemen - Long Road To Glory.
The film/documentary is a phenomenal and moving celebration of the life and career of pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarist Hubert Sumlin and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, three of the most important and talented Sidemen in the history of blues, which worked side by side with giants of the genre like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
Bluebird Reviews is truly honoured to talk to director Scott Rosenbaum about the making of this wonderful labour of love for blues music and tribute to some of the greatest blues musicians of the last century.
Hubert Sumlin (Photo by Brian Smith)
BBR - Hi Scott, thank you for being with us today to talk about Sidemen. The film is not just a heartwarming homage to the blues genre but also to the life and career of three wonderful musicians like Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie Smith. How long did it take for you to prepare and assemble all the footage?
SR - Ultimately, it ended up taking 7 years to complete the film. It was initially conceived as a concert film, celebrating the music that they were either directly part of, also in terms of the legacy they represent with the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and all that music that inspired the rock and roll generation that I grew up with. So it started out as a couple of years' adventure, but ultimately, after their deaths in 2011, the logistics required to complete the film ended up being much longer.
BBR - To be Sidemen, as Pinetop, Willie and Hubert have been, takes dedication, sacrifice, hard work and an immense love and respect for music. Why, in your opinion, did it take so long for the music industry to recognize the value of their talent and award them, coincidently, in the same year in which they all sadly passed away?
SR - Well, you know, I think in some ways and also by speaking to a number of people, even to the musicians themselves about this, I think they (Pinetop, Willie and Hubert) were some of the very lucky ones, in a way. I mean, when you think about the blues, how many guys for every Willie, Pine and Hubert, how many great musicians are there that no one ever really knows about? When these guys were coming up, the music was mainly made down south and if it wasn't for people like Alan Lomax and his father, who went down there and recorded Muddy's music and all the stuff coming from the plantations, all that material would have been otherwise lost forever. As far as it did take for these guys to be recognized and awarded, I think in the end it was really a great thing that they got the recognition at all. Hopefully, Pinetop, Willie and Hubert will represent, through that award, all those fantastic musicians that had long gone before and never be known to the world
BBR - Your personal relationship to Pinetop, Hubert and Willie goes way back, I believe, to 2008 when you worked together on your debut feature film, The Perfect Age Of Rock'n'Roll, released in 2011. Is it true that you initially thought of making, instead of Sidemen, a blues version of Scorsese's The Waltz, dedicated to the tradition and the legacy of the Delta and Chicago Blues?
SR - That is correct. When I had the good fortune to meet these guys, originally, I wanted to do a modern day version of The Last Waltz, with these fabulous bluesmen to be the core band of the movie and then to get all the rockers to use the blues as the inspiring muse that brought them to come out and play. The perfect example of what I had in mind is the Robbie Krieger sequence, in Sidemen. It's the scene when Robbie is playing Little Red Rooster with Hubert. Naively, when I was a kid, I knew that song originally from The Doors as I knew as well, originally, Mannish Boy to be a Rolling Stones' song! So that was the genesis of it all. To see The Last Waltz the first time and seeing Muddy Waters, that feeling brought the initial thought of a concert film. Of course, it was never going to be like the Scorses's way, by calling up Eric Clapton or Mick Jagger, asking to come down and do the job. What we did instead, was to put a tour together and we shot three or four concerts. Along the way, the Tour Manager, the agent of these guys had some relationships within the music industry and was able to reach out to artists like Robbie Krieger, Elvin Bishop and Timmy Reynolds from the Dave Matthews Band, to help with this project. It wasn't though a full concert of songs, like I had wanted, of all the Muddy, Wolf and John Lee's most popular songs. Then it all cast away, two and a half year in the filming. When I got in touch with (Producers) Pat Scalabrino and Fabrizio Grossi, at the time I was still trying to keep the project going, especially after the death of those guys and I couldn't really figure out what the film would have been about, at that point. It was completely an uncharted territory for me and I got to the point where I was very disillusioned about the whole project. I had no idea how to reach out to all the blues and rock artists appearing in Sidemen, celebrating these guys' life and career until I met Pat and Fabrizio. Through them, I got the right shot in the arm that I needed. They opened me the doors to so many of these artists and that was really much needed for me to allow the project to go ahead.
