Guitarist/songwriter Jeff Powers talks about his experience on the road with the blues and Mexico City Blues

"I thrive on excitement and blues is exciting. I can’t think of any music that is as exciting except Flamenco."

Jeff Powers: Beat Poetry is Rock & Roll

While living as an illegal alien and partying like a rock star in Mexico, City for 7 years, Jeff cut his teeth with various blues bands. Though he moved to Mexico City to perform and teach classical guitar soon dropped out of the cozy and well paid classical world to live and play in the down and dirty clubs, jails and places at the end of dirt roads.

Barely eking out a living he would cross the entire city with guitar and amp in hand by bus and subway to get to a gig or rehearsal but during his years there Jeff wrote over 200 + songs and developed his own style of blues guitar based around his classical technique. After returning to his home town of Cleveland Jeff formed his own blues band and started recording original songs and performing with his band and as a solo acoustic act. He has been playing in the Cleveland area for 15plus years in blues bands Dead Guy Blues and Clarksdale and also as a solo acoustic artist. Besides performing his songs Jeff's sets include music by singer/songwriters like: Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Jeff Buckley and blues by: SRV, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins. Jeff incorporate finger picking, slide and a loop station to stretch out on lead guitar and give his solo shows a lot of variety. Mixed in with his original songs some arranging highlights include: a delta style version of "Voodoo Chile", Jeff Buckley's magnificent version of "Hallelujah", the Stephan Stills' classic "Treetop Flyer" and a Dobro slide version of Charlie Daniels' "Long Haired Country Boy".

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

 

Jeff, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
I played guitar since the age of 9 but it wasn’t until I heard Jimi Hendrix when I was 15 years old that I got really into the guitar. A little while later I heard Johnny Winters first 2 albums (Johnny Winter and Progressive blues experiment) which got me closer to the blues. I couldn’t quit listening to those cuts especially the deep blues ones. Little by little I found other blues. After going to school for classical guitar I saw SRV and it blew my mind. So I joined a blues group (in Mexico City) and that’s where I learned a lot. They weren’t great players but their record collection and the tunes we played were nothing but the best blues. If you want to play electric blues you better listen and learn songs by artists like: Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters. Freddy King, Snooks Eaglin, Otis Rush among many others and that is what they had in their collection.

 

What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a bluesman?
I thrive on excitement and blues is exciting. I can’t think of any music that is as exciting except Flamenco. I love all music in different ways but the exilheration I get from playing or listening to the blues can’t be had from anything else. It’s the straight from your gut and heart feel that really gets me…I get goose bumps when a band is locked in and playing the blues tight and right or when a blues guitarist or singer is digging deep and spreading the truth and gospel. 

 

What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?
I’m assuming you mean blues gigs and songs. When I was almost old enough to go out and drink I caught Freddy King in a small club…I think there were about 5-10 people in the audience. The first blues songs I learned were several SRV tunes and a bunch of Jimmy Reed, Freddy King and Albert King tunes. Most of my blues learning was after I was at a pro classical guitarist level with a degree in performance. The bug really got me again after I heard SRV though I was listening to blues for years in small clubs and wanting to play it. In Cleveland I listened to Glenn Schwartz (James Gang, Pacific Gas and Electric), Robert Lockwood Jr and Mr.Stress Blues Band a lot…I probably lost a few brain cells hanging out and listening several times a week to local blues artists and bands.

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do you think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
It’s what we’ve been talking about. A lot of music fades because it was calculated, produced and marketed to a young and/or musically naïve audience but they get older and then there’s a new fad but blues like RL Burnside playing on one riff and bringing you to an unbelievable high can never get old. It’s connecting people heart to heart. It’s real…it sounds good on a stage and sitting one on one next to you in a living room.
That’s a good gauge on the quality of a song and the music; could the music you’re listening to be performed in a living room without reverb, effects, 20 instruments, backing vocals etc, can the performer sit there and move you without the bells and whistles to distract you from the real quality of the song and performance. Obviously there are exceptions to this gauge but the performers and the songs that I’m attracted to usually fall into my living room theory.

