Blues n' Rock guitarist Conrad Oberg talks about Hubert Sumlin, Morgan Freeman and Woodstock 2009

"Rock and Blues music is a tradition that keeps evolving into different things, so I think that it stays relevant." 

Conrad Oberg: Peace & Rock n' Roll

Conrad Oberg was born in the Summer of 1994. As a result of profound prematurity, and weighing only a pound and a half, Conrad was left legally blind and fighting for his life. Conrad, has since battled every obstacle that life has presented, and despite it all has managed to take everything in stride and still come out grinning. At the age of two, Conrad taught himself to play music on a hand-me-down toy piano given to him by his cousins. Conrad progressed quickly to a small electronic keyboard. Playing it non-stop, within six months he could play all of the songs programmed into it by the manufacturer. By the end of his third year, Conrad could emulate anything he heard, ranging from Vivaldi to vacuum cleaners.

A natural born performer, Conrad began performing in public at local music stores and weddings, and by the age of nine had developed a “one boy” piano and vocal stage act that became legendary in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. Conrad’s first big break occurred when he recorded his first album at Sun Studios in Memphis, being backed by Jerry Lee Lewis’ touring band, which volunteered a great deal of their time to produce the album “Decade.” The album was completed at Sun, hours before Conrad turned ten years old, when he was given his first guitar. Performing with the adult band that he fronts at venues and music festivals throughout the country, Conrad has been fortunate to share the stage with some of the legends of the music business, and has amassed a considerable internet following, with nearly four million worldwide views on YouTube.

In the past few years, Conrad has received accolades on an international level, being chosen by 12 million Cartoon Network viewers as the most talented teen musician in the country, and being selected by the Nikon Corporation to score the film accompanying their newest high-end camera release. With the eyes of the world upon him, in August of 2009, Conrad was given the ultimate honor of opening the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock Festival at the site of the original Woodstock festival in 1969. Conrad’s album, “Old School,” was recorded in non-dubbed single takes in order to capture the sound and feel of Conrad’s considerable live performing ability when he was 14. The album consists of blues and rock classics which Conrad performs regularly at his shows in his own Jimi Hendrix meets Ray Charles style. The album features Conrad on all vocals, keyboards, and guitars. Conrad has just released his newest album, "Spoonful".

Interview by Michael Limnios  

Copyright © 2014 All rights reserved - Photos courtesy by Conrad Oberg

How do you describe Conrad Oberg sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I like to play many types of music, but professionally I play mostly blues-based rock. Being from the southern United States we have a tradition of that type of music going back many, many years. I have heard my “sound” described by others as “Jimi Hendrix meets Ray Charles.” I play piano, and guitar in my shows, so I take that description as a great honor because they are two of my musical heroes.

Regarding my musical philosopy, I tend to not put different types of music into individual boxes or categories. If someone comes out to one of my live shows they would be as likely to hear me intro a blues-rock song with a tocata and fugue written by Bach as they would hear me put an Earl Skruggs banjo roll into a straight up rock songs. Most people love to hear different types of music, and if I can work it into the show, and the mood hit's me, I'm gonna do it!

Blues music came from a place of pure emotion, which in turn evolved into rock, soul, jazz, country, R&B, bluegrass, etc. It truly is the “root” of most western music. Emotion will never go out of style, and neither will Blues and Rock.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

I 'm just now 19 yrs old, and was born almost completely blind, so my life experiences are different than those of most people my age. I tend to write songs that are positive in nature, and not self-pitying. I'm not going to get any farther down the road feeling sorry for myself, so I don't. Melodies are very easy for me to write, lyrics tend to take me a bit longer.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you? 

I think that music in general means the world to me.  I taught myself to play on a toy piano when I was two years old, and it's been my favorite thing to do ever since. I've learned through the years that when I'm playing music I'm more comfortable than when I'm doing anything else. Being visually impaired, I'm a lot more in control of my universe when I'm on stage.  For me, playing at a big festival is easy, trying to cross the street without getting run over by a bus is the trick. Ha!

Why did you think that the Rock and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Rock and Blues music is a tradition that keeps evolving into different things, so I think that it stays relevant. Blues music came from a place of pure emotion, which in turn evolved into rock, soul, jazz, country, R&B, bluegrass, etc. It truly is the “root” of most western music. Emotion will never go out of style, and neither will Blues and Rock.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I have had SO many fun times playing in jams, it's just impossible to choose.  Sometimes I've had just as much fun playing Django Reinhardt music sitting in with a Gypsy Jazz quartet at a French restaurant, as I've had playing with Grammy award-winning bands at big festivals. One blues/rock band that I've always have fun playing with is Robert Randolph and the Family Band, they are a great group with great energy! The list is so long...I almost always have fun at jams.

