Q&A with Boston-based Barrett Anderson - Intensity, originality, creativity, and passion are at the heart of band's philosophy

"I believe Blues, when done well, has always provided that joy – that release – for people. This is not sad music. This is music that allows people to come together, to communally surpass their troubles, and escape from their problems. Blues music gives people energy, it gives people life. Blues music – when done right – connects with people intrinsically, it matters, and it makes someone happy. It brings joy. That is how I hope my music affects people."

Barrett Anderson: HypnoBoogie Groove

The Barrett Anderson Band will be released their exciting new live album, HypnoBoogie (September 25 release date), on Whitaker Blues Records. Captured during one show at The Fallout Shelter in Norwood, Massachusetts, on February 1 (by special arrangement with Bill Hurley), HypnoBoogie packs all the energy and passion of the band’s legendary live shows their fans have come to expect on the new disc. The Barrett Anderson Band is Barrett Anderson – vocals and guitar; Charlie Mallet – guitar and vocals; Doug MacLeod – drums; and Jamie “Black Cat Bone” Hatch – bass and vocals. HypnoBoogie features seven blazingly original songs that also allow the band excursions into the outer edges of the blues/roots genre, as well as four scintillating covers of songs from Bo Diddley -“Mona;” Magic Sam - “Lookin’ Good;” Son House - “Grinnin’ In Your Face;” and The J. Geils Band - (“Ain’t Nothin’ But a) House Party.”

(Barrett Anderson, 2020 / Photo © by Adam Signore)

A veteran of the Boston music scene, Barrett cut his teeth by playing with members of Muddy Waters' 1970's band, Pinetop Perkins & Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, in the late 90's.  Following that, he spent a combined 6 years in the internationallhy-acclaimed blues bands Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters and The Monster Mike Welch Band. Barrett recorded All The Way Down, his first album (produced by Jimbo Mathus) in North Mississippi in 2007. He returned to his native New England and quickly enlisted some of the world's heaviest blues musicians - Ron Levy (organist for Albert King, BB King, Roomful of Blues, and more ) and Per Hanson (drummer for Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters). In 2013, Barrett's second album, The Long Fall (produced by Cambridge's roots-rock king Dennis Brennan), was released and Barrett won a highly prestigious Boston Music Award, 2013 Blues Artist of the Year. In 2013, Anderson won a Boston Music Award as “Blues Artist of the Year,” edging out Roomful of Blues, and James Montgomery. Intensity, originality, creativity, and passion are at the heart of what The Barrett Anderson Band does, and they’ve managed to document all this on their powerful new release, HypnoBoogie (2020).

Interview by Michael Limnios     Special Thanks: Mark Pucci Media & Barrett Anderson