Pinetop Perkins (Photo by Kim Welsh)
BBR - How easy was it for you to reach out to all the music stars of the current blues/rock scene and ask them to share their feelings and experiences about Pinetop, Willie and Hubert?
SR - Well, that question requests a two-parts answer. The entire film would only be possible because of the love that so many people and so many musicians had for Pine, Willie and Hubert. They were so well known, certainly within the music community, if not, by even a wider audience. Once I was able to get through the artists, through their managers and all the people that revered Pine, Willie and Hubert, as soon as they knew that a film was going to be made about them, helped me to open contacts with all those artists. The other part of that equation, of course, was people like the producers Pat Scalabrino, Fabrizio Grossi and the agent Hugh Southard, who represents these bluesmen. Those guys were really instrumental in helping me to interview the great musicians appearing in Sidemen and to speak to them about the influence they got from Pine, Hubert and Willie. We had such a great response from all those great musicians we interviewed. In the end, we had something like 50-60 interviews ready, but we couldn't put them all in the film. This is just to give you an idea about the enthusiastic support we had from all those generous musicians, while we were making Sidemen.
BBR - The film is beautifully narrated by Marc Maron, a comedian with a strong legacy to the world of music. Has he been the first choice as the main narrator since the beginning?
SR -We had talked about several choices for narrators and we put together a shortlist. Marc Maron was definitely at the top of that shortlist , partly because my co-producer Jasin Cadic and I are big fans of his podcast and what he has been able to do with that interview format that he so well does. I think his voice is really one of the foremost voices of pop culture and culture in general, right now and we wanted the film to have that freshness coming from a non-stereotypical narrator like Marc. Add to that the love and appreciation that Marc has about history of music, as much as we have too and you will be able to figure out why Marc was the perfect choice for us.
BBR - We absolutely loved the way you turned on and off the light on Sidemen, with Pinetop walking onto the stage in an old, abandoned theatre in absolute silence at the beginning of the film and to have him walking off stage after the end credits with the camera gently fading out. One gets the feeling he really connected with you, during the making of Sidemen. What are your immediate memories about Pinetop?
SR - The memories, not just of Pinetop but of all of them, are pretty similar in terms of having had the good fortune to have met them and to hear their stories on first hand basis. Greg Allman said in the film, and I really relate to that: "It's just like sitting down with your Grandpa!". And it was, but these were Grandpas that had these incredible stories, with first hand knowledge of Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, of course Muddy and Wolf and all these legendary bluesmen. Just meeting them and having this wonderful experience with them was for me personally a once in a lifetime opportunity. I feel so fortunate that I met them when I did, when we had initially the notion of making a film together, at the time.
BBR - How difficult is it, in today's movie industry world, to put together a group of people prepared to invest and to believe in this magnificent labour of love and passion for the history of the blues, which is Sidemen?
SR - It's very difficult. I don't know whether it is more difficult today than it was 40-50 years ago but I know that it's always challenging to get somebody to believe in a concept or a vision. This film was completed two ways; on one side we had a seriously good investment made by our executive producer early on, which was critical to start the project. On the other one, we really made Sidemen out of sheer passion. We brought our own cameras, we went out, we made it largely on ourselves without a lot of support. After these three musicians, which became our friends too, passed away, it became something so much more than just making a movie. Of course, we wanted to complete the film but we really took very seriously the fact that these men trusted us with their legacies and we had captured some of their last performances, interviews and general footage. I would venture to say that the material we recorded of those incredible men was of such a highest quality that I don't believe anyone had ever been able to capture in the same way before. So, it became our own mission, a mission from God, quoting a line of The Blues Brothers' movie.
BBR - I heard you are working already on the follow up to your 2011's film debut The Perfect Age Of Rock'n'Roll. From where does the special bond that you have between filmography and music come from?
