"The blues is eternal - the melodic inflections are pure human emotion, and as long as people have those gut feelings, the blues will be there to express those feelings."
Willie McBlind: Pure passion and Harmonic resonance
The Willie McBlind band’s timing is consummate. In this stagnant decade for the blues, with most of the idiomatic action sadly relegated to the obituary column, the New York City-based quartet fronted by virtuosic guitarist Jon Catler and talented singer Meredith “Babe” Borden offers a singularly exciting type of electric blues.
Willie McBlind features the musicianship of Jon Catler (64-tone Just Intonation and Fretless guitars), Babe Borden (vocals, autoharp), Mat Fieldes (bass) and Lorne Watson (drums).
Catler and Borden have forged an undeniable chemistry over the course of their 15 year collaboration, culminating in a finely honed live blues show that draws upon elements of rock, jazz, improvisation – and even tapping into the shamanic realm, recapturing in their music some of the largely forgotten pitch language carved out by the original Mississippi Delta blues musicians. Catler and Borden both originally hail from Massachusetts, respectively from Cohasset on the South Shore of Boston, and “Mary-Had-a-Little-Lamb” Sterling in Central Mass., and both have gotten their wings touring and performing in scores of theatrical and concert settings in the US and in Europe – ranging from Babe’s European tour with the rock musical HAIR, to Catler’s work with the “Granddaddy of Minimalism”, La Monte Young, playing lead guitar in Young’s Forever Bad Blues Band at NYC venues like The Kitchen and many European festivals. Also going by the moniker “Willie and Babe”, Catler and Borden’s vocal approach hearkens back to the blues tradition of marrying male and female vocals into a harmonious “yin-yang” style union, and thus, as one critic has noted, “Borden and Catler pull off the almost ancient spirit of the blues.”
When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
Jon: The night I was born, I heard a Blackbird sing. Later on I heard Jimi Hendrix, who played a deep blues, and he became my all time favorite. I also loved the British bands like Cream and Deep Purple and the Jeff Beck Group, and later discovered Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson.
Meredith: I came across the blues gradually, through the back door, having originally trained classically to sing operatic styles, but I always loved the blues rock of the 1970’s, especially Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, all whom have amazing front men that are infected and inflected with the blues: Steven Tyler, Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers. The first 45 record I ever bought as a child, American Pie by Don McClean, made reference to meeting a girl “who sang the blues” and I thought that image was very haunting. I didn’t know what the blues was yet, but it was a premonition of things to come.
What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?
Jon: To me, the BLUES is a feeling shared by human beings. It offers the opportunity to put everything you have into the music.
Meredith: The blues has offered me depth of musical feeling and a way to wail my brains out while still infusing the sound with beauty, and a subtle yet complex vocabulary of musical pitches. I love that blues is simple, yet profound at the same time.
What do you learn about yourself from the blues music? How has the blues music changed your life?
Jon: That blues feeling helps you learn about the thread that connects living things. Sometimes even animals get the blues. Even if you feel isolated, the knowledge that we’re all connected can change your life.
Meredith: I found - and continue to discover - that you don’t have to be a virtuoso to be a great blues singer, although if you have skill and technique to bring to the table you can actually transcend the blues language into something new. I can use my 3 octave range in a way that I never could in operatic expressions. The blues has in many ways become my religion. I can embrace my sorrow and realize that I can transform it into something powerful.
How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and what compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?
Jon: On good nights, there is a psychic connection to the beyond when you play music, and when you’re onstage the audience can tune in to that and be taken along on the journey.
Meredith: Well, like any diva, I love compliments about the strength or beauty of my singing, but when someone says that they were really moved, or especially loved the chemistry between Jon and I onstage, then I know that we are giving them something cool. If someone mentions a particular song by name that grabbed them, I especially love that, because it means they were really listening and that a song had an effect on them.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Jon: The worst part is suffering hand problems which make it painful and difficult to play. The best part is, hopefully, the next gig.
Meredith: The best moment was the day I met Jon Catler who has broadened my Harmonic palette more than any other musician or teacher on the planet; the moment I met him, I knew I had found my musical match. The worst moment in my career was probably the summer I was doing shows up in New Hampshire and lost my voice for most of the run. Somehow I got through it, but the experience was emotionally very painful at the time. A singer without a voice is like a dog without a bone - completely miserable, but on the flip side, when you get your voice back, you feel resurrected.
How do you characterize the philosophy of Willie McBlind?
Jon: We feel that a lot of the subtlety in the pitch and rhythm language used by the original blues artists has been lost. A lot of early blues was played on guitars tuned to an open chord, without a tuner, played with a slide and then adding the voice, so both were ‘fretless’. The rhythms were not always 12 bars - sometimes someone like Charly Patton would play 14 ½ bars consistently in a song. We bring back the full spectrum of pitch and rhythm by using microtonally fretted and fretless guitars and things like Harmonic Rhythm, which produces rhythms that lie between the cracks. We combine these with classical composition techniques like canons, and sometimes a rock energy, as well as a distinct vocal approach to create a unique sound, which is of utmost importance to a blues artist.
Meredith: Willie McBlind is about channeling pure passion and Harmonic resonance through the template of ancient blues feeling, and resonating the audience so they feel transformed by the end of the night, like a deep blues massage. We ended our CD release with a Harmonic Train Cloud that the audience not only experienced, but also helped to create by joining in with their voices.
