Veteran bluesman Bob Angell talks about Hubert Sumlin, Ginsberg, John Mayall and Big Walter Horton

"The Beats really had the blues…and bopped to the beat of modern jazz. They also connected to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and Sonny & Brownie."

Bob Angell: The Snakeshaker of Ocean

Bob Angell's Blues Outlet has long been a fixture on the Providence, RI blues scene. Bob “SnakeShaker” started Blues Outlet in the spring of 1966. The original idea, as Angell recalls, was to “Take Chuck Berry material and explore it all the way back… through Muddy, Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf et al…and see just how far back we could take it. It didn’t stop at Robert Johnson, either. Iconic as Johnson had become…I just kept coming across even earlier, deeper blues men... real roots guys like Son House, Charley Patton ...y’know, guys like that.”

To this day, Angell’s style, lauded by so many, is clearly , heavily based in the classic American blues styles that went before. “Yeah… well, it IS possible to put it this way: There is NO other music than the blues. It seems to me, that’s a legitimate claim. I mean, we may have a bash at barroom classics that may border on country or rock ‘n’ roll…but, after Harmonica Robert and I get through with it…man, it’s nothin’ but the bloooze!!!”

And, that’s true enough. Every tune on the I Feel So Good! CD, delves way back to the classic blues masters and kicks the material up with a good dash of current day guitar sounds. This may explain the press comparisons to guitar singers such as Roy Buchanan, Peter Green and guys like that “It’s all about the TONE!!”, Angell says. And it’s a CD not to be missed. (Especially the tunes cut live at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis…the legendary birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll right down on the Mississippi banks, perilously close to the original blues soil of the Delta.)

Interview by Michael Limnios

What is the blues and what does it mean to you?

I believe the blues is nothing short of American Classical Music. It has a very strict and well-defined structure within which a musician MUST operate. And although it is possible (and almost mandatory) to play the music of other storied bluesmen, one cannot truly achieve musical maturity without bringing his own feelings and life story to the music. It has to be personal. Otherwise, you are just a blues cover band. And we’ve all had enough of that…

It is during this process of wringing out his own heart and soul that a musician discovers himself. For me, there is no other music which really interests me.

Of course, I always seek to tell a story, ripped from the pages of my own life, but which listeners can somehow relate to. I mean, we all have the blues at some time or another, right? Some of us can express it for the others ...and help us all to find peace ….It’s part of a universal healing process.

Hubert Sumlin started laughing: “You really know your Hubert”, he said pointing at my guitar. “The Lord gave you ten fingers,” he joked. “And if you don’t use ‘em all, He might just take ‘em away!!” Photo: Bob and Hubert Sumlin

How do you describe the Bob Angell sound?

If I have a “sound”, I would say it has to derive from all my musical influences...notably Muddy, Jimmy Reed and most especially Uncle Hubert (Sumlin). I have ripped that man off unmercifully...  (laughs)…Of course, my playing doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as his….

Do you recall anything funny from Blues Outlet recording sessions or live performances?

Sure it’s all a riot!! HaHa.. Actually, sometimes you just gotta laugh. One time on a bill with John Mayall, I was talking to the audience and Harmonica Robert said “Sure...easy for you. You don’t have someone standing right in front of you playing guitar.” Immediately, a bouncer appeared and forcibly removed the offending party who was wailing tonelessly on an out-of-key harmonica right in front of the stage.

And one time I was hanging backstage with Muddy in Boston. Muddy was playing cards with Pinetop Perkins. A young fellow came in and sat down on the floor and proceeded to take out a shiny electric guitar and finger some lightning fast jazz scales. Every now and then he’d look up to see if Muddy was noticing. All of a sudden, Muddy said “You play fast. Now play GOOD!!!.

Probably the best lesson the kid ever had.

What is the best advice ever given you by a blues man you’ve played with?

I recall Hubert was listening to me warming up in a dressing room one night before we played together and he started laughing: “You really know your Hubert”, he said pointing at my guitar. This was the same night he warned me against overusing the pick. “The Lord gave you ten fingers,” he joked. “And if you don’t use ‘em all, He might just take ‘em away!!”

God, I miss that man…!! But I still occasionally use picks...(sigh)

"We all have the blues at some time or another, right? Some of us can express it for the others ...and help us all to find peace ...It’s part of a universal healing process." Photo: Bob and Big Walter Horton

What memories from John Mayall, CeDell Davis, and Big Walter Horton make you smile?