SR - That's a good question. Music was always part of the household. I grew up between my dad, a big music fan that had at home a turntable with all these fantastic records that I was just fascinated by and my uncle, which was a drummer and a little bit of a legendary figure to me. He was my gateway to music, telling me all these great music stories. He also turned me on to The Band, which was not maybe the most fashionable band for kids growing up in the 70's-80's but I do remember how seriously hooked I was to that fantastic album that is The Last Waltz. I guess that the bond you referred to in your question might have started back there, with that album, which incorporates so many elements of traditional blues. Music has always been a big component of my life, always will. It's something vital for me, a bit like oxygen that allows me to live and breathe.
Willie "Big Eyes" Smith (Photo by Jessie Lirola)
BBR - Scott, this is a very critical moment for music on many levels. It is becoming increasingly difficult for rockstars or popstars to sell records worldwide. Blues, though, this ultra-octogenarian evergreen genre, does not seem to suffer in this respect as much as other genres. In your opinion, what is the secret that keeps the blues alive and kicking after all these years despite all?
SR - That's a great question and it is relative to the state of the global music industry today, because other forms of music have not gone essentially through to what blues has been through the last century. If you think about the highs and lows, fading in and out of style, all kind of transitions that musicians have to deal with, which today happens to be streaming or digital downloading, to be a musician is not easy at all. But as far as blues and its survival goes, there's something to me and I think all people who are attracted to the blues, that makes the genre so special and is the fact that the blues is so elemental and pure. The blues is the foundation, it is the root, from which many different music genres have taken inspiration from. There is something so powerful about the guy or the girl sitting down with the guitar making music that will always attract people, no matter what. Just to give you an example, time ago I was screening the film to people that has no connection or knowledge about the blues whatsoever and suddenly I realised once again how much of an impact the blues can make on people when they hear it. Besides being moved by the film, those people I was referring to came to me after watching Sidemen saying: "You know, I really liked that music, perhaps I should listen to it a bit more". That's what it is. When you hear it, blues can make a really strong grip on people forever, almost becoming part of your DNA.
BBR - Should you define with one adjective each of the musicians featured in Sidemen, which one would you choose?
SR - Just perseverance. Absolute perseverance. That has been so important to me too. You know, struggling to make this film over seven years, it's not too difficult to stop and think, as you are getting down: "Wait a minute, I am making a film about three guys who spent, six or seven decades pursuing their careers and going through a lot of low times". So, their perseverance has always been an inspiration in making this film and, as an artist, it will always be an inspiration to me. Because they went through such hard times that, when I think about my situation, personally and I compare my life to theirs, they really went through hell and back and still persevered to play until a very old age, despite going through highs and lows. What a tremendous inspiration they have been to me. I hope we were able to catch that perseverance in Sidemen too. They were the nicest guys in the world. I feel very fortunate to have met them and have this experience with them. I hope the film captures just how genuine and talented and sweet these men were and the audience can get the same feeling that we had while we were making the film.
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
- Written by Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
(Photo courtesy of Mike Zito's Official Website)
There must be something special about blues and blues-rock. Something that helps spiritually and emotionally music artists going through rough patches in their lives to give them the necessary strength to live through those difficult times and come back stronger, both as artists and human being.
Mike Zito knows that very well. A hugely talented guitarist and singer/songwriter, the Missouri-born artist has lived in his own skin through the tough times, luckily rising victorious from the heavy problems related to alcoholism. Zito is now happily at the top of his game again, even more so than when he was working with that incredible music project that was Royal Southern Brotherhood. With a new, splendid solo album with his band The Wheel out now called Keep Coming back, this extraordinary artist seems to have found the perfect personal and artistic balance to express his great talent as a musician and a songwriter. Bluebird Reviews is deeply honoured to meet one of the most loved blues artist worldwide and discuss his new album and this moment of his life and career.
BBR - Mike, thank you for talking to Bluebird Reviews, such a honour for us. Keep Coming Back is your first solo album after leaving the Royal Southern Brotherhood. For how long had you in mind to go solo again?
MZ - Well, I'll be honest, I never thought that I wouldn't go solo again. Part of the idea with the Royal Southern Brotherhood was we could do both, touring as a band and have our separate career at the same time. But the Brotherhood became so popular that we kept holding on the idea of doing both things, because we were doing so great and for a couple of years we kept going. Somewhere in there, I guess, after working with the band for so long, I thought I was starting losing touch with my solo career. I thought that, if I was not going back there soon, being a solo artist, maybe I might have lost all that I have been doing for such long time. I wanted to go back to do what I love to do best, which is playing blues and doing my own things.
