Q&A with NYC based Sid Whelan, blues-influenced Americana musician with an unapologetically old-school vibe

"Almost All-American music composed and/or arranged after 1900 sits on a three-legged stool. One leg is African; one leg is European and one leg is Native American. We lean more heavily on one leg or another at different times but they are all always there."

Sid Whelan: The blues & Country had a baby and called it Rock n Roll

A blues-influenced Americana guitarist and songwriter, Sid Whelan cut his teeth on rock & roll and charted on Midwestern indie college radio in the mid ‘80’s with his song “NY Taxi.” Early in his career, Whelan was lead guitarists with various world music acts including the Lijadu Sisters and later Afroblue, which also experienced indie radio success with their cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get it if You Really Want.” Following the breakup of Afroblue, Sid left his guitars in their cases for the better part of a decade while he made a life and family in NYC. The comeback all started in 2012 when Sid’s niece, the NPR award-winning singer/songwriter Lora-Faye, called him to replace her previous lead guitarist. Whelan joined her for a baptism-by-fire return to performance for a string of gigs in New York. Rejuvenated, he began writing music again, returning for inspiration to his love of pre-1960 American music, particularly the blues but also country, folk, bluegrass, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and jazz. His songs tackle difficult themes of contemporary American life.     Sid Whelan / Photo by © J Henry Fair

A big fan of bottleneck guitar playing, Whelan’s primary influences for the “Flood Waters Rising” project were Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Son House, Ledbelly and Fred McDowell. Inspirational figures and other guiding lights were Woody Guthrie, Cole Porter, Bob Dylan, Kelly Joe Phelps, Eric Clapton, Carl Perkins, Robert Randolph, Bonnie Raitt, Cassandra Wilson, Taj Mahal and Ben Harper. Whelan studied guitar, jazz and/or world music with Woody Mann, Howard Morgen, Jack Baker, Steve Tarshis, Bob Sinicrope, Wendell Logan, Roderick Night and Ronny Lee. NYC songwriter, singer and guitarist Sid Whelan’s newly-released third album, "Waitin’ for Payday" (Release Date: March 1st, 2020), delves into the limitless possibilities of rock – blues – country - soul ingredients that form the base of the Americana musical stew.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

The Blues teaches finding joy and redemption against the odds; in the throes of misery or despair; and in the face of heartbreak and loss. As a person who has struggled against depression since my teen years, not only have the lyrics of the blues often described my condition when I couldn’t find the words myself; they have inspired me to persevere and prevail. Roots music in general teaches doing more with less. The more accomplished we become as musicians, the more tempted we are to get fancy and complicated. That’s not always bad; sometimes there’s a place for that. But usually focusing on roots simplicity is the best course of action.

Lastly performing this music has connected me with a vast diversity of people all over the world of hugely different heritages, politics and perspectives. And in this music we’re all finding a common space where we can be enthusiastically human and understanding towards each other. Talk about redemption!

How do you describe your sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

When they say “the blues and country had a baby and called it rock n roll” they were literally describing me. My mom introduced me to Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Hank Snow; my dad introduced me to Ledbelly, Alberta Hunter and Bessie Smith. And I grew up on the Beatles, the Who, Zeppelin, the Clash, Santana, U2 etc... While in college I discovered a passion for African and Caribbean music, which you can hear in the amazing percussion arrangements on my new album, particularly on “The Promise” and “Legba Ain’t no Devil.” With influences from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan, from Steve Earle to Santana, I call my overall musical sound “Dark Blue Americana.”

The truth is that my guitar sound is confounding. Usually guitarists have an identifiable sound. Think BB King, SRV, EVH, Wes Montgomery; Pete Johnson, Elizabeth Cotten... I take a completely different approach. What all the session guitarists did for David Bowie, Joan Armatrading, and/or Steely Dan in a diversity of approaches for their recordings over the years is what I do for myself on a per-song basis. So, I am like a bunch of session guitarists on my own gig.  This is a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around and probably something no significant blues-associated guitarist has done. On my new album “Waitin’ for Payday,” my co-producer Lora-Faye and I deliberately tried to mitigate that and make it easier on the audience by sticking to one Strat sound and performance approach on the title track, on “Midnight in the Country,” on “the Promise” and on “Break it Down.” But certain songs like “Nina Simone” and “Make Some Time” didn’t work out with that approach and had to be re-recorded, so we’ve still got a diversity of guitar palette that sounds like a few different players.

My musical philosophy is to push myself out of my comfort zone with every new project, whether it’s the acoustic guitar chord-solo on “Nina Simone” or the Curtis Mayfield-style head voice on “Legba Ain’t no Devil,” or to write a sentimental love song that melodically centers on the break between my baritone and tenor registers like “Make Some Time.” I always look for something I haven’t done before and which is totally terrifying to attempt (at first.) In my songbook I take structural, harmonic, melodic, groove and lyrical principles from country, blues, rock, soul and jazz standards and creatively re-purpose them into my Dark Blue Americana sound.

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

A few years ago, I did a short solo tour in Ireland. One of the gigs, though open to the public, was at what we would call a middle school in the US. The school takes music very seriously and the kids in the audience were on point. In short order I had them singing along, stamping and clapping in time to songs they had never heard before. It was pure audience participation magic - total euphoria - none of us wanted the show to end. More recently, I played a showcase of regional songwriters at the stunning White Eagle Hall in Jersey City. It was an incredibly diverse and eclectic show with a lot of contemporary styles. When my trio lit into “Every Time I See Her,” which is a finger-picked country blues from my second album, the entire room boiled out onto the dance floor and started boogieing. Once again it was pure euphoria between audience and performers. It was also a tremendous affirmation of both the enduring appeal of that style as well as my band’s ability to perform it. To see singer-songwriters, goths and hip-hop cats dancing together to my neo-retro blues was stunning.