Y’know, of all the blues stars I’ve had the pleasure to play with a few really stand out...as friends and mentors. Of course, there’s Uncle Hubert. But I must also single out John Mayall. He’s been very kind and supportive over the years. And he’s a man who knows exactly what he’s about. A no-foolin’ kinda guy. Also, I’ve grown close to many of his band members especially Buddy Whittington, Walter Trout and Joe Yuele. Just the greatest guys. Not to mention their musicianship. Outstanding.

And CeDell Davis, who we backed during his first tour out of the Delta in 1983, was a terrific character. His unorthodox, approximate-tuning was maddening, but there some moments, man. Just sublime….!!

And you asked about Big Walter (Horton). He could be the most crotchety old man you ever met, then turn right around and be the sweetest guy. Amazing. And my all-time favorite harp player. His tone was superb. And it was Walter who first told me that one of my earliest records was getting big airplay in Holland in 1978 or so.

In fact, Walter told me one time: “Man, now listen. There’s a song I want you to record. It’s ‘Everybody’s Fishin’”. So that was the title tune on our next EP. But, I could never find a version of it, so I took the part Walter sang for me and just made the rest up. That’s just how it happens sometimes.

"The blues will always be with us. Pop fashions come and go, but there’s something so elemental about this music, that it cannot die. As long as folks live and love and breathe, they’ll know the blues." Photo: Bob and Muddy Waters

Are there any memories with Allen Ginsberg? What are the lines that connect the blues with the Beat generation?

Playing blues guitar behind beat poet Allen Ginsberg was a trip. Allen was a big blues fan. He particularly loved Ida Cox and Bessie Smith. He played harmonium (a small lap-held bellows-operated organ) and I played my battered 7-string acoustic...playing what I thought fit. He’d do a William Blake poem and just sing it out in a plaintive blues voice. Or just make something up on the spot.

I should add that Allen asked me to go on what became the Rolling Thunder Revue with him and Dylan and Emmylou Harris …I wisely passed. Never thought it would really happen. Another brilliant career move, Angell…!! (laughs)

Remember, the Beats really had the blues….and bopped to the beat of modern jazz. They also connected to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and Sonny & Brownie. So, the line was a fairly direct one, I guess.

What are some of your hopes and fears for the future of the blues?

The blues train has roared by a couple of different times in my life: Of course, we all remember the 60s blues revival which brought Muddy and Wolf et al. to us via the Stones, Butterfield, Mayall, Alexis and those guys

 Then in the 80s SRV brought the Buddy Guy, Albert King thing home big time. Both were cool time periods. But both also brought about backlashes mostly from critics and the so-called blues scholars who take great exception to blues rockers especially those of disagreeably fair complexion. I mean, blues has to keep growing. We cannot keep it in the comfortable pocket of Chicago or Delta styles of the 1930s to the 1970s. Great as that stuff is. And it really is!!!

But growth is necessary to keep the music breathing and maturing. I can play Robert Johnson tunes and Wolf and Elmore material and be perfectly happy doing that. But what would I have brought to the table then? Where is the me in all that??

"I believe the blues is nothing short of American Classical Music. It has a very strict and well-defined structure within which a musician MUST operate." Photo: Bob and Stevie Ray Vaughan

Some music stars can be fads but the bluesmen are always with us. What means to be Bluesman?

You see, the blues will always be with us. Pop fashions come and go, but there’s something so elemental about this music, that it cannot die. As long as folks live and love and breathe, they’ll know the blues. And as soon as a guitar player bends a string, he’s a bluesman in some sense. It’s those notes that just wring your heart dry. That you just can’t locate on the Western scale yet which we all know in our guts. That, my friend, is the blues. The downside of all this is that we have way too many guys wandering into clubs with a harmonica in their pockets who have absolutely no clue whatsoever. So, you gotta take the good with the bad, I suppose (laughs).

Let’s take a trip with a time machine. So where and why would you really go for a whole day or night?

If I could go and just sit and listen, I guess I’d love to hear Robert Johnson playing at some fish fry in the 1930s or to be in the Texas hotel room when he recorded his classic sides. Or to sit in some Southside tavern and listen to Muddy and Wolf and Elmore and Little Walter in their element. That would be unbelievable.

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