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

My relationship with Blues music has been the most fundamental, informative relationship of my life. It has influenced all aspects of my world view; how I interpret personal interactions, and cultural or political movements… They’re all seen through a lens shaped and defined by blues. Blues music is so intensely an expression of a culture, of a people, a place, and a time. Blues music was more than its musical perfection, its pop hooks, its slinky grooves. Blues was a voice for voiceless people. When Muddy Waters sang “I’m a MAN, no B… O, child…  Y…” he expressed, in addition to the surface level bawdy brag, an intense statement of identity –he was a man in a world where African American men were referred to as boys. Blues music was a job for jobless people. Charley Patton was a small, man with a slight build; music (both blues and gospel) was the only career available other than a grueling life of hard labor in fields. Blues music gave life to people denied their personhood. Son House was always intensely proud of his records – his music being forever captured in those vinyl grooves meant he was somebody. Blues music allowed BB King to become a true king – a global celebrity and a musical ambassador to the world. As race and equality is, once again, rocking America from coast to coast (and also the world), culturally, personally, and politically, the lessons and narratives fundamental to Blues music seem as applicable as ever.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I like to call the music we play HypnoBoogie (which is the also the name of my new live album). HypnoBoogie is all about the groove, the feel. We try to play music, not notes… Music that matters and music that makes you feel something.  It’s vital music – alive and joyful. These are all attributes of music I value – and things I’ve heard most recently in the music of North Mississippi… RL Burnside, Jr. Kimbrough, Robert Belfour... When I was starting out on my solo career, after an education as a sideman with Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters and The Monster Mike Welch Band, I traveled to North Mississippi to record my debut album. My first night in Clarksdale was spent playing with the late, great T-Model Ford at Red’s Lounge for a packed dance floor of swaying hips and people there to get down to business. It was just the two of us, T-Model and me, two guitars, maximum groove. At the end of the night, as he signed the back of my blond Telecaster, T-Model told me I was welcome to play with him whenever, wherever. The next day, in Jimbo Mathus’s Delta Recording Service studio with Jimbo at the helm as producer, the motive and the energy was different, affected by the heavy soul of the previous night. Late one-night mid-session, as Jimbo and I hung out, decompressing from the day’s music, we started spit-balling around what to call the music we were making, and I coined the term HypnoBoogie. It definitely wasn’t traditional blues, although that was the language and form it utilized.  There were rock and roll influences. You could hear tinges of classic soul and R&B, jazz, and even modern music. It was, just like the night before with T-Model, all about the groove, the spirit, the determination, the joy. It was HypnoBoogie, and it is what The Barrett Anderson Band does. We improvise each night, chasing a spirit and a feel, and letting the music guide us there. There’s an intense communication amongst us as we navigate the night’s performance, trusting that we all know where we’re going, even if we aren’t consciously aware of how we’re getting there. We value originality and approach our covers with that in mind. We play music that we like, and we mine the original blues and rock ‘n roll of the 1950’s and 60’s, whether Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Houston, or New Orleans, for our covers, but we also embrace the music we like wherever we find it, and you may find us covering a song by The Beatles, The Stones, Cream, or Jimi Hendrix, or even Morphine, Prince or Radiohead. We try to avoid the blues standards – you won’t hear Mustang Sally at a Barrett Anderson Band show, but on rare occasions, when we’re really feeling it, you might hear Johnny B. Goode.

"The Boston Blues scene was an amazing community in which to grow up. The scene here is heavily influenced by the many formidable musicians who shaped the post-1970’s blues scene that call the Boston area home. The presence and impact of Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, Roomful of Blues, Jerry Portnoy, David Maxwell, Ron Levy, “Steady Rollin” Bob Margolin, Sugar Ray, the list is far too long to begin to capture everyone, is always felt." (The Barrett Anderson Band, 2020 / Photo © by Adam Signore)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Everything I’ve gotten to do – everyone I’ve met, played with, studied with, backed up, can all be traced back to getting to know Pinetop Perkins and “Steady Rollin” Bob Margolin. I had very supportive parents and as a teenager my Dad and I took in live blues music as often as we could. In the mid 90’s in New England there was a great mix of national, touring artists and the local scene, which included Roomful of Blues, Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters, Duke Robillard, Luther “Guitar Jr” Johnson, Ron Levy, and many other blues notables. There was incredible blues every night, and I took in as much as I possibly could and, being a precocious, enthusiastic teenager, I made a point to talk to the musicians every chance I got. One night, after a Muddy Waters Tribute Band gig (which consisted of Pinetop, Bob, and the rest of Muddy’s 1970’s band), Bob invited me to bring my guitar and sit in the next time he was “in town.” 

A few months later he was back, just him and Pinetop with a bassist and drummer, and I brought my guitar. I was 15 and playing with (and learning from) these blues heroes was my dream come true. A few months later, at the original House of Blues in Cambridge, MA, Bob and Pinetop were back and I sat in with them again, and this time harmonica player Annie Raines was there. We played together and started talking; I mentioned Son House and she said “You like Son House?  You should talk to my partner, Paul Rishell. He learned from Son House,” and she gave me his number. 

