Q&A with guitarist Conrad Warre of Bees Deluxe, an Bostonian transatlantic acid blues - funk - rock collective

"Everything is the blues - the blues is what you want to hear when you’re down in order to accompany you in your misery, and then when you want to lift yourself up..."

Bees Deluxe: Royal Jelly Blues

Bees Deluxe is an anything-but-basic blues band. They are hell-bent on a mission to drag the electric-analog blues of Chicago in the 60’s, the Blue Note catalog and the funk of New Orleans into the 21st century. The band has won audiences from Maine to the Mississippi with their arresting and highly danceable originals and their innovative interpretation of  less-travelled tunes by artists like Etta James, Joe Zawinul, J.B. Lenoir, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Albert Collins and the three Kings. The four-piece band is spearheaded by the dual-frontline of British guitar monster Conrad Warre and Carol Band on keyboards, harmonica & vocals. Allyn “Aldo” Dorr on bass & vocals and Paul Giovine on drums & percussion provide the metamorphic foundation of the band on stage and in the studio. The musicians each bring their unique experience to the mix. Band was recruited from jazz bands that were playing the Boston circuit, notably at Ryles Jazz Club in Cambridge.             Bees Deluxe / Photo by Christopher Harting

In 2018 Bees Deluxe released, to critical acclaim, their all original acid-blues album Voice of Dog produced by Joe Egan on Slapping Cat Records. More recently, they have maintained a break-neck schedule — touring the midwest, including a wild night at Cleveland’s House of Blues, headlining at Earl’s Hideaway in Sebastian, Florida, and gigging up and down the East Coast. All these performances polished the band’s repertoire to steely precision and inspired their new CD, Mouthful of Bees (2020) which is a tasty sample of the original sound that they call “acid blues.”  With incendiary originals, like the haunting VooDoo Doll, and musically arresting covers of audience favorites, including a slew of re-interpreted and arranged classic blues tunes like Damn Your Eyes by Etta James, I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me) by Bobby "Blue" Bland and songs by Robert Cray, Robben Ford and Freddie King. Bees Deluxe have played with blues greats Walter Trout, Matt Schofield, Roomful of Blues, Joanne Shaw Taylor, David Maxwell and Fred Thomas (of the JB’s). Bees Deluxe is on a mission to create lightning in a blues-bottle and, in the wake of their onstage musical exploits, capture new audiences and touch their souls.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

When I played in London England I was part of the Rock Against Racism movement, I moved to New York where I played with the Black Rock Coalition (opening for Living Color who billed themselves secretly as the Dogs of War at CBGB’s) – and now, living and based in New England, the band tries to stay allied to causes we hold dear. The more you travel, read and converse with different people the wider your appreciation for different cultures becomes, and the less tolerance you have for bigotry and prejudice.

How do you describe "Mouthful of Bees" sound and songbook? What has made you laugh from studio sessions?

Coming off an extensive tour in 2019 – we drove straight to the studio in Hyde Park, a working class suburb of Boston, Massachusetts and recorded a show live to tape and came back the next day to mix and overdub parts we might have missed. The intent was to capture the energy of the tour and share the polished steel arrangements we’d come with on the road. We threw in a couple of originals – the band couldn't keep a straight face when they heard the lyrics for Voodoo Doll (the opening track) and cracked up all over the first take! They hadn’t really understood the lyrics while we were touring and only now in headphones could appreciate the ironies listed. 

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think the drift from analog to digital has had some artistic costs. Some of the spontaneity of national acts has been polished out of existence, to say nothing of the lack of the warmth of the analog sound. Drum machines, sequencing, auto-tuning have all become the norm – I’d like to hear a little more human influence in music.

"Whatever language you speak, whether you are young or old, music speaks to you. I’ve never burst into tears looking at a painting, but music can make you cry, laugh, sleep, dance, love, run, climb trees and cook. Music is the thermometer of society’s temperature." (Conrad & Carol / Photo by Lawrence Libby)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The once aspect of “popular” music that makes me wince is the narrowness of vocabulary and melody. Most songs contained the words “I” and “You” ad nauseam, and when was the last time you heard a melody that you couldn’t predict on first hearing.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from Maine to Florida and all points in-between?