BBR - Bluebird Reviews has been a great admirer of your music and your talent for a very long time. This is the first album though, where we can actually feel that you are at peace with yourself. Did you feel any different when you wrote and recorded this splendid album?
MZ - I did. You really hit it on the head, in your question. I am very much at peace with myself in these days. I think that the album really captures this feeling. As a songwriter, I feel that this is one record where really I stepped more away from the blues that I have ever done before. I just wanted to share that inner peace I am in right now, kind of let everybody know where I was at. Yeah, you really hit it on the head, this album to me is really where I am, at this moment in time in my life. I am really grateful and very lucky to have the life I have and I hope that I expressed this special moment of my existence through this record.
BBR - Keep Coming Back is a real tribute to American Music. You are able to dazzle into genres like rock, country, blues with great grace, intensity and passion. Through the eyes of a consumate artist like yourself, are there still many musicians out there able to carry the baton with the same determination and craftmanship you show on each passing record?
MZ - Oh, yes, certainly there are many, I definitely think so. There are so many wonderful artists out there right now. Thank you for the kind words about the record. It is indeed an Americana type of album, with some rock'n'roll or country songs, just as you said. The truth is, when I made this album, I decided I would not hold myself back this time. If I wrote a song, I just wanted to deliver it in the way it was originally conceived in my mind, whatever genre it might be. There are so many brilliant artists nowadays, people like Gary Clark Jr. or Tedeschi Trucks Band, for example, able to bring together so well in their music formula many different genres still maintaining their identity as artists. I guess this evolution in music is what kept the Blues alive. In the States, for example, Blues artists have pretty much evolved their ways to play and incorporated in their sound elements belonging to different styles of American music. This is one of the reasons why the Blues continues to survive. In America, genres like Country music are still very popular but that particular genre, in the past years, has changed a lot. To the point that many Country music fans are now saying that they are not able to recognise that genre as such anymore, because it's changed too much. It's evolved in a way where it has been completely turned upside down, altering completely the origin of this music genre and becoming something else. The Blues, instead, still maintains its origins. The sound has just evolved but the foundations are there, still very solid.
BBR - You are and have always been a very prolific songwriter. We have heard that now you are enjoying also being a columnist for a very important Blues magazine in the United Kingdom. Does this represent something you always wanted to fulfil in your life or did you discover that you had a great talent as a music writer purely by accident?
MZ - I guess I discovered it purely by accident, although despite the fact didn't play music at all, my mother was a writer. She was a real poet, she wrote all her life. It must be something deep inside our family's DNA. I have been writing for a long time myself but never considered writing for a magazine. I started to write a blog about five years ago and I did it purely to help myself, while I was on the road, to get my feelings out and share them with the fans. It became, after a while, really well received. People liked what I was writing, saying that they enjoyed the fact I was expressing my feelings straight from the heart and it was so overwhelming to discover how many people was following and liking my writing. Suddenly, Ed Mitchell from The Blues Magazine in UK contacted me, saying: "We have been reading your blog and we have really enjoyed it. Your writing is very good, would you be interested in writing a column for our magazine?". I was almost shocked, I couldn't believe these guys in UK were asking me this. Of course I said "Yes" and I have got to say I take great pride in doing it. I really enjoy writing and it's one of those things I like to do purely for myself. I don't consider myself really the greatest writer on the planet but I feel confident to talk about what I do or about music, in general. The column is such a pleasure to do, so enjoyable, because I get the opportunity to share the topics of the magazine or to talk about the state of the Blues genre to many fans in the world. I have also been writing a book, about my story of getting clean and sober. It is still in the making but, when it is finished and it come together well, I might try to release it. I am in no rush though to write my autobiography, because I consider myself still a young man! But surely, one day, that book will be out there.