I spent the next five years studying with Paul Rishell, stopping after he said “I’ve taught you everything I know, and now you know how to listen. You can hold my hand and I can show you how to play these songs, but you can do that yourself now.” He was right. During my time with Paul I learned a lifetime of music and also life philosophy, for which I am forever changed. He is one of my greatest teachers and dearest mentors. One night, while 16 years old, Paul and Annie were opening up for Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters and, since I was underage, I could go but had to stay in the green room. Sounded good by me! Michael “Mudcat” Ward was playing bass for Ronnie at this point, and we knew each other a little bit from other blues gigs, and he graciously engaged me in conversation.  Later, at a Jeff Beck concert, I ran into Ronnie who recognized me from that green room experience, and he took my phone number, telling me he’d call me sometime.

He actually did and, within the year, I became an official member of Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters. I spent 3 years working with Ronnie. I would go to his house before the gig and we’d sit on his couch, guitars in our hands, as he would show me the technical aspects of a style, of a riff, of a song, making sure I knew how to do it. Later that night, at the gig, Ronnie would make eye contact with me, making sure I was paying attention, as he’d play the riff from earlier in the day, making sure I know how to use it. One night, after a gig, Ronnie took me aside and said “Make sure being a blues guitarist is what you have to do. It’s a hard life.  Do this because it is inside you, and it has to come out. If your goal is getting famous, do something else. If your goal is getting rich, do something else.  Do this because you have no other choice.”  Twenty-one years later, I understand his statement more fully now than ever before.  Playing music professionally is not an easy life, and it’s one that requires many sacrifices; I have no other choice but to play music. It’s in me, and it’s got to come out.  It will always be a part of my life.  The blues community embraced me as a teenager, and has been a constant since.  All the opportunities I’ve had are connected, going back to the first gigs with Pinetop and Bob. I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time. 

Some of the best, more recent advice I’ve received has come from the Boston roots-rock king, Dennis Brennan. Dennis produced my 2012 album The Long Fall, and is another dear friend and mentor. One day, while recording almost a decade ago, Dennis advised me to “sing conversationally,” which felt like the key I needed to sing expressively. That simple sentiment – “sing conversationally” – somehow crystalized an entire approach to singing in a way that I needed to hear.  Later Dennis offered a similar perfect crystallization of how to approach making music – the ethos of a solo – during a discussion about Little Walter, when he said “You can hear Walter listening before he plays his solo, and when he does, he lays in in such a way that it changes everything. Walter would find the notes that made the song change.” Those notes are the only notes I strive to play.  It’s not about the technique, it’s about finding the notes that “change everything.” 

"My relationship with Blues music has been the most fundamental, informative relationship of my life. It has influenced all aspects of my world view; how I interpret personal interactions, and cultural or political movements… They’re all seen through a lens shaped and defined by blues. Blues music is so intensely an expression of a culture, of a people, a place, and a time." (Photo: Barrett Anderson & Pinetop Perkins, 1998. Barrett's first professional experience was backing up Pinetop & Bob Margolin)

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

Hmmm… I’ve definitely shared some of my favorite music memories already.  Playing with T-Model Ford in Clarksdale was a highlight. Getting to know Pinetop Perkins and “Steady Rollin” Bob Margolin, Paul Rishell, Ronnie Earl… What great moments! Ronnie used to have this bit where, towards the end of the show, Ronnie would take his guitar off and put it over my shoulders, and I’d end the night playing his guitar. It always struck me that, even when playing his exact rig, I never sounded like Ronnie and always sounded like me. My time with Ronnie opened lots of doors and I have many great memories from my time with him.  Through Ronnie I got to know Kim Wilson, spent 3 nights hanging out with Levon Helm (I even got to meet Anna Lee, of The Weight fame), spoke with Otis Rush on the phone, met Robert Lockwood Jr and got to watch his performance from the side of the stage (“He’s 16, he’s just a baby!” Robert Jr said about me), spent an evening with Jimmie Vaughan (“Don’t do it,” was Jimmie’s advice when Ronnie asked him if he had any advice for me, a budding blues guitarist). At the heart of it all, getting to learn from – and share time – with Ronnie Earl was an incredible, impossible dream come true. We still have a very dear friendship and, even though we don’t see each other often, remain connected.