Lastly, on my first album I had arranged the song “Dog in the Fight” as a finger-picked mountain minor in dropped D tuning with a chugging train rhythm, like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” We were struggling with take after take when the bassist Doug Berns said “this isn’t working; I have an idea.” With no rehearsal he got us to play the tune in a manner that sounds like Miles Davis classic “In a Silent Way.” Everything changed completely including the tuning of the guitar. It was a completely spontaneous unrehearsed performance based on an off-the-cuff suggestion from a hired hand.  As we recorded it, I literally felt like I was floating in space.

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

The music of the past is still with us so I don’t miss the music itself so much as the loss of the mid-level venues that made it possible for unsigned artists to have a career. That scene is almost extinct now. I recently played at a famous roadhouse in Jersey, where artists like Aretha and SRV used to play. But it was empty: the audience just isn’t there anymore to make it work financially. One of my favorite Jersey venues is going out of business at the end of this month and they were never empty, but even then the numbers didn’t work out. Also, without that circuit it is really hard for ensembles to mesh and develop their group interplay.  So, to my ears ensemble performance quality has declined noticeably in live music. Though there are still shining examples out there like Los Lobos and Tedeschi Trucks where everything from the kick drum to the lead guitar is working together.

My biggest fear is that young people aren’t growing up so much with music that is played by musicians. They’re into music that is created artificially in studio with few if any musicians. And honestly, though it is difficult to excel at anything, including ‘artificially produced’ music (for lack of a better term); it’s even harder to learn an instrument; then learn how to use it in an ensemble; then learn how to perform; then learn how to record. You see where I’m going with this. The technology allows creative-minded people to skip straight to 4th base and start recording. So the temptation to skip the first three bases has to be overwhelming for many young people: Where does that leave live music in 30 years?

My hope is that live music is simply so alluring and rewarding that young people will get captivated by it in large numbers and keep it alive.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Ha! I would shut off every TV in every venue in America when musicians are playing. The image manipulation of TV programming is designed to grab the eye.  How distracting and unpleasant!

What would you say characterizes NYC's music scene in comparison to other US scenes and circuits?

New York’s music scene has managed to weather the storms of incredibly high real estate costs; competition from an exploding palette of entertainment choices; drinking age going from 18 to 21; the smoking ban; increased costs for everything that goes into a show, etc. We still have tremendous home-grown talent and a healthy showing from indie artists coming through. Producers and venues at all levels have gotten wise and moved away from bad service; bad sound; grungy decor and general dirtiness to providing a professional and positive experience that makes it possible for performers to give their best and for audiences to experience some joy. Listen, I played at CBGB back in the day. It was awful. My band in college sang in 3-part harmonies and cared about the sound of our instruments. Who wants to play in a place where the sound engineer destroys your sound and you’re scared to use the bathroom? I appreciate the historical importance of that venue, but today’s venues and promoters know what was done wrong at places like that and know how to do much, much better. It’s been decades since a sound engineer in NYC let me down.

Outside of New York I find that audiences are more attentive, more appreciative and less distracted. They’re more likely to participate either by dancing or singing along. I love playing outside of the City for that reason.

"The music of the past is still with us so I don’t miss the music itself so much as the loss of the mid-level venues that made it possible for unsigned artists to have a career. That scene is almost extinct now. I recently played at a famous roadhouse in Jersey, where artists like Aretha and SRV used to play." (Sid Whelan / Photo by © J Henry Fair)

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

When I was younger, I was brash, arrogant and opinionated.  Looking back on it I alienated a lot of musicians and certainly wasn’t able to help them achieve their personal best through that type of negativity. By the same token, I was often right and the people I was trying to correct did need to step up their games, even if I didn’t express myself in a useful way. So, I have learned a tremendous amount both about how to communicate with musicians to empower them to achieve their personal best within the context of my band, and about how to choose the right people to work with in the first place. I’ve also learned to seek help. When I was young, I didn’t know to ask for mentorship. Now I go to coaches/teachers for vocals, guitar and songwriting and I also work with co-producers and horn arrangers.

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

What a brilliant question, which could honestly take up an entire college course for a semester and/or fill a 350-page book! Almost All-American music composed and/or arranged after 1900 sits on a three-legged stool. One leg is African; one leg is European and one leg is Native American. We lean more heavily on one leg or another at different times but they are all always there. Most people don’t like to talk about these things but the fact is that people who looked like me enslaved Africans and tried to exterminate Native Americans, so the legacy of that negative history can inflame conflict between contemporary artists, writers and thinkers over issues of authenticity and appropriation as well as exclusion and privilege. I am always willing to engage that discussion even if I don’t have all the answers.  

Circling back to hope for the future, I am seeing a lot more participants in Roots and Americana music from diverse backgrounds, particularly in the under 40 years old set, so I do think a natural ethnic balance is beginning to re-assert itself in what was never a purely “white” musical genre to begin with. For me, I just have to be comfortable with the fact that I’m using some musical building blocks that don’t match my genetic heritage. I wrestle with it internally but then again, I am one of the most diverse hirers I have ever seen In terms of gender, sexual orientation, different generations and also ethnic background so no one can accuse me of exclusion. Lastly, on the negative side I have seen an increase in recent years of blues festivals and blues cruises with all-white line-ups year after year. I find that behavior reprehensible and it’s certainly not going to be effective at pulling in younger audiences.

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 want to spend a day at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals in the ‘60’s while one of those heavy sessions was going down with Aretha or Pickett, Allman, Hall and the Swampers. Wow!

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Sid Whelan / Photo by © J Henry Fair

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