Q&A with Avey Grouws Band, deep connection to the Quad Cities and the music of the Mississippi River

"When I found blues, I found freedom. Freedom to sing the pain, to wail, to moan, to feel. And with that ability to feel and to release also comes joy and celebration and humor, which you can also find in this music. Freedom to experience the pain and the joy of life. Blues is life."

Avey Grouws Band: Crossroads Roots Music

With a deep connection to the Quad Cities and the music of the Mississippi River, Avey Grouws Band hit the mark with a gritty sound, stellar songwriting and a powerful show! The band has a special connection with their audiences, often bringing laughter and tears to their fans in a single show. Their sound is all their own, with a blend of blues, roots, country and blues rock. Jeni Grouws has been called “a rising star” by Blue Monday Monthly and it’s been written that Chris Avey’s sound is like “a younger, more fiery Coco Montoya with a dash of Tab Benoit.” After meeting at a blues jam at Muddy Waters in the Quad Cities, Chris Avey and Jeni Grouws formed Avey Grouws Band in 2017, winning the Iowa Blues Challenge that same year, reaching the semi-finals of the 2018 International Blues Challenge in Memphis.                  (Photo by Darren Schultz)

The list of original music grew quickly and in 2018 AGB released their EP, “Road to Memphis.” Since then they’ve continued to grow, write, tour and make fans and friends, playing festivals and clubs in Florida, Arizona, Tennessee, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. The band was also 2020 IBC semi-finalists. Passionate, powerful and playful, Avey Grouws Band is here to make their music… and to have a good time doin’ it! AGB is Jeni Grouws, Chris Avey, Bryan West and Randy Leasman, regularly joined by Nick Vasquez on keys. The mix of mid-western muscle and southern charm is reflected in the passionate, powerful and playful music of the band’s debut full-length album, “The Devil May Care” (Release Date: March 20th, 2020). The ten original tracks were written by the dynamic duo. The depth and strength of this strong debut, “The Devil May Care,” should garner national attention for the group of musicians, who are the pride of the Quad Cities and well represent the talent grown in that area of the Mississippi Valley.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Chris: I think that it has really opened my eyes to the power of music in general, not to sound too cliché about it. There are a lot of things that can be accomplished through music.

Jeni: I didn't grow up with the blues. I grew up with my dad in country radio in the 70s and 80s. But my dad is a music lover and the albums he had around the house included those country greats like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. But we also had Bob Marley, every single Van Morrison album, even Prince and Whitney Houston, as well as musicals like Evita. As a child, hearing such a variety of music hooked me  and had me excited to learn more. So in high school and college I jumped into Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Mahalia Jackson, The Subdudes, Ray Charles and, eventually Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Once you get into the songs, especially if you love songwriting, as I do, you look at the lyrics. You study what they are saying to you. And then you have to find out why they are telling you this? What is the context within which this was written? For me, diving deep into the history of this country, the good, the bad and the downright horrific, helps me understand the music. So I've definitely become more aware of the world around me through music and most especially through the music of America. But in the end, when it comes to me sharing and performing my music, I have to let the "research" part of my brain go and I simply go to that spot in my gut that is ready to let it out.

How do you describe band’s sound and songbook? Where does band’s creative drive come from? How started the thought of Avey Grouws Band?

Chris: I like to describe the band as American roots music. It’s not as simple as just saying a blues band in 2020. I think with the diverse backgrounds of all of our musicians we pretty much pull from the book of American music in general. I feel like even our catalog of tunes feels that way. If it’s good music, it’s good music.

Jeni: Chris Avey, Bryan West and I actually met at a blues jam in the Quad Cities! They saw this blonde woman come in that said she'd like to sing and, according to Chris he thought "yeah yeah, another singer lol". So they made me wait until the end of the jam. But when I got up there, I let it all go. And they locked in with me from the start. When I was done, they looked at me and said "can we do some more". Ha! So we did a bunch of songs that night. And it was special from that very first moment. I knew we were going to play again someday. So I bugged Chris for many, many, many months to do a few shows with. It took a while, but I'm tenacious! Eventually we became and official band January 1, 2017 and we've been jamming together ever since!

"I think that it has really opened my eyes to the power of music in general, not to sound too cliché about it. There are a lot of things that can be accomplished through music." (Chris & Jeni / Photo by Charlie Langton)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Chris: There are so many of those it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. I would say a few of the most memorable ones were getting to play with one of my idols, Tab Benoit. And also Jeni put together this great show called The Ladies of Blues Rock with Jeni Grouws, Annika Chambers, Joanna Connor, Heather Newman, Casey Hensley, Shannon Curfman and Anna Taylor and us guys in Avey Grouws Band backing them. That was a great honor and treat to do.

Jeni: Well that first jam where we met was pretty special. You know, the times I've felt the most invigorated were often at blues jams. I hit a jam in Washington DC a few years back. Just by myself. But I knew I'd be welcomed because that is what blues jams are usually all about. Musicians, coming together, to make music! And that night, boy did we do that! I left there feeling on top of the world. Not because anyone famous was there or because I did anything brilliant. It felt amazing because I connected with complete strangers, both on stage and in the audience, in a way that only something like a blues jam can do. Those moments never happen again. That is why going to jams is still something we do. They can be magic.

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

Chris: I like the rough and raw emotion of a lot of the music from the past. I sometimes feel like things are getting a little too perfected, if you know what I mean, these days. Today it’s more worrying about the performance and how things sound versus how they feel. But I do feel the trend is swinging back the other way. I have a lot of hope for the future.