Later highlights: during a gig with The Monster Mike Welch Band, we were informed that David “Honeyboy” Edwards had come out to hear us, and I was honored to play in front of and then get to know the man who accompanied Robert Johnson on his final performance. During the early days of my relationship with Emily, now my wife, she came out to a Monster Mike Welch Band show and Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing down the street. When their concert ended, they came to our gig and sat in with our band. We played Crossroads. While I’m not much of a Skynyrd fan (I far prefer the music made by Duane Allman and co.), it was fun to play with them in front of a girl I really wanted to impress. Recording Adding Insight to Injury in 2005 with The Monster Mike Welch Band was a treat, and very informative in terms of how to approach a serious recording session. 

From 2008-2013 I played with an organ trio lineup (this was captured on the 2012 album The Long Fall) consisting of myself on vocals and guitar, Ron Levy on the organ, and Per Hanson on drums (and the occasional vocals and harmonica). Having the organist who was a member of Albert King’s band, BB King’s Band, and too many others to mention here, in my band still feels surreal, as does having the man I believe to be the greatest living traditional blues drummer, Per Hanson, in my band. That was a formidable lineup. 

One night Jay Geils came out to hear my band play, and I was very glad I had an amp formerly owned by him on stage that night, as it gave us an easy icebreaker and fostered a lengthy conversation during the set break. 

One of favorite things about my current lineup, The Barrett Anderson Band, is that these people are my best friends, and people who have been with me from the very start of my musical journey. Jamie “Black Cat Bone” Hatch, who plays bass, was the very first person I ever jammed with. He was a few years older – a slightly dangerous, cool kid, and we really connected over music. We worked together and dug into our blues music exploration together. After shifts at the local general store, we would go back to his apartment and jam. He was the first person to tell me to try to play a 12-bar blues consistently every time through, something he still asks of me. I remind him of a Sonny Boy Williamson II quote – when asked how many bars are in a 12-bar blues, Sonny Boy responded, “As many as I want.” Jamie and I played our very first gig together – a high school battle of the bands (we won) – and have been playing together ever since. Doug MacLeod, drummer for The Barrett Anderson, has been around nearly as long. Doug lived one town over from Jamie and me, and we met while he was providing sound for a local benefit concert I was a part of. Despite a nearly four-decade age difference, we were fast friends and Doug was soon providing the backbeat heavy grooves Jamie and I were developing.  While playing together intermittently throughout the early 2000s, they became the full-time members of The Barrett Anderson Band in 2013, a lineup finalized in 2019 with the addition of Charlie Mallet on second guitar. This decades long collaboration – and the subsequent friendship that developed – is quite possibly the favorite thing to have come out of my experiences as a blues guitarist, and I am thrilled to have documented this lineup – and the history/connection we share – on HypnoBoogie. 

My most recent, favorite memory from a gig is from the gig we had on 2/1/20 (which, coincidentally was the street number for Chess Studios – 2120 S. Michigan Ave) at The Fallout Shelter in Norwood, MA, when we played for an intimate audience of 100 people and recorded our album, HypnoBoogie. During the band’s pre-show huddle, we called on Duane Allman, remembering his quote that, when you take to the stage you have to give it 150% and sometimes even that’s not enough. We also talked about Son House, and his directive to “play the truth,” when you play music, and finally approached the stage, reminding each other that, above all else, we need to simply do what we do and have a good time. As I plugged in my guitar and heard Doug start the rolling beat of Mona, I thought “Play as if this will change your life,” and I did. We did. We captured an inspired, dedicated, joyful performance. That performance – that time on stage – frankly flew by. I was fully in the moment, fully lost in the music. Listening to HypnoBoogie, the album culled from that night’s performance, immediately transports me to that stage and that night, and I love turning the music up, closing my eyes, and reveling in the memories of that special night.