BBR - Mike Zito keeps coming back to his music roots and also to work again with The Wheel. The record really underlines a perfect chemistry between you and the band. When you went to the studio to record the album, did it feel like you and The Wheel never stopped playing together?
MZ - It certainly did. The band is totally in tune with me, my songs and my songwriting style. We certainly try always to record albums with a live dynamic, where we get into the studio, set up and just play and record as we play. I think this album, among all the albums we have done together, it has been the easiest. The thing is we all know where we are coming from, musically speaking, I know what everyone's capable of and they know what I am bringing to them. Everyone is also very comfortable, I haven't got to ask any questions, I don't need to tell to anyone to do anything, we all just know each other so well. It was so easy to dive into the music, into this record, there is a real comfort there, in working with one another. It's like being married to someone for a year or two initially, then, if all is well, the marriage keeps ongoing for 10 years or even longer. The comfort level, the chemistry, keeps increasing and get deeper, the respect for each other grows as the years go by. We were at that high level of comfort I just described when we entered the studio and started working on Keep Coming Back. As a consequence, the recording process felt really good on this record.
BBR - Mike, I like to think that in your title track, when you sing about "This Old Man He Took My Hand And Brought Me To The Light" that you are not just referring to God but also to the moral support that somebody like Walter Trout gave you in a tough moment of your career (although Walter might not appreciate too much to be called "Old"). How important has the friendship and cameraderie of many blues/rock fellow artists been, to help you battle your inner demons?
MZ - Walter Trout is such a great friend and he has been a hero of mine for so long. To have him as a friend, absolutely helped me along the way, encouraged me, inspired me and just the fact he has always been there for me, feels really wonderful to me. And you are absolutely correct when I refer to God, metaphorically, as the Old Man. When I sing in that song "He Pulled Me Out A Seat", it's like when you get to the recovering meetings and they always ask "have a seat" and talk about you and how to get sober and cleaned... You feel that the Old Man is there with you and will stick with you forever. And you are quite right about all the people that helped me along the way and I am talking about everyone, not just fellow musicians. Surely many great artists have been through the same issues I have been through and of course, Walter is the most significant and again, you were quite right also about the fact that Walter surely wouldn't appreciate to be called an Old Man! (chuckles). He certainly is not and he doesn't play either like an old man, that's for sure.
BBR - We understand you are due to release a new acoustic album called Troubadour Volume 1. Can you tell us more about the making of this new record?
MZ - It is just something I recorded for my fans. I just have it with me at my shows. I do several acoustic shows, I do some acoustic guitar sometimes while I am touring and people always tell me how much they enjoy the different acoustic interpretations of some of my tracks I play at shows. I have my own home recording studio and I decided to set up a couple of microphones, get out my nice acoustic guitar and I went through my first three albums I did on the Electro Groove Records label. Through the help of some people, they ticked what they thought were their favourite tunes, out of those albums and I interpretated them acoustically and record them acoustically and put them on a disc. In this way, every time I play live at shows, they cannot keep asking me anymore about making acoustic albums, I would just say to them "Hey man, you asked for it, here you go, you got it". Maybe one day it will get officially released by a label but for the time being, it is just something I did purely for the fans and to keep them happy. On top of that, I like to think that this acoustic album also gives the opportunity to people to discover my early songs under a different dress and quite frankly, it was a lot of fun for me too to record it, as an artist.
(Photo courtesy of Mike Zito's Official Website)
BBR - Mike, you are currently touring the United States in support of the Keep Coming Back album. Will your European fans be able to see you live anytime soon?
MZ - We are working on that. There have been a couple of shows in Europe this month, one in Norway and one in Germany but it was not a whole tour, unfortunately. There are some dates coming for the summer but I do know that in the fall we have a full tour of all of Europe, I believe it is a 5-week one and it is currently in the making. I hope the European fans will be patient enough and wait for me and the band to perform live later this year.
BBR - It's great to see the healthy way you are living your life in Texas, the place you have been calling home for quite some time now. Has the young boy from Missouri finally found the perfect design for life to live happily ever after?
