Q&A with The Little Red Rooster Blues Band -- high energy brand and passion of blues from Pennsylvania

"I believe Blues is a musical art form that exposes raw, human emotion. It is an unfiltered, extremely powerful sound that connects to almost all life situations."

The Little Red Rooster Blues Band

Like a fine wine, The Little Red Rooster Blues Band just seems to get better with age. Founded back in 1988 the band has successfully developed their own sound through interpretations of traditional Chicago Blues and West Coast Jump Blues. Over the years the band has consistently performed their high energy brand of blues in many renowned clubs and festivals. Their performance mission is simple: To entertain and leave them hungry for more. Little Red Rooster has shared the stage with many artists such as: Charlie Musselewhite, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, Kenny Neal, The Nighthawks, Jimmy Thackery & The Drivers, Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin, Satan & Adam, Jerry Portnoy, Lonnie Mack, Duke Robillard, Jimmy Dawkins, Jimmy Rogers, Sugar Ray & The Bluetones, and many more.

On February 22, 2015, Kevin McCann and Dave Holtzman were recognized and inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as Great Artists from Pennsylvania, along with The Little Red Rooster Blues Band. The Little Red Rooster Blues Band Discography: Homecooked Blues (1989); Philadelphia To Memphis (1991); Livin’ Large (1997); Broke Again (1999); The Kids Love Us (2003); Sip It, Don’t Kick It (2013); and Hijinx And Tomfoolery (November 2015). Little Red Rooster brand new album "Lock Up The Liquor" (2018), will be released on July 15th "Lock Up The Liquor" (2018). With a style that pays homage to traditional Chicago and West Coast Blues, but a sound all their own, the Little Red Rooster Blues Band’s new release Lock up the Liquor reflects 30 years of bringing laughter and tears to audiences on the East Coast circuit. Featuring three-time Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year nominee Anthony Geraci on piano and world-renowned harp virtuoso Steve Guyger, formerly of the Jimmy Rogers Band, on harmonica, this collection of 15 original songs is a blues tour de force. Thirty years of living and loving the blues is all captured on this release with an infectious combination of reverence for the music and a whole lotta fun!

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Kevin: I believe Blues is a musical art form that exposes raw, human emotion. It is an unfiltered, extremely powerful sound that connects to almost all life situations.

Dave: The Blues is a Powerful Force and moves me like no other music. I guess music hits everyone differently but for me Blues just lifts me up. I was bitten by the Blues bug at an early age of 16. It started off by watching Martin Scorcsese’s documentary of The Band, “The Last Waltz”. Bluesmen Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield were both featured in the film. I went out and bought a Paul Butterfield CD and was instantly hooked. From there, my grandmother bought me my first harmonica. Having the instrument so accessible was key to learning. What other instrument fits in a pocket, other than a kazoo? I submerged myself into playing and into the music itself. Digging deeper into the recordings and learning the history of the music gave me an appreciation of those that paved the way.

How do you describe Little Red Rooster’s sound and songbook? What characterize band’s philosophy?

Kevin: We play a variety of styles. Our primary influences are in the Chicago Blues, Texas and Louisiana Blues and West Coast Jump Blues. We like the intensity of traditional slow Blues and the fun and spirited jump sound. I believe one of the strongest aspects to our success has been our interaction with the audience, both in our live performances, and through our use of social media. We have a very strong interaction with our fans. We never use set lists, but work off the energy that each audience brings to the table every night. We are passionate about the music, but believe that entertainment is more than just playing music.  We strive to have fun, with our audience every night. We interact, never take ourselves too seriously, and try to incorporate humor, Hijinx and Tomfoolery into the show on any given night. We also incorporate this in our social media presence. We promote all of our shows with humorous, audience engaging posts. It sounds crazy, but it has built us a very strong following of fans that know a show will ALWAYS be a good time. The music has never taken a back seat to the hijinx, but together, we strive to create the perfect atmosphere to an enjoyable night out, that will make you want to come back.

"I fear that the Blues crowd will not be fully replenished by younger fans in America. However, with that said, I don’t see the Blues ever dying completely. I know the world is very nostalgic."

What were the reasons that a band from Pennsylvania started the Blues researches and experiments?