Jeni: I love the raw, dirty sound of music from the past. It's more free form. No click tracks keeping you to perfect time. No pitch correcting. Just music!

What would you say characterizes Quad Cities blues scene in comparison to other US scenes and circuits?

Chris: I really like the sense of family and the willingness to listen to whatever brand of blues or roots music that people are throwing out here. Being on the Mississippi River has given this area a history of blues musicians and other musicians, traveling through and adding their sound to the mix. It's not a well known thing, but the Quad Cities has it's own sound. It's blues, country, rock and roll, some gospel, life on the river, a history of hard working people, the devastation of floods year after year, and people coming together to support each other all rolled into a sound that unlike any other. It's strong. Like the people here.

Jeni: I didn't grow up there and I actually live 3 hours away in Decorah, Iowa, so I'm not the best person to answer this. The guys in the band are all from the QC, so I'll leave that to Chris. But I will say, the Quad Cities music scene, especially the blues scene, has been so incredibly welcoming and supportive of me and of this band. From the first jam I attended and every show since then, I have felt a part of that community of musicians and music lovers. And that is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

"I like to describe the band as American roots music. It’s not as simple as just saying a blues band in 2020. I think with the diverse backgrounds of all of our musicians we pretty much pull from the book of American music in general. I feel like even our catalog of tunes feels that way. If it’s good music, it’s good music." (Chris Avey & Jeni Grouws / Photo by Darren Schultz)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

Chris: I think some of the most important musical lessons I’ve learned is to Learn when to play and when not to play. When I was younger, I got yelled at a lot by some of the guys I was in band with. Big Pete Pearson from Arizona used to say "just play when it’s your turn to play... otherwise shut up" haha. And Harmonica Slim from Chicago used to tell me "just be quiet when I’m doing my thing!" Those are all great lessons. In a roundabout way they said just listen to everybody on the stage and you’ll be OK. They taught me not to take things too seriously and how to have a good time with what you’re doing. Which I think is definitely key to making good, real music.

What does to be a female artist in a Man’s World as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Jeni: Oh boy. I'm talking this to you on International Women's Day, so I've been thinking about it a lot today. I have 3 high school daughters and, like any parent, I want great things for them. And if not great, then at least equal. But just yesterday, once again, I was told by a festival organizer that they "have a chick singer on their lineup already." That line in particular infuriates me. First of all, chick singer? Also, you have 12 male lead or full male bands in your lineup, but having more than one female on the lineup is too many? How is that even factoring into the decisions that organizers are making these days? I have had, as many women in music have attested to themselves, the response that "audiences just seem to like male bands more than female bands." That's just baloney. I worked in radio for 15 years and they said the same thing. There is still a rule in most stations across America that two women can not play back to back in a set of music on air. I ran a station that allowed music to play based on tempo, not on gender. And I recall one day having 5 women in a row and it rocked. And not a single person called to complain. It's a ridiculous rule and one that impacts the financial success of female musicians. Our songs don't play as often, which directly affects how we get paid by rights organizations, but it also doesn't give our music the same chance to be heard by the listeners as our male counterparts, which affects music sales. The Americana artist Brandi Carlile is pushing hard against this notion by calling out radio stations, and also by creating her own all-female fronted festival called Girls Just Wanna Have Fun...and it keeps selling out! She's proving that those old notions of gender are not valid. They never have been. Radio, festival organizers, playlist organizers, keep in mind... we want diversity. Not just in gender. In all ways! Free the music. Let musicians be heard and you will be rewarded!

"I love the raw, dirty sound of music from the past. It's more free form. No click tracks keeping you to perfect time. No pitch correcting. Just music!" (Chris Avey & Jeni Grouws / Photo by Charlie Langton)

What is the impact of the Blues and Rock music on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Chris: Once again not to sound too cliché but I do believe that music can heal.

Jeni: I'm a middle class white girl from the Midwest of the United States of America. I'm not a musicologist. There are much wiser people than I am out there that can answer this question for you. But on a personal level, blues and rock opened my eyes and my heart to a reality that was not my day to day life. It changed me. It moved me. Blues and rock have taught so many of us the things that we needed, and still need, to learn.....even when it's hard to hear. Somehow we get scared of the idea of "protest music". But blues and rock are protest music. They are a telling of injustices, of hopes, of anger and frustration. And blues and rock are also therapy, for the musician as well as for the audience. As a child, I was injured in a way I don't wish to talk about here. But I let it sit deep inside, where it festered and rotted and threatened eventually to take control of my life many years later. When I found blues, I found freedom. Freedom to sing the pain, to wail, to moan, to feel. And with that ability to feel and to release also comes joy and celebration and humor, which you can also find in this music. Freedom to experience the pain and the joy of life. Blues is life.

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

Chris: I would probably have to go to London in the 60s just for the creativity and all of those great musicians that were just getting together and experimenting and helping push things forward. That would be a trip!

Jeni: Gosh. Are we talking within a musical context here? Because I could really get off topic and send us back to the dinosaurs! lol. Musically, I think I'd go back to Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee in 1973. That year Ardent recorded The Staple Singers, ZZ Top, Leon Russell and Freddie King! I'd like to imagine they were all there one day and I'd be able to walk around and just watch how they all recorded. The process, the conversations, the laughs, the fights, the musical decisions being made... just to watch the magic AND the hard work happen. That would be out of this world.

Avey Grouws Band - Home

Chris Avey and Jeni Grouws / Photo by Darren Schultz

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