 

What made you fall in love with the blues music?
I got to say the blues of Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter drove me insane which brought me to the blues even though they might not be considered blues artists. All the other stuff slowly crept into my conscience. Early in my life I had blues albums by artists like Taj Mahal, John Hammond and Paul Butterfield and really loved them but it wasn’t until I saw SRV that I went nuts for the blues…I bought me a Bad Ass Hat and some Texas Shit Kickers after that.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Of course I’ve been ripped off by club owners, disrespected by drunks, let down by band mates even mugged but the high points and low points are only how I feel about my playing. I’ve let myself down many times by being lazy about learning new things and riding on what I already had. The problem with that is all of a sudden the things you’ve been riding on won’t work for you and you can’t find the magic with it and man then it can be bad, especially with the blues because it’s all about the magic and feel. If you don’t think so listen to RL Burnside it’s so exhilarating yet so simple. It seems like he’s doing nothing at all yet you grab a guitar learn the riff and…I suck! The trick is never stop learning and growing and you’ll play your ass off.

 

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?
My song writing inspiration comes from Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I could go on for hours about Bob Dylan but he’s not a blues artist exactly and we’ve all read a lot about him already. All the accolades he’s received do not do him justice he is the center of the songwriting universe for me. Also, early country blues uses such fantastic imagery that I can borrow or get inspiration from and the “Beat Poets” (Beat Poetry is Rock and Roll)
Of course personal experiences inspire me to write songs. Love, anger and humor seem to be what drives me the most in my specially songwriting…especially anger.

 

 

Do any blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorites?
Man you ask questions that make me have to think! Whew! I’ll mention one song: Son House’s “Death Letter” is one of the deepest songs I’ve ever listened to. Personally for me and I’m sure for many other people the theme “It’s so hard to love someone who don’t love you” can really hit home. I use the confusion of feelings that you find in “Death Letter” in a lot of my songs because I think life is not cartoonish (at least for most of us) and we are always conflicted in our feelings and relationships.

 

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offer you?
The blues for me is opposite of what a jazz musician might think of it or of the meaning of the term. For me the blues is uplifting…the spirit and the style. Even the darkest blues songs are uplifting for me. I get goose bumps when I hear Johnny Winter or Mississippi Fred McDowell. They just hang in that groove so deep that you are transported. Other music will move me in other ways but not so powerfully. So many early blues musicians described blues as the truth. I think Townes Vans Zandt said it best, “there are two types of music: blues and the rest is Zippty Do Da”.

 

What do you learn about yourself from the street’s blues life?
Luckily I earned my blues stripes when I was younger and I’m alive to tell and play it. The blues life or my blues life might include: the ups and downs of love, bouts with alcohol, drugs, being broke, fighting being scammed and almost killed quite a few times. All these things belong to real life not the one we wish for, dream about or the life in our most elevated thoughts.
I don’t think I have to fall in love or lose my woman or anything like that again to play or write blues. I think I have an ample supply of material already and I sure don’t want more heartache. I think we are all born with the blues though and can find that place without major traumas in our life…maybe.

 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician and songwriter?
I think growing up with a bit of a chip on my shoulder and getting beaten by teachers and hating school with a passion helped make me an artist and to look at music and art as a place for me…I think I always new I was an artist though. Listening to music, playing music, a girl, alcohol and drugs were my school. Thank god drugs and alcohol aren’t a part of my schooling anymore…maybe some beer though. In a funny way I feel drugs and booze helped me break down repressive walls and find a place where I could create but plenty of great artists might not have had to go through that. It’s not necessary.

 

Are there any memories from Mexico, which you’d like to share with us?
I was living in Mexico and for years I wanted to play the blues but didn’t know too much about the style and where to start. I was a professional classical guitar teacher and out of the blue someone called me, based solely on the fact my name sounded American, and asked if I played blues. I said yes even though that was an exaggeration and he asked if I’d join his band. My first gigs were small concerts at jails, halls, campuses besides dive bars. That’s where I learned about Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, JB Lenoir and a slew of the early electric blues artists and country blues artists.

 

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from your performances at down and dirty clubs, jails and places at the end of dirt roads in Mexico City?
There were so many crazy moments. Just getting to gigs and rehearsals with an amp and guitar in hand by bus, subway and taxi was a trip but I loved every minute of it. It was all magic to me.
One place we played was a cool bar (Café Carribe) on some dirt road. We had to use their terrible sounding guitar amps which were miked and cranked through their house PA. That was bad enough but they darkened the house and put a strobe light on. Maybe it needs to be experienced to see the humor or horror of this but try playing a guitar with a strobe light on it’s dizzying and you see your hand at the first fret and then you don’t see it move but suddenly it’s at the 12th fret position it’s hard for the brain to process besides I thought I’d fall off their high stage that was only a couple feet deep. I always asked them to not use the powerful strobe like and like a good Mexican they were very polite then turned it on when I was playing.