Kevin: I was 13 when I started playing guitar, mostly Classic Rock. I remember hearing my first Albert King String bend, and got hooked. I began listening to nothing but Blues…Sonny Boy, Muddy, Willie Dixon, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, as well as Ronnie Earl, Duke Robillard, Hollywood Fats, William Clarke and Rod Piazza…In high school I went to all the Rock stadium shows. I saw James Cotton at a small club in Philadelphia. I never experienced energy like that before. It was like a religious experience. That night, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my musical career. I never looked back.   

As a band, we started playing in 1988. We were a 5 piece with a vocalist, guitar, bass, drums and harp. We mostly played traditional Blues. The original members were together until 1994. Around that time I developed as the band leader and front man. Dave Holtzman joined on harmonica. He was 20 yrs old. Dave and I are like brothers when it relates to our commitment to our sound and our brand as The Little Red Rooster Blues Band. We have spent the last 21 years evolving, defining and improving our sound with great rhythm players like Randy Lippincott, Bob Holden, Adam Stranburg, Pat "Lopez" Foley, Don, "Whitey" Williams, Mike Lampe, Barry Meehan, and so many others...We get to play with so many great players from this region, an area rich in Blues history. We have the Bucks County Blues Society right in our back yard. Formed in 1977, it is the second oldest Blues Society in the World. Being between Philadelphia and New York offers a wide variety of clubs and events to perform to a great Blues community. We are blessed to have the greatest fans, more important, friends!

How do you describe "Lock Up the Liquor" songbook and sound? Are there any memories from studio which you’d like to share with us?

Kevin: "Lock Up the Liquor" represents the wide variety of Blues influence and stylings that have forged the Little Red Rooster Blues Band's sound over the past 30 years... Primarily from Traditional Chicago and West Coast Blues. We always model the feel of the album after the feel of a typical " live" set...a variety of styles and stories across the spectrum...from the despair of the "Ready for Goodbye" to the humorous double entandra in "Thrift Shop Rubbers", to the straight up Harp Driven Blues of the James Cotton tribute, "Cotton Mouth"...There were several great memories from this recording session. First, we were honored to have Anthony Geraci and Steve Guyger appear on the album. Two of the finest players on the planet!!! Anthony's masterful touch on the piano added everything I was hoping for on each track. And I know it was a dream come true for Dave to have his mentor, Steve Guyger on this recording...again, a true master of the Harmonica...I also recall the pride I had in the band members, performing at the top of their game in the studio! Seeing and hearing all of the ideas, and grooves come together into recorded songs was extremely satisfying...30 songs in two days (look for "Under the Covers" coming out soon)!!!

Dave: Lock Up The Liquor is our 7th CD of all original material. There is always pressure of how do we top our last CD. It seems with every recording, we reach new heights musically. Listening to the very first recording I did in 1997 and comparing it to this latest CD, it shows that Kevin McCann and I have grown so much.  I guess it's that way for every band to naturally progress over the years.  But I personally feel Lock Up The Liquor is our best recording to date. Our rhythm section of Jeff Michael (Bass) and Bob Holden (Drums) amaze me how tight they are. They just get "it"!  Lock Up The Liquor is a representation of what one would expect a set to sound like at one of our shows. We try to mix it up and pay homage to the different stylings of the Blues. The number one goal is it to simply entertain the audience; whether it be by playing a heart wrenching solo, singing a funny line, or throwing in a carefully orchestrated faux tap dance routine on stage. We will do whatever it takes to connect with the audience, stopping short of smashing our instruments...

There are countless memories of the recording session. Our goal was to record 2 CDs (30 songs) in 2 days.  It was a daunting task but we have been performing the songs out live for about 3-6 months leading up to the studio. Many of the tracks were done in one or two takes since we were prepared. We record live where everybody has a line of sight with each other as if we performing in a club.  Obviously having special guests Anthony Geraci and Steve Guyger made the recording memorable in itself. We never recorded with them before but it went smooth as silk. My favorite memory was having my 9-year-old niece (who just started taking piano lessons) come out to see the session. At one point, Anthony had her sit next to him on the piano bench while he played some unworldly licks on the 88s. That will stick in my memory forever and hopefully my niece's memory too.

"Blues crosses all boundaries. The Little Red Rooster Blues Band hosts a weekly Blues Jam and through the years have had countless musicians sit in and play the Blues. I know some of these musicians are worlds apart on the political spectrum but when it comes down to jamming with each other, it all goes away."   

