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

"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: Supernal US Classical Music

Fresh album by Bob Angell, but a main-stay in the East Coast blues scene for many years. As Angell’s longtime mentor, the fabled Hubert Sumlin said, “He really is one of the best.” so it was no surpise when Bob was inducted into The Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame in 2015. Bob's latest release titled, "Supernal Blues" (2020). The fifteen big cuts on the new Supernal Blues CD were recorded in Newport, Rhode Island at Stable Sound Studio and in Memphis at the legendary Sun Studio. And they run the gamut from delicate acoustic tunes and blistering electric guitar sorties to stomping goodtime rockers. And the high-flying lyrics are as entertaining as they are deep. But they’re all the straight nach’l blues. 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 (2002)! 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.) On Bob Angell's new album “Supernal Blues” (2020), you will find blues with Southside swagger or London aggression, with a dash of Memphis spice or big city swing, you’re bound to find it here. And in spades.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

First, I reject outright the notion that music is intrinsically connected to or necessarily associated with anything political or, as you put it “counterculture.” While topical subjects are, of course, frequently addressed in music (J.B. Lenoir and Billie Holiday spring quickly to mind), I find any sort of preaching or proselytizing generally revolting. Frankly, it turns me off bigtime. I’m certainly not of the mind that if one enjoys one particular type of blues or rock music, he is necessarily of one political bent or another. I guess I resent folks making assumptions. Even if they are correct. (laughs)

What does The Blues mean to you? How do you describe your sound?

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.

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….

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

As far as the song selections go, I made a very deliberate decision this time to produce an album made up entirely of original music deeply connected to my traditional blues roots. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to re-plow the same old ground…fertile as it might be. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the tried and true blues standards, but then I’d be playing (and singing) somebody else’s blues, not mine. So, what would be the point? I should add, though, that I believe I’ve stayed pretty true to the form of the idiom. So, when you asked about “creative drive”, it definitely has to do with creating (within the strict structure of the blues) something uniquely my own. I think Drinkin’ Shoes and Blue Memphis are pretty fair examples of what I’m driving at here.

I’ve always thought that flexible as they are, there exist some quite strict boundaries in the blues form—much as in classical music. And some of these boundaries are not to be crossed under penalty of disrespecting the forefathers and their incredible body of work. This is why I’ve so often referred to the blues as American Classical music.

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)

What were the reasons that made the 1960s to be the center of Blues researches and experiments?

The sixties were, as you know, a fertile time in music, art, literature, fashion and culture. (Curiously enough, this was also the case in the 1860s.) I was fortunate enough to grow up in Rhode Island, home to the world-famous Newport festivals. I got to see the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival when Muddy played the set that became the landmark Muddy Waters at Newport 1960 album, that inspired The Rolling Stones. Interestingly, there was a riot that saw a division-size throng storm the festival field causing us to beat a hasty retreat to our vehicles and the festival to close down. They called it a riot!

We also had a very influential DJ on local radio called Salty Brine who, along with the pop hits of the day, also spun records by Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed and Slim Harpo. Very cool. I have often discussed this with fellow Rhode Islander Duke Robillard. Why, we both wondered, did the blues gain such a foothold in the nation’s smallest state? We have never, by the way, come to a satisfactory answer. (laughs)

The blues train came roaring through my life a few times. Of course, the Butterfield/Mayall crew slipped through early in my development. I started Blues Outlet in ’66 just a tad too late to grab on that time. But the Stones/Yardbirds thing was definitely within my grasp. Very helpful. It meant the music I wanted to play was already getting a bit of pop success through those young (mostly British) rockers. That made it possible to carry on with my musical vision.

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.

What has made you laugh from "Supernal Blues" album's sessions? What touched (emotionally) you from Sun Studio?

Actually, I didn’t get a lot of laughing done during the recording of this album, though there were certainly light-hearted moments aplenty. One incident that springs to mind: I was standing on a street corner in Newport waiting to meet bluesman Paul Geremia. It was a vicious cold evening with the icy wind blowing off the water and damned near cutting me in half. So that’s where the line in Drinkin’ Shoes came from that goes  

“when it’s wintertime up in Newport, that bitter cold can kill a man.”

Another delightful moment took place when Kelly Knapp came in to assist on a couple of cuts. Kelly is absolutely my favorite female singer on the planet. A major, major star in my book. (She’s on the next album, as well. But that’s our secret for now.)

And anytime you walk into Sun Studio in Memphis, you just know you’re following in some perilously heavy footsteps. I’ve actually recorded there four times, and it’s a magical place. One is immediately aware of what has gone on in that little studio. And it cannot help but clutch you on a seriously emotional level.

"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??

Are there any memories from James Cotton, SRV and Hubert Sumlin which you’d like to share with us?

It is fair to say that I’ve had many great moments with the musicians you mentioned…and many more. I must single out John Mayall, who has been a friend for many many years. And he’s always been so great to me. Kind. Helpful. Encouraging. I love the man. You and I have spoken before about the close bond I had (and have) with the fabled Hubert Sumlin. In my book, he was the greatest man who ever lived. Let’s leave it at that, before I get too emotional, OK?

"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).

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

You are correct to assert that there is a very distinctive RI blues sound. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but I can spot it in a minute. For instance, Roomful Of Blues has a big, horn-laden dance party sound that is the envy of the civilized world. James Montgomery blows that harmonica like it owes him money. Guitar wizards like the justly famed Duke Robillard, Chris “Stovall” Brown and Rob Nelson are regulars in the nightspots. Additionally, there is a clear connection between the Providence and Austin, Texas blues scene. But that’s a book in itself.

And there are small three and four-piece blues bands aplenty hereabouts. Of course, we also tend to draw all the big-name blues performers to RI. There is (and always has been) a rather voracious appetite for that sort of fare in the corner bars and dance halls from one end of the Ocean State to the other. Hard to say why, really.

"First, I reject outright the notion that music is intrinsically connected to or necessarily associated with anything political or, as you put it “counterculture.” While topical subjects are, of course, frequently addressed in music (J.B. Lenoir and Billie Holiday spring quickly to mind), I find any sort of preaching or proselytizing generally revolting."

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

I’ve learned there is a wonderful power in music, especially blues, that connects people. You meet them in the clubs, the record shops and music stores. In my own case, it’s reached across the Atlantic to England. I’ve been fortunate enough to develop a deep relationship with the Raw Guitar company in North Yorkshire. They make these extraordinary electric guitars which I endorse. And I go over every summer to promote them. That’s big fun. And I’m very proud indeed to be signed to the fabulous Rawtone Records label out of Gloucester. A terrific label that also is home to the great Mark Cole, The Sons of the Delta and many other topnotch acts.

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

As far as impacting folks, I’m pretty sure music brings people together. One amazing scene permanently engraved in my memory bank is the image of my father standing at the end of the bar talking to Robert Jr. Lockwood while I was doing my set. Turns out they were speaking about Paul Whiteman and the Dorsey Bros and Bing Crosby records. What are the chances of that?

Just a word about the closing track on the Supernal Blues album, Jesus Loves Me. This was the very first song I ever knew in my life. It was the closing song at Sunday school sung by the children while Mrs. Lillian Lanni played the piano. (Years later her son A. Lanni played bass for me for a decade long run.) Anyway, I played it the way I remembered Mrs. Lanni playing it. Except for the New Orleans break in the middle. A child’s voice was needed, so Kelly Knapp’s young daughter Dylan Walker was recruited and handled the vocals beautifully…with a bit of sympathetic backing by her mom.

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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