"Blues music was a job for jobless people. Charley Patton was a small, man with a slight build; music (both blues and gospel) was the only career available other than a grueling life of hard labor in fields. Blues music gave life to people denied their personhood." (Barrett Anderson & T-Model Ford, Clarksdale Mississippi 2013 / Photo © by Tom Yearnshaw)

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

Boy, oh boy, in the wake of Covid-19, I feel like there is so much uncertainty and so many fears regarding the future of all live music, not just blues, and I hope that we can all return to the packed clubs and live music scenes we love so well soon. However, I’ll try to ignore that and answer the question in the intention I believe it is actually being asked. 

When I look back to the eras of blues that I wasn’t around for – South Side Chicago in the 1950’s, West Side Chicago in the 1960’s, Detroit in the 1950’s and 60’s, Memphis from the 1930’s on,  to name just a few, I hear vitality and originality, the virility of the music. These were people who were serving a song, not a genre. Muddy Waters wasn’t concerned with “playing blues” in the way that contemporary musicians can be.  Muddy played the music he wanted to play.  It was what it was. He just so happened to create a genre and, in doing so create an example so pervasive that he influenced everything that followed. I think, right now, there’s a lot of energy spent on recreating the music of the past from an almost studious, literary place. I worry that the vitality of the music, the originality, and the spirit so present in those earlier days of blues, is somehow getting watered down. I love playing music in clubs where people are there to dance, to move and groove on a Saturday night, to get down to business and maybe the music, regardless of how late it is when it wraps up, is just the start of someone’s adventures that night. I get worried when someone determines my music “isn’t bluesy enough,” because there are 13.5 bars instead of 12, because we don’t play enough shuffles (or Marches, as they’re called in New England), or because we were inspired to play a favorite song from Exile on Main Street.  Muddy Waters played the music he wanted to play, and I think it’s important that we subscribe to that spirit and intention and not get to hung up on the whether it’s blues or not, as we carry the music forward into the 2020’s.

Another difference I see between the blues scenes now and those of yesteryear is in audience appeal of blues. Back in the day blues was the pop music of its time.  It was heard on the radio. It was played in clubs. The entire community listened to blues.  As such, there was a focus on playing music that mattered… Music that makes you feel something… there was an attempt to serve the song, and not just play a kick-ass, gratuitous guitar solo. I worry that current blues music is just a vehicle for virtuosic instrumental performances, which tend to only connect with musicians. In earlier days, blues music was enjoyed by people whether or not they play the guitar. I think it's important that we focus on playing music and not simply notes as we carry Blues music forward. I remember a quote from Carlos Santana where he said, “If all you do is play fast guitar you’ll look out in the audience and there won’t be a woman in sight.”

"Play the music first and foremost. Don’t worry about being a guitar player, worry about being a musician. Sing conversationally. Give it 150% and sometimes even that’s not enough. Play music because it’s what you have to do. Serve the song.  Like the music you like. Celebrate your influences and find them wherever you can. Listen to everything. Admit to nothing." (Barrett Anderson, 2020 / Photo © by Adam Signore)

What characterize your new 3th album HypnoBoogie? What touched (emotionally) you from this live album?

We brought it! The Barrett Anderson Band delivered. We managed to capture the entire album in front of an audience that night - one take of each song - and we played hard. We boogied. We moved. We grooved. We let it all out, and once it’s out, it can’t go back in. I’ve always valued originality in music, I love the early days of Chicago blues, when Muddy, Wolf and Walter were inventing the genre every night in sweaty clubs full of people there to get down to business. I love Magic Sam and Junior Wells in the ‘60s, pushing the music forward by adding soul and R&B to the mix. I love Jimi Hendrix somehow synthesizing everything that came before into a beautiful squall of sound you could feel. Find influences where you can and celebrate them. Drive the music forward. Don’t treat music like a museum piece. We were striving to play songs that feel vital and alive on this album. We didn’t want to just play 12-bar blues shuffles all night. We wanted to play groovy music to get down to – music that makes you move, makes you swing and sway. Music that makes you feel something deep down, deep down.  That is HypnoBoogie.

