The Best Blues?
They're right up local man's alley
matter who wins tonight's Grammy Award for "The Best" Rhythm and Blues
Album Of The Year, believe me, it won't be. "Best," that is. My favorite,
Blues Alley's "Rather Be Alone" -- recorded by a Marion man and his
friends at Westport High School --wasn't even nominated.
But make no mistake, it's the best blues album I've heard in a long time.
Blues Alley is not only the name of a group, but it is brainchild, trademark, and alter ego of the New Bedford-born-and-raised musician who created it and gives it life.
Just call him R.C.
"Others come and go... but wherever R. C. goes, there you have Blues Alley," says the talented man of mystery behind the music. Composer, guitarist, vocalist, keyboardist, percussionist, producer, arranger, conceptualist.
Indeed, he wore so many different hats on this and his previous, equally excellent CD, "Lowdown," that it is a surprise to find other musicians were even involved.
When asked his full name, the enigmatic bluesman smilingly protests. "Nobody asks what Prince's real name is." Nevertheless his name is clearly printed -- "All songs written by..." -- in the CD's liner notes.
So let's just call him the artist formerly known as R. Chandler.
Clearly, this is one musician who prefers to have his music do the talking for him. And what music it is. Driving jazz, pulsating with Latin dance band accents, coexist artfully alongside laid-back and soulful blues-based songs. R.C.'s influences clearly range from around the globe, from Africa and Brazil, to Cuba and Cape Verde.
All by way of the Mississippi Delta.
"On any given tune," R.C. says, "you might be able to hear Muddy Waters in one part, echoes of Miles and Dizzy in the harmonies, while B.B. King casts his long shadow over the whole. ..."
To this untrained ear, there are others as well. At times I think I can hear bits and pieces of Junior Wells, James Brown, and even Eric Clapton, all put together in interesting, oft-times ingenious ways. That's just fine with R.C. He's extremely proud that his music is "a gumbo of sounds."
It surprises me to hear the 1971 Bishop Stang grad say he began as an 11-year-old drummer and percussionist in marching bands. R.C. credits his grandfather, his beloved Vavo, with introducing him to music and his first music teacher, Spider Gomes. Displaying an inordinate amount of potential, by the age of 13 he had progressed to the point where he was alternating between drumming in jazz, marching, and big bands, then symphony orchestras.
"The only thing I didn't play -- had absolutely no interest in -- was rock and roll," R.C. laughs ruefully. "I was a purist, a 'classical player.' I thought it was beneath me."
We're talking BIG potential.
Unbelievably, by the age of 14 he was performing with Arthur Fiedler's Boston Pops. "You know the recording of The 1812 Overture? That part at the end where the cannon fires? That snare drum is me."
Pretty heady stuff for a teen-ager, I tell him -- at 14 I had a paper route -- had he been a child prodigy? R.C. laughs self-deprecatingly and arches his eyebrows. "Yeah, it all came easy," he says, "but I still had to work very, very hard at it. Hours and hours."
So, how does a little drummer boy from New Bedford get to be a blues guitarist with the blood of the Mississippi Delta running in his veins?
"In my middle and late 20s things happened," he says. "I don't like to talk about it ... let's just say life kinda intruded itself." He clearly dates his blues epiphany to the first time he heard B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone."
"It changed my life," he says simply. "Music has that power."
Fortuitously, he landed a job in the '80s working for the Washburn Guitar Co. in Chicago. And when he started to go to all the blues clubs you might say it struck a chord. R.C. says he got to know -- and play with -- some of the old-time blues heroes. Buddy Guy, for example, was a big influence, he says, at a time before he was well known.
Moving back to the area, R.C. started the immensely successful Blues Alley seven years ago. "I'm so lucky to be able to make money doing something I love so much," he says about the band that has averaged 190 play dates in the past four years.
"Not bad for a boy who just loves to play the blues."
FYI: H.S. thinks R.C.'s CD is A-OK. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org