Bees Deluxe crosses the invisible lines that separate the blues from other musical forms, pending the response we get from the audience we can turn the stage into a concert hall performance, re-interpreting pieces by Joe Zawinul, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, or we can turn up the heat and dance with the audience playing originals and out-of-the-mainstream songs by Albert Collins, Frank Zappa and J.B. Lenoir. We suspect the energy of the audience is there waiting for us to draw it out, and that it usually matches the culture and demographics of the venue or Festival. It’s exciting as a performer to see the different responses we get – I remember playing to a bar filled with people standing on their bar stools and flicking their cigarette lighters to the beat. An venue I played, an outdoor courtyard in a castle in Vienna, the audience sat astride their motorbikes and switched their headlights on at the end of each song! The blues is the most universal of music forms, we could be playing in Kubinka, Russia, or in Parador Atalaya Oeste, Argentina and the audience would totally appreciate what we were playing and understand the roots of the musical form originating in African nations over 400 years ago, enslaved and transported to the United States as the engine for the European colonists’ economy.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Whatever language you speak, whether you are young or old, music speaks to you. I’ve never burst into tears looking at a painting, but music can make you cry, laugh, sleep, dance, love, run, climb trees and cook. Music is the thermometer of society’s temperature. The journeys we each take are unique and individual, but when we come together to play and to listen to music we reconnect with our friends, our families, our villages, our ancestors and ghosts, and our feelings and emotions. The result is to make us better as people and as a society. 

"I think the drift from analog to digital has had some artistic costs. Some of the spontaneity of national acts has been polished out of existence, to say nothing of the lack of the warmth of the analog sound. Drum machines, sequencing, auto-tuning have all become the norm – I’d like to hear a little more human influence in music." (Conrad Warre / Photo by Eric Antoniou)

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I find it very exciting to live in exactly this moment, whenever there is something wrong with me – it’s because I’m not here right now. A day is too long to even consider, a minute or less is about all I can encompass... But for fantasy’s sake it would be wonderful to be standing behind Neil Armstrong on the moon on July 20th 1969 - or to attend Jimi Hendrix’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival June 18, 1967.

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?

I found a guitar in the attic of a house we moved into and started playing it. I didn’t know it at the time but it was a Hawaiian Slack-key Guitar, so the action was about an inch high and I developed muscles in my hands like a gorilla trying to keep up with the music on the radio.

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?

I went to see Sonny Freeman & The Unusuals, opening for B.B. King at the Victoria Theater in London. The first song I could play all the way through – I’m So Glad, by Skip James.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

Everything is the blues – the blues is what you want to hear when you’re down in order to accompany you in your misery, and then when you want to lift yourself up you lay the blues, and what you want to play even if you don’t want to rise up again. The blues says something to me within every context, in joy and in pain it tempers and accelerates the emotions like putting a car in gear, or the sun coming up in the morning when you’ve been awake all night. And when you are perfectly happy, you pick up a guitar and start playing, it’s like adding salt to food. Everything else in your life will desert you at some point; money, looks, teeth, woman, food, cigarettes, wine, hair, children, clothes, health, your fine classic vintage triumph motorbike, but the blues will always be there for you waiting in the corner of the room like an old and dear friend who knows everything there is to know about you.            Bees Deluxe / Photo by Christopher Harting

How do you characterize Bees Deluxe’s progress? How do you describe your sound?

The motivating reason behind Bees Deluxe’s existence is to afford us the ability to play material that nobody else will play, and to dig into it - as deeply as an archeologist would to disinter an upside down pyramid. Every city in the US has a community of blues bands who have almost exactly the same repertoire as each other (Stormy Monday, The Thrill is Gone, Born Under a Bad Sign, I’m Tore Down, Spoonful, etc.) – not that these songs aren’t great – especially as performed by the originators – but we don’t see the need for another band to step in the same well-worn tracks. We strive to discover and share off-the-beaten songs and instrumentals and mix them with some of our own originals. Playing live we take many risks, and will stretch out on any tune or song if we think we’ve captured the audience’s hearts.  If they don’t take to the song or tune, we’ll stamp it out like a cigarette stub under our feet and light another. We have no scripted solos or jams, everything is played by listening to one another and giving space to each other when we see the flame move across from one musician to another.       

Tell me about the beginning of Bees Deluxe. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

The name is derived from the combination of a pub I used to be a regular at in North London and my Fender Deluxe amplifier. I should probably change the name, but we needed a name fast for a gig the following week after we’d had one practice!

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

Just as bands across America imitate each other, most radio stations do also, so we tend to browse in second-hand record stores – go to out of the way clubs when we’re on the road, and read music history books for obscure artists, and read what artists we like listen to.  Nothing beats practicing on your own to create new music. I like to practice on acoustic, with heavy gauge strings to keep my hands strong, and then when we get to play live it’s like taking weights off your feet before you go for a run. I tend not to listen to guitar players, (they’re all better than me) rather I listen to vocalist and instrumentalists who play in different songwriting worlds, some of my favorites include: Donny Hathaway, Meshell Ndegeocello, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck, Soulive, Lettuce, Derek Trucks.