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

The Boston Blues scene was an amazing community in which to grow up. The scene here is heavily influenced by the many formidable musicians who shaped the post-1970’s blues scene that call the Boston area home. The presence and impact of Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, Roomful of Blues, Jerry Portnoy, David Maxwell, Ron Levy, “Steady Rollin” Bob Margolin, Sugar Ray, the list is far too long to begin to capture everyone, is always felt. In the 1980’s and 90’s, due in no small part to Boston-based ToneCool records – there was a second generation of important Boston-based blues musicians, carrying the inspiration of those 1970’s musicians forward, with Monster Mike Welch and Susan Tedeschi at the forefront. These musicians and their influence has directly shaped the Boston blues scene, as has the number of universities and colleges in the Boston-area, many of which are notable music schools. There are lots of great musicians around, all vying for gigs, and while the community at large is very open, inclusive, and supportive, things can also be very competitive. 

In terms of the actual music that makes up the Boston scene, it is quite guitar-heavy (as nearly all blues communities are these days) but also, thanks to Roomful of Blues, quite literally “horn-y,” with sax players a common site on blues gigs. Also, I believe due directly to the influence of Ronnie Earl and his love of Magic Sam, there are many musicians drawing deeply from the “West Side” Chicago blues well, and it seems like every band worth their while has their own take on “Lookin’ Good.”

"I would love to spend a day in Chicago in 1965 or 1966…  At that point “second generation” Chicago blues – musicians like Jr. Wells, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy – was fully formed and it was maybe even its heyday, but the “first generation,” – Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy, and Walter, were still around and as powerful as ever. Rock and roll pioneers, some of my favorite musicians, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were there too..." (Barrett Anderson, 2020 / Photo © by Adam Signore)

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

Play the music first and foremost. Don’t worry about being a guitar player, worry about being a musician. Sing conversationally. Give it 150% and sometimes even that’s not enough. Play music because it’s what you have to do. Serve the song.  Like the music you like. Celebrate your influences and find them wherever you can. Listen to everything. Admit to nothing. 

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

I want my music to bring people joy. I want it to make people’s toes tap, feet stamp, hips sway, and body move. I want it to make them feel something deep down inside, and not just be notes from a guitar, or words from a singer. I believe Blues, when done well, has always provided that joy – that release – for people. This is not sad music. This is music that allows people to come together, to communally surpass their troubles, and escape from their problems. Blues music gives people energy, it gives people life. Blues music – when done right – connects with people intrinsically, it matters, and it makes someone happy. It brings joy.  That is how I hope my music affects people.

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

I would love to spend a day in Chicago in 1965 or 1966…  At that point “second generation” Chicago blues – musicians like Jr. Wells, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, and Buddy Guy – was fully formed and it was maybe even its heyday, but the “first generation,” – Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy, and Walter, were still around and as powerful as ever. Rock and roll pioneers, some of my favorite musicians, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were there too... Everything was simply “potent.” I would love to spend the day “in the scene,” hanging with musicians, checking out the street markets and buskers (maybe even stumbling on Robert Nighthawk) down on Maxwell Street, do a little recording with Phil and Leonard at Chess, then club hop all night long – checking out Muddy at The 708 Club, Otis Rush at Pepper’s Lounge, Junior Wells down at Theresa’s…  Staying up all night long and trying to take in as much as I possibly could at this seminal point in blues music. 

Or maybe I’d prefer to spend a day at Abbey Road Studios during the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s…

The Barrett Anderson Band - Home

(Barrett Anderson, 2020 / Photo © by Adam Signore)

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