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Wednesday, Nov 20, 2019

Still got the blues

Two bluesmen, one young and the other old, but both with blistering guitars

brunch Updated: Mar 18, 2017 21:03 IST
Sanjoy Narayan
Sanjoy Narayan
Hindustan Times
Bryan Lee has magic in his guitar and a voice that belies his age
Bryan Lee has magic in his guitar and a voice that belies his age(Getty Images)

In Chef (the 2014 original Jon Favreau movie; not the 2017 Indian remake), Texan bluesman Gary Clark Jr. is featured playing at one of his live gigs in Austin. The songs we see him and his band play as Favreau’s food truck in the film passes through Austin are Travis County and a seven-minute When My Train Pulls In, which is about a man who has reluctantly decided to leave town and is waiting for his train. Both songs feature on Gary Clark Jr. Live, which many would agree is a must-have live album for blues fans.

Clark is an intense 33-year-old African American who’s been playing the guitar since his pre-teens, and has earned a huge reputation in a remarkably short period of time, receiving several accolades – including a Grammy and a couple of Blues Music Awards. He’s best heard live and Gary Clark Jr. Live is the only album you could do that with. Till this weekend. That’s when Clark’s second live album, Live North America 2016 dropped.

I’d already got a sneak peek at the new one. In a practice that has become digitally de rigueur for musicians, two singles from that forthcoming new album had already been released as teasers and going by them – The Healing and My Baby’s Gone – we’re in for another delightful treat. Clark’s music is classified as Texas Electric Blues and his blistering guitar and emotion-laden vocals are guaranteed to make you a fan instantly if you’re not one already. Clark has studio albums too, four of them, including my favourite, Blak and Blu, and he has played with many greats such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richard and B.B. King.

Listening to Clark’s two new live singles brought back memories of another bluesman that I chanced upon more than a dozen years back.

Gary Clark Jr has received several accolades including a Grammy
Gary Clark Jr has received several accolades including a Grammy ( Getty Images )

It was 2001, temperatures in the always party-ready New Orleans were cranked up by the heady Mardi Gras celebrations and I had three weeknights to explore the place alone. After watching some of the fabulous parades and the full-on madness on Bourbon Street (sample: topless flashing; bottomless shows; beads; projectile puking by wasted frat boys; strippers; drunks and random dope-pushers) I was walking down that infamous street when I heard the sounds of a blues guitar emanating from one of the small clubs.

Inside there was a band playing − Bryan Lee and his Blues Power Trio. Lee, who turns 74 this month, is blind (he lost his eyesight as a child), bearded and portly. He has magic in his guitar and a voice that belies his age as he snarls. That evening I found a bar stool, a steady supply of New Orleans’ Abita beer and stayed till the place shut down at 4am.

Only to be back the next evening. And, on the following night as well. During a break in the set, as Lee was sipping a beer at the bar, I struck up a conversation and learnt that he’s been a fixture in New Orleans’ French Quarter for decades, playing first at the Old Absinthe House Bar and then at some of the others. Although New Orleans was his hunting ground, his music drew admirers from all over the world, including musicians such as Clapton who actually has been quoted as saying: “(Lee) is one of the best blues musicians I have heard!” Seeing Lee live in New Orleans was a treat and I’ve since been collecting every piece of recording that he’s released – the live albums, of course, such as the two Absinthe House Bar recordings, but also his several studio albums, including the most recent Play One For Me (2013).

After Katrina devastated New Orleans, Lee moved out of New Orleans and for some time, had no gigs in that city. But now he’s back there off and on and I believe his sets can be heard again at several venues in a city that has bounced back from disaster. Besides jamming with greats such as Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Freddie King and Albert Collins, Lee does his bit for younger musicians too – mentoring and encouraging them. You’ve likely heard Kenny Wayne Shepard, right? Well, it was Bryan Lee who first gave 13-year-old Shepard a chance to play with him at a Bourbon Street venue. If you get the blues as much as I do, Bryan Lee’s music could be a perfect choice.

Singer and bandleader Tarriona “Tank” Ball from Tank and The Bangas
Singer and bandleader Tarriona “Tank” Ball from Tank and The Bangas ( Getty Images )

Tailpiece: Tank and The Bangas are a band that takes the big sound of New Orleans and gives it a unique twist. They don’t do jazz or conventional R&B or soul. But their music has elements of all of that with one big, big portion of another ingredient: exuberance. Singer and bandleader Tarriona “Tank” Ball writes songs that are difficult to classify – there’s soul and R&B but also spoken word. But most of all, they’re fun. Last fortnight the band won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. And just FYI, the judging panel included Phish’s Trey Anastasio.

From HT Brunch, March 26, 2017

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