Opening the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock comes to mind as one of my favorite shows that I've participated in. Believe it or not, I've always had fun at my shows. It doesn't matter if there are 30,000 people in the audience or 30, if the audience digs it, I'm a happy kid.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

A lot of times the people that I've met have been for short periods of time between sets at a festival or something, but three people that I've met come to mind right away. First is the actor Morgan Freeman. The first show I ever headlined playing guitar was at his club “Ground Zero” in Mississippi. Morgan came out to see my show, and we spent several hours chatting about music. He was very nice and legitimately interested in getting to know a person. He's been to most of my shows at the club since, and we've gotten to hang out several times, and I consider him a friend.

 The second person that comes to mind is Hubert Sumlin.  Over the course of several shows, I was fortunate enough to spend hours talking with him about everyone that he'd met and worked with over the years. We spent a lot of time talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan, I could sense that he was still very sad about his passing.  Hubert was a great guy that was fun to play with, and truly enjoyed helping people out.  He told his manager that he loved the way I played, and that I could perform with him any time.  Coming from someone that just about everyone idolizes, from Keith Richards to Eric Clapton, that was a big compliment.   

The third person that comes to mind was Ray Charles. I got to meet Ray a few months before he passed away. It was backstage after a show in my hometown, and he made me promise him that I would never quit playing.  I used to carry a picture of the two of us in my pocket, and I'm still following his advice and keeping my promise.

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us? 

Recording my first album with Jerry Lee Lewis' band backing me at Sun Studios in Memphis was one that I think of immediately. I turned 10 yrs old in the studio the night we finished, and my Dad gave me my first guitar.  I'm not sure anything will ever be able to top that.

"My music dream is to tour internationally, and to be successful enough at it to never have to stop. I LOVE playing live on stage; it's my favorite thing in the world."

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

I think that I miss songs on the radio that actually have melody lines.  A song can be a real ass-kicker, and still have a good melody. Sometimes modern music seems to be overly driven by non-melodic elements such as drum beats etc.  

My hope for the future of music is that there will develop a more effective way of marketing recorded songs that will not allow them to be so easily pirated.  I've played new songs at shows, and before I've released them they are available for free on file sharing sites. I've got to make a living at this, and it seems to get harder every day.

I really don't have fears about the direction of music; I think that there will always be people out there getting it done. 

Which memory from the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock Festival makes you smile? 

 The sound engineers REALLY had the PA system cranked up for my performance of the Star Spangled Banner. When I got off stage, I was met by Country Joe McDonald. He told me “Next time you should try to play it loud,” then he added “and don't quit your day job.” (I think he was laughing when he said it...)

Then the other bands (that played at the original festival in 1969) had me autograph a bunch of stuff for them, so I guess I did OK.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Southern Rock and Rock n’ Roll? 

The  lineage of Blues to Rock-n-Roll, is a continuum of hundreds of artists, but I think that a few of the milestone acts that connect the dots are; Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker, Elmore James, Hubert Sumlin, Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, The Rolling Stones, Lynynrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, etc. It's hard to listen to any of these bands and performers without hearing the obvious influences. If you ask me that question next week, I'd probably have a whole new list of names. Ha!

Do you know why the sound of slide and resonator is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of slide? 

Resonators are so loud that they were used on street corners, and juke joints before there were guitar amplifiers.  The action was typically so high on those guitars, that they were usually played in open tunings with a slide. An instrument that was also played around a lot of homes in the south at that time, was called the “Diddly Bow.” A “Diddly Bow” was made of a wire that was nailed to a board, pulled tight, and then strummed with a bottle running up and down it for the notes. The sound of the “Diddly Bow” was very similar to that of a slide running up and down a guitar, so I'm sure that the slide fit right into the music that southern folks were used to already.

Slide Secrets:  Good Vibrato, good Intonation, and learn/figure out as many tunings and weird chord voicings as possible.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the blues rock circuits? 

A couple of years ago, I was showing off playing guitar behind my head, and an older woman jumped up on stage and kept trying to kiss me.  I couldn't bring my guitar back down because it would have hit her in the head, so I was trapped. Everyone still laughs about that one. In the south, we would say that she had “beer goggles” that night. (Too much to drink)

There's a point in my show when I let the band take a break, and I play piano by myself and sing. I tend to choke up a little when I play a Stevie Ray Vaughan song called “Life By the Drop” written by Doyle Bramhall.   It reminds me of all of the musician friends that I've had that have passed away in the last year or two, and of the friends that I miss from high school. 

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

You'll probably laugh, but I'd like to go to late 1940s Paris, and hangout and play with Django Reinhardt. I’m taking a French class right now, so if you can get me that time machine, I'm halfway there!  I'm afraid that's another one of those questions that I'd change my answer if you ask me again five minutes from now.

What would you ask Jimi Hendrix? What is your MUSIC DREAM? Happiness is……

My music dream is to tour internationally, and to be successful enough at it to never have to stop. I LOVE playing live on stage; it's my favorite thing in the world.

I think that I'd ask Jimi if he needed to borrow a pick, because I've got an amp on stage that's warmed up and ready go.

Happiness is........peace.

Conrad Oberg - official website

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