Tell me about the beginning of Willie McBlind. How did you choose the name and where did it start?
Jon: The band started in NYC. We were playing a New Year’s jam, and one of the musicians, Killer Joe, knew we loved Blind Willie Johnson. He used the term Willie McBlind and it stuck.
What advice Jim Gaines has given, which memory from him makes you smile?
Jon: Jim wanted to give our mixes more power than the rough mixes had. I was worried because engineers don’t always react well when they see that I use multiple amps at once, but Jim made us smile with some great stories about Stevie Ray and his wall of amps.
Meredith: Jon had the opportunity to speak directly with Jim many times, and I know that he had some great stories to share regarding his recording sessions with Stevie Ray Vaughan - seeing as I never had the opportunity to hear Stevie Ray play live, it gave me a huge boost just knowing that this was the same guy who had spent many hours in the studio with him carving out his signature sound. It also gave me great pleasure hearing the results of Jim’s treatment of the vocals on the tracks he mixed - he knows instinctively how to bring the best out of the vocal sound.
Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs and recording with the band?
Jon: This new CD, Live Long Day, was recorded at Bennett Studios in Englewood, NJ, which was a converted Railway Station. There were some overdubs, but all the basic tracks were recorded live, and that setting gave these train tracks an extra kick.
Meredith: Well this isn’t so much amusing as intriguing, and for me, life changing. At one of our shows in Boston for the Microtime Tour in 2009, a couple of women who are shamanic healers were laughing and visibly getting very worked up during the show.
After our first set, one of the ladies said to me, “Do you know what you are doing on stage???” I was kind of puzzled and didn’t know what she meant, thinking well, I’m putting on a show of course! She said, you are doing nothing short of opening a vortex that is stimulated by your hand gestures - an expressionistic physical performance style that I have developed over the years. They felt that I was a lightening rod for the band channeling some very powerful cosmic energy! I’ve thought a lot about that since, and feel like a sort of sorcerer on stage - it’s really fun.
Are there any experiences from the road with the blues, which you’d like to share with us?
Meredith: When the band went down to Mississippi to play at the King Biscuit Blues Festival a couple of years ago, we drove down from Robinsonville to Helena along Highway 61, and one time we decided to take a back road to see if we could locate the Crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. That was really a powerful experience infused with mystery. We found a back road that came across an abandoned railroad track which then came out to a spot that seemed to fit the description. It was like being on a quest for the holy blues grail and it’s hard to put into words, but that feeling inspired me greatly in my interpretation on this new record of ‘Love In Vain’ which was Robert’s ode to his girlfriend Willie Mae Powell. The image of the deserted back Mississippi roads and the abandoned train stuck in my psyche.
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues rock music?
Jon: Blind Willie Johnson often played with a slide, and he couldn’t see the frets, but his sense of intonation was very deep. My best fretless playing comes when I don’t look at the guitar, just feel it. And playing in La Monte Young’s Forever Bad Blues Band, where we played one piece for 2-3 hours, was enlightening. There are many secrets in La Monte’s music that I am still entranced by.
From the “musical feeling” point of view is there any difference between the electric band and duo with Jon?
Meredith: Definitely. With the duo version, Jon and I can take the music to places that we can’t achieve in the same way with the whole band. The band is a powerful vehicle and gives more weight to the musical expression - I can be more dramatic in this Willie McBlind vehicle, but musically speaking, Jon and I have an intimate chemistry as the duo that got forged back in our early Birdhouse days where we just fly!
From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between: bluesman & blueswoman?
Meredith: Listen to our song ‘Boogie Train’ off the new CD, and you can hear the similarities and differences which are intrinsic to the male / female condition. The lyric, “Man he rides, woman she cries, still the train rolls on” just about sums it up.
Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
Jon: At it’s best, the blues is an honest expression of human feelings, which can never go out of style for some. I wish the blues will continue to evolve while keeping an awareness of the tradition that came before. And I hope that more and more people will become aware of the natural Harmonic Series - you know, the first chord in Nature is a perfectly in-tune Harmonic 7th chord. This is found from Harmonics 4 - 8, and the Equal Tempered version of this is used worldwide as the standard blues chord. Going higher in the Series, from Harmonics 8 - 16, we find that Nature is playing a 9th chord, then adding blue notes like the sharp 11th. I hope that someday everyone realizes that Nature has been playing the blues from the beginning.
Meredith: The blues is eternal - the melodic inflections are pure human emotion, and as long as people have those gut feelings, the blues will be there to express those feelings. My wish is that the blues “purists” lay down their swords, and let true blues emerge - the kind that is transformative and bone riveting, not the kind of “dumbed down” run-of-the-mill blues that many people seem to accept these days. Let blues thrive.
Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
Jon: I’d love to have seen Robert Johnson or Blind Willie Johnson play, there are only a couple of photos and no known film. Howlin’ Wolf was too powerful to be fully captured on tape, I’d love to have seen him in person. But my ultimate jam would be Jimi Hendrix meets La Monte Young at Harry Partch’s house!
Meredith: As far as people who have already passed, I would love to have met Howlin’ Wolf and Janis Joplin, not necessarily in that order. I would love to have experienced the pure electricity both of them brought to their live performances. If I could have been at Monterey Pop Festival when Janis sang Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Ball and Chain’, I think I would die and go to heaven because that performance absolutely changed me as singer.
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