MZ - I sure hope so. I believe in my heart I have. I am very happy and peaceful with myself. It's a nice acceptance for me about where I am at and what I am doing at this stage of my life and I don't feel I need any more of what I already have right now. I feel blessed to have so much in my personal life that it's sometimes overwhelming. I just need to keep plugging away with my recovery, you know, make sure I don't go crazy anymore but thankfully, I've got a lot of support at home. I have got a wonderful family to support me and the music to keep me going. I just want to make sure that I don't rest on my laurels and don't get too comfortable. I want to make sure I continue to make great music and challenge myself, without going crazy. That's the plan!
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
Keep Coming Back is out now and available on Ruf Records
- Written by Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
Between East Street and the Mississippi River in Memphis TN, there is a special place that holds a lot of secrets and tales related to the history of the blues. This place is called Beale Street and there, in this almost 2 miles-long stretch in the heart of Downtown Memphis, anything can happen, especially when it comes to music.
Beale Street is the birthplace of Mississippi Bigfoot, one of the greatest blues/rock revelations of 2015. Their debut album, Population Unknown, previously reviewed on our website, has been unanimously recognised by the music press worldwide as one of the best releases of the past year.
To track down the band has not been that easy but in the end, Bluebird Reviews managed to reach Christina Vierra, the band's singer/songwriter, to discuss about the making of Population Unknown and how the band got together.
BBR - Christina, 2015 has been a special year for you all, thanks to your fabulous debut album Population Unknown. What inspired you to call the album in that way?
Christina - We liked to evoke that idea of unknown, the uncertainty about how many millions of people are really spread around the globe. There are still so many things to learn about this world and this idea of being unable to quantify how many millions of people live out there, this big Unknown, is what inspired the idea of the album title.
BBR - We have read differing opinion about your style from the music press, due to your great ability to combine elements of the traditional Delta Blues with 70's rock with tinges of funk and R&B. How would you guys call your unique playing formula?
Christina - Well, that sounds like a pretty good description to me. We definitely like to pay homage to our music scene, what we have down here in The Delta, where some of the great roots of music come from. Though, at the same time, we like to have the freedom to take our music to other directions and have the opportunity to crush genres together. Fundamentally, we don't like to stick by any rules or play what people think we should play. We just let our musical flow run and break new grounds. It's a pure free-form expression, our sound is what we are.
BBR - Your album has been one of the best surprises of 2015. How long did it take to write and record Population Unknown?
Christina - Thank you. Some of the songs of the album have been written over few years, some other have been written almost instantenously. A song like Mighty River, which is the first one I have written here in Memphis, was born pretty much within minutes. It tells the story of my experience on going down to the Mississippi the first time, riding my bycicle and feeling deeply inspired by its sound and the almost hypnotic way it runs. As far as the recording goes, we spent something like 8 days in the studio and we managed to record Population Unknown exactly in the way we wanted. It was pretty amazing for me, because I have never done so much work on an album in such short amount of time. It was really intense.
(From L to R: Doug McMinn (drums), Christina Vierra (vocals), Ashley Bishop (guitars))
BBR - The opener Burn That Woman Down digs immediately into very deep subjects, like the importance of women in modern society. Was there a particular episode that inspired and triggered such powerful lyrics on this tune?
Christina - I appreciate that you guys noticed that. It's a song about women being at the fringe of society. It's not about a specific one but I just wanted to get an important message out there about the role of women in nowadays' world and how they are perceived. I felt like it was something that really mattered to me and I wanted to get it out there. Many songs on the album attack subjects like that. It's pretty heavy stuff.
BBR - Clarksdale is perhaps the key song of the album that brings everything together, carrying hints of Mississippi Hill Country Blues. Has Clarksdale really managed to "save your souls", as you sing? And why does the devil say, at the end, that he's "coming back just for Johnny"?
Christina - (Chuckles) I am not sure my soul has been saved through that song. When we were down in that area, that expression that I sang did really come up. I brought it up to the guys in the band and Johnny (Holiday, guitarist) said, "No, you don't wanna do that". What we talk about in that song is really a serious subject. Some people think that it is just a story, but I feel that there are some elements of truth about Clarksdale and its dark misteries, although we managed to express them in the song in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. Maybe we should have not put in the end that thing about Johnny and the devil but, hey, guess what, we did! (chuckles).