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

We are absolutely in the hands of the audience. We sometimes pretend (to ourselves) that we should write set lists for the night (we typically play for about three hours) but after two or three tunes, we’ll start calling songs from the back of our memories that fit what is happening in the room. Sometimes the audience behaves in very un-anticipated ways, they’ll dance to the slowest blues - and then sit down and listen to the up-tempo funk-influenced material, and the next night they might have the opposite reaction. When the audience comes up to us at the end of the night to thank us collectively and individually – we thank them – because they created the evening.                                                  

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The first most exciting moment I experienced was playing at The Rainbow Theater in Finsbury Park North London, standing on the same stage that Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Traffic, BB King, Van Morrison, Little Feat, Pink Floyd, Frank Zappa had played on. I think perhaps the worst moment was playing in the Metro in Paris – and getting beaten up by skinheads.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell from Sunday Blues Jam at both the Loft in Harvard Square?

We were asked to host the Sunday Blues Jam at the Loft (what had previously been the House of Blues in Cambridge) and we set up every afternoon, played for an hour, then invited musicians to step up, and we’d accompany them if wanted, then at the end of the night we’d finish up with a few more songs and strike before the room became a discotheque. There was a house engineer doing sound, and every week the guests would treat him in their own ways. Sometimes guitar players would come in from out of town, and be so loud the engineer would turn them off, once a vocalist asked for so much volume on the monitors, that we turned the PA off. The stage was tiny and people were always falling off it – especially if they’d been drinking. One night I invited the entire cast of a play at the nearby Arts Theater to join us – they were from the Netherlands, and so we sang the blues in Dutch for the rest of the evening.

What are some of the memorable stories from jams, gigs and recording time you've had?

I’ve played to an audience of Hells’ Angels in a ruined castle, who sat on their motorbikes as we played, and flashed their headlights in approval.  Played in the Netherlands where loaded syringes were on display for sale in the venue lobby. In New York I played literally on the bar at a club called No-se-no with no lighting except in the single bathroom - which was lit with UV (ultra violet) lighting, so if you couldn’t see the blue toilet seat that meant someone was sitting on it. The audience was entirely comprised of policemen (on and off duty) and prostitutes with their pimps. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I played CBGB’s on the bowery to hear of someone running out the back exit of the club with a guitar snatched off the stage or out of the main “dressing” room under and behind the stage. 

"I would like to hear Johann Sebastian Bach, to play the Goldberg Variations as he intended them to be played.  I’d like to sit with Lowell George, with a couple of decent acoustics and a six-pack, and to meet Jimi Hendrix to dissuade him from taking drugs the last year of his life." (Photo: Bees Deluxe

From the musical point of view is there any difference between Boston music scene & other local scenes?

Having lived and played in Europe, New York, Austin Texas and Boston, I’ve found the differences to be not so much musical as technical and financial, of course that may be an expression of the changes in the commercial aspects of music over the past twenty five years, where there is a greater density of population the clubs compete with one another and squeeze the bands, when you play way out of town – the rooms/venues are fewer and farther between and the people who come genuinely show their approval, whereas in downtown New York – the club will.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

There was an interesting book called “The Hidden Persuaders” written by Vance Packard published in 1957 - which in part described the entry of psychology into the commercial world, and the associated fields of advertising where manufacturers started to use modern psychiatry to “motivate” buyers – into buying objects they either didn’t truly need or want. Popular music has since essentially become a product with a “sell-by” date – with all the contingent obsolescencies associated with clothes, cars, cameras, watches, brands of vodka, magazines. Blues – and to some extent Jazz - has managed to side-step the morgue by remaining true to it’s original intent – and stay viable as a contemporary art form. Words, keys, instruments, voices, arrangements can all be changed and adapted - but the core of what we play remains a music that came from Africa to America via the slave ships to the docks and the plantation fields.

Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet and why?

I would like to hear Johann Sebastian Bach, to play the Goldberg Variations as he intended them to be played. I’d like to sit with Lowell George, with a couple of decent acoustics and a six-pack, and to meet Jimi Hendrix to dissuade him from taking drugs the last year of his life.

Bees Deluxe - Official website

Bees Deluxe / Photo by Rich Hall

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