Where does your creative drive come from? What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your blues paths?

Kevin: My creative drive comes from always keeping an ear to the ground for the next groove or the next story to tell...It always starts with one or the other.  Eventually, I hear that groove or line in my head that has to be developed. When a number of them are there, we target recording time for the next project.  Deadlines certainly help, too!!

Dave: My creative drive comes from the goals I set myself. When you book studio time 3 months out and you have half the songs written, you'll be amazed on how your creativity kicks into high gear. Some songs are built off a line, some others are built off a riff. We hope our songs get respect within the Blues Community.  Like I said earlier, the Blues is like family--- you don't want to disappoint them. 

The most important lesson I learned is to simply "be yourself". There are harp players out there that will spend boatloads of money on gear to try and sound like someone else. For instance, I am influenced by Little Walter but I don't want to sound exactly like him. It's impossible, folks.  There was only one Little Walter.  Sure, there are players that can play Walter's tunes note for note... but in the end are they pushing the music forward?  My advice is to find your own voice in this music. When soloing, have that solo come from within your soul. 

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

Kevin: My favorite thing about being a Blues performer is the fact that I have gotten to play with and share the stage with so many of my favorite artists. Unfortunately, many are gone, now. But each left an impression on me. All the greats are approachable, passionate about the music, and are masters at phrasing, playing the right notes at the right time, and practice extraordinary Bandmanship skills. They don’t overplay, but they make what they do play count!!!...very powerful…

Dave: Going to open Blues Jams is a great way to learn the dynamics of playing in a band setting. Each time you go to a Blues Jam you learn to play with musicians with different skill levels and backgrounds. The Blues community is very welcoming and you’ll build lifelong friendships and even get yourself into a band. Sitting back and just listening and equally important watching the dynamics of Blues Band is important in your development. You will understand when to play, when to hold off, when to play lower, when to build up a song, when to accent, etc…  

The best advice given to me was when I was 18. I was taught the harmonica playing technique called tongue blocking. It is vastly different from the “pucker” style of playing. It has opened levels to the instrument that simply can’t be accomplished through the “pucker” method. The best advice I can give someone learning the harmonica is to focus on tone. With practice, the notes will eventually come. Also, study and watch other harmonica players with years of experience and see how they interact in a band setting. There is nothing more annoying to patrons and other band members when the harmonica player just puts the pedal to the metal throughout the song. Let the song breathe…

"I am a traditionalist. I love the sound of traditional Blues. A simple musical format with endless improvisational opportunities. I fear many try to take Blues and turn it into R&B, Soul, Rock, etc…Some tend to over produce it." (Photo: Photo by Radka Kasparcova)

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

Kevin: I am a traditionalist. I love the sound of traditional Blues. A simple musical format with endless improvisational opportunities. I fear many try to take Blues and turn it into R&B, Soul, Rock, etc…Some tend to over produce it. I feel though, that there is still a strong population that enjoys the traditional sound...

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

Kevin: I am a traditionalist. I love the sound of traditional Blues. A simple musical format with endless improvisational opportunities. I fear many try to take Blues and turn it into R&B, Soul, Rock, etc…Some tend to over produce it. I feel though, that there is still a strong population that enjoys the traditional sound...

Dave: I fear that the Blues crowd will not be fully replenished by younger fans in America. However, with that said, I don’t see the Blues ever dying completely. I know the world is very nostalgic. It’s great to receive a request for an interview from Greece. We know this music holds no boundaries and is loved universally amongst all cultures and societies. The internet has opened up the gates for everyone to experience this music. There has never been a time where you can literally listen to Blues music all day long. Internet Blues radio stations are everywhere. There are no barriers anymore. So I believe a new crop of Blues fans will eventually develop. Musicians are smart…They will eventually dig deep and find themselves making a pilgrimage to the Blues.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of traditional Chicago Blues and West Coast Jump Blues?

Kevin: I think the form and the instrumentation are very similar. West coast might include strong Chicago based sounds, mixed with or complimented by swing, boogie, Jump and even jazz.