 

Make an account for current realities of the case of the blues in Mexico
Mexico City is a place to have the blues. Many people live a harsh reality there for the simple fact they can’t make enough money to live on. And now the economy is even worse now than when I lived there. I think music is something people without much money gravitate to, it’s something so beautiful and something everyone can enjoy and share.
I was surprised that there were some excellent blues players playing the guitar like Albert Collins and other greats. I guess where there are 20-30 million people living somebody is going to know how to play the blues. The blues became a bit popular in Mexico back in the 70’s because of a series of concerts that featured classic blues acts like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. It seemed to influence a lot of musicians there.

 

 

Tell me a few things about your blues bands: Dead Guy Blues and Clarksdale. What are the differences and similarities?
My band Dead Guy Blues is dead for now until I record a new CD. The concept of the band was mine and it was to showcase my gutar playing and my blues songs. I wrote blues songs with twists on classic themes and riffs. I will resurrect the band someday soon.  Clarksdale is a band I started so I could play some down and dirty blues with a lot of slide, cigar box guitar and with a more garage band type sound and style. Right now we seem to be doing a blues/jam band thing to make some money but I’m preparing a CD soon that will showcase this rough garage blues from the Cuyahoga Delta.

 

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?
I’ve hosted a lot of jam and open mic nights so there are a lot of beautiful moments. I frequented a cool jam night at an Indian Restaurant/Bar called “El Elefante” (Mexico City) were there were many magical moments . The beautiful atmosphere and the small intimate room was perfect. Also, I opened for Duwayne Burnside (son of RL Burnside) and he got me up to jam with him…I was playing good cause I had just finished my set. That guy could play some deep blues though. He doesn’t play Fancy Dan stuff just deep blues. He invited me to jam with him the next day at the Chicago Blues Fest but I never went.  

                                                                                                Photo by John Troxell

Do you know why the cigar box guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of cigar box guitar?  
The Cigar Box Guitar is connected to the blues by the simple fact that it’s similar to the Diddley Bow that the early and not so early African Americans played. It was an instrument that only cost a few pennies to make and gave a kid without any money something to play music on. Also, the simple three string Cigar Box Guitar usually is tuned with just two notes; one being doubled in a unison or as an octave. The simplicity of the instruments tuning forces you to play only from the heart…there is nothing else available…that’s the blues (the real blues). You won’t be hearing any Gershwin on it that’s for sure.

 

If you go back to the past what things would you do better and what things would you avoid doing again?
The main thing I would do different is after honing my chops at jams and bar gigs I would only work with musicians that were artists and not giggers. Giggers are guys who play their instruments well but do just enough to play in all kinds of groups and make a little money each time out. These guys will hold you down cause they aren’t artists they will never try to make a statement, they will never try to create the best project possible. If you don’t do that you will never get noticed (Nationally) because there are many other artists out there putting their blood, sweet, tears and money on the line just to make a small career.
Also, I would stop playing bar gigs once I attained a certain level of playing and except the fact I wouldn’t make any money for awhile while I worked on building a real career. You get a very wrong impression of your worth and level when you are entertaining drunks. Don’t get me wrong there are drinkers who are listening but the majority are there for the party and the music is their second or third priority.

 

From whom have you learned the most secrets about blues music and life?
I never learned any blues from a teacher other than a couple of licks when I was a teenager but I watch, listen and learn from musicians. When I was young I learned a lot from a friend and neighbor “Steve”. We’d stay up all night and all day drinking whiskey and beer listening to music playing pool and he would never stop giving me his thoughts on art and music. I was a young man with a lot of spirit and I could stay up for ever (still can but I pick and choose my moments  now) and it was magical. Like Janis Joplin said (with a whiskey voice), “It’s all one big fuckin’ day man”. Steve wasn’t a musician but he would turn me on to everything from Cole Porter to Opera. We listened and talked about Blues, Flamenco, Songwriters and Classical Music. He would always tell me to get a background in Classical or Jazz guitar! Show me that first and then develop, with those real chops, something of your own. I did just that and I’m happy with the outcome.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Don’t do it! But if you love it so much, that you have no choice, my one advice is to start thinking of yourself as your career. Brand yourself as soon as you can even start this before you’ve developed all your chops. Sure, do your bar gigs, jams and whatever to develop the art but then make a project that is your unique brand. If you don’t brand yourself it will be difficult to make enough money from performing to live on. This advice is not for the gigger who is willing to play weddings etc but for someone who is an artist with a vision.


Jeff Powers - Official website

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