BBR - Christina, we sense in the lyrics of You Did something almost autobiographical. You sing with a special power and intensity on this track, like you are feeling that song deep in your skin. Is the tune about yourself?
Christina - It is a song very close to me and it's about memories of times when my heart has been broken. Being that tune so personal, I guess I was able to deliver my vocals with a particular conviction and I am glad you felt the intensity. The song is about that moment when all you want from your partner is to admit and acknowledge what sometimes happen between a couple and accept responsabilities. So many people don't get that message about what real respect is between two people. The song almost wrote itself, it was just a personal take about making a point and do not give the satisfaction of holding back but rather say: "Hey, you did that, not me". For everytime I have felt myself in that way, I always found very liberating just to tell it as it is. I hope that kind of feeling resonated on You Did too.
BBR - Did you guys work with one another, prior to that famous gig in Ground Zero in Clarksdale, where it all started?
Christina - Ashley (Bishop, guitarist) and I met in Beale Street some time ago, close to the time I moved around the area. I was trying to meet new people, to connect with new friends but, for some strange reasons, people seemed almost scared of me, maybe thinking "Should we join her or fight her?". Ashley had approached me asking whether we could work together and he had been the first one to do so, when I moved to Memphis. He just said: "Stick by me and I shall find the best guys in the establishment". When Doug (McMinn, drummer) got involved, we all knew that the nucleous of the band was there. Doug had been playing with many big names in the music industry (The Drifters and The Platters, among many) and that dragged even more attention to us, because many people was dropping by and see us playing, since they heard Doug was in the band too. When it came down to find the missing dots within the band, we have been also very priviliged to get on board Cade "Missippi Mudd" Moore to complete the circle. Having Bigfoot as part of the name of our band also says a lot about us. Not only about the passion for music we all share but also about our sense of humour and our imagination. Those are important elements that help to keep the spirit high and happy within the band, things that many tend to underestimate nowadays.
BBR - Your debut album has received lots of praises in the United States and now there are rumours of a European Tour due to start really soon. How thrilled are you to bring your high-octane fuelled sonic formula to the other side of the pond?
Christina - I cannot wait, honestly. That will be my first time in Europe, ever. I have been in places like Mexico and in the majority of the United States but never to beautiful Europe. It is all very exciting. We often meet a lot of Europeans in Beale Street and we always get great receptions from them. I am really over the moon about the idea of touring there. I hear that in Europe, music fans are very receptive and like to cheer bands all the time, hopefully they will do the same for us too! (chuckles).
BBR - The blues is, perhaps, one of the very few genres able to infiltrate the hearts and souls of musicians and music fans. It becomes almost a way of life, the air you breathe, a life path to follow for many. How does this phenomenal music style influence your everyday's life?
Christina - That was really well put. Like you said, blues is something able to reach some deep places of our souls. That happens not just for musicians but for fans too. Every time we walk in a room and play our music, there is nothing more special than hearing somebody saying back to us: "You really moved me on that song" or stuff like that. It is so incredible how blues helps to connect with people and how fans feel so emotionally close to the genre. Through our music, we just wish to bring to our fans some of our good experiences and hopefully convey to them our passion and honesty. It is a deep honour and privilege to be able to exchange our emotions with an audience, even just to a single soul. Back when I was 14, I went to see Howlin' Wolf live and afterward I felt such an intensity that I rarely felt in any gigs I have ever seen before. I always dreamt to become, one day, somebody able to transfer that deep feeling and emotions I experienced in that unforgettable day to our audiences, every time we play live.
BBR - Christina, one of the late great Luther Allison's favourite quotes was "Leave Your Ego, Play The Music, Love The People". Is this the winning recipe for Mississippi Bigfoot's success?
Christina - Wow, that is some quote! I think Allison's statement really sums up our attitude, who we are and what we want to convey to people. That is an awesome quote, I am afraid I cannot think of anything better to say after that. We can only play our music to the fans and being ourselves, that is all that matters to us. I guess that is what really Luther meant.
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
Mississippi Bigfoot are currently on Tour. You can find their Tour Dates at the Band's website