"I believe this music crosses all racial and socio-cultural barriers. I have seen it night after night, club after club. I have seen the best players from all walks of life and the same with audiences. It has no boundaries." (Photo: Kevin McKann with Sugar Ray Norcia & Mike Welch)

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

Kevin: I would love to see the economics of the Live music scene change. There are so many extremely talented musicians and performers with such limited exposure because of how difficult it to make a decent living as a working musician. I would love to see so many of the best, hardest working Blues musicians out there getting a bigger piece of the pie and more recognition for the time and effort that they put into their craft.

Dave: I wish someone would invent teleportation. There are so many phenomenal bands playing all over this country and world. I'm first and foremost a blues lover that happens to be a musician as well. Some of my favorite bands don't tour as often as they used to. When they do make it close to a town or venue near me, we are usually working that night also. Yes, I want my cake and eat it too... So, Beam Me Up Scotty!!

Another unrealistic wish I have is for shops to sell harmonicas at the same cost as guitar strings!! My harmonica playing brothers and sisters understand our plight!!

Are there any memories from Charlie Musselwhite and Lonnie Mack which you’d like to share with us?

Kevin: I had the privilege of opening for both when I was in my early 20's. I was amazed at their talent and how down to earth both men, at the top of their game, were. They were both very encouraging! Both had world class musicians behind them!!!

What has made you laugh from Jimmy Dawkins and what touched (emotionally) you from Jimmy Rogers?

Kevin: Each encounter with a pioneer of famous artist has impacted my life. The lessons I’ve learned watching them play and interact with the audience are invaluable. They were all very approachable, appreciative, and passionate about the Blues.

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues?

Dave: I’m not sure how the harmonica got connected to the Blues. I know in the 1920’s, harmonica starting showing up in Blues recordings. I believe it was the accessibility of the instrument. The instrument was popular amongst both whites and African Americans and affordable. The harmonica is a personal instrument and is an extension of one’s voice. 

The pioneers of the instrument (in my opinion) are Sonny Boy Williamson, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Sonny Terry, Little Walter Jacob, Big Walter Horton, George “Harmonica” Smith, and James Cotton. Though, they must have been influenced from someone. With any instrument, it just evolves. Example: Without George “Harmonica” Smith, there might not have been a William Clarke, without a William Clarke there might not have been a Dennis Gruenling. For me, I was heavily influenced by harmonica legend Steve Guyger. I was and still am very fortunate to have a caliber of talent that Guyger possesses close to my home. I’m sure I have influenced young harp players by my approach to the instrument as well.  

"The best advice I can give someone learning the harmonica is to focus on tone. With practice, the notes will eventually come. Also, study and watch other harmonica players with years of experience and see how they interact in a band setting." (Photo by Gary Saretzky)

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Kevin: I believe this music crosses all racial and socio-cultural barriers. I have seen it night after night, club after club. I have seen the best players from all walks of life and the same with audiences. It has no boundaries.

Dave: Blues crosses all boundaries. The Little Red Rooster Blues Band hosts a weekly Blues Jam and through the years have had countless musicians sit in and play the Blues. I know some of these musicians are worlds apart on the political spectrum but when it comes down to jamming with each other, it all goes away.  After their songs are done, I see those same people having a beer with each other and genuinely having a good time. The world would be a better place if conflicting parties would just play some down-home Blues together.

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

Kevin: Everything has the potential to become a song...lol!!!  Blues fans, musicians, club owners, societies, promoters...the Blues community as a whole is comprised of some of the greatest, most genuine people on earth...Very lucky to be part of it! How can you beat a life surrounded by great people and great music?

Dave: The Blues is everything to me. The Blues community is like one big old family.  There are Blues bands performing across the world that consist of musicians just as equally enamored and consumed by this music.  We have that instant connection and bond.

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

Kevin: Classic Chicago era!!! I would have loved to see the Muddy Waters Buddy Guy baloney sandwich conversation. Hear “Juke” recorded, watched Willie Dixon write, and cruise in Cotton’s Cadillac…all in a time when history was being made…

Dave: I would love to travel back in time to the 1950’s and watch and listen to Muddy Waters and his band record all those landmark Blues hits at Chess Records. I’d hit up Little Walter for some tips and get into a little harp jam with him. I’d ask Willie Dixon to “lend” me a song of his. I’d also give Leonard Chess a couple of our Little Red Rooster Blues Band tunes to have Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf record them.

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