Interview with acoustic duo, Shari Kane & Dave Steele - four handed party with street swing and stomp blues

"The blues is such authentic music. It’s a genre where overblown doesn’t necessarily work. There’s a beauty in how real and genuine great blues is." 

Shari Kane & Dave Steele: Blues Is Love

As an acoustic blues duo, Shari Kane and Dave Steele throw a four handed guitar party of original and time-honored blues, gospel, swing and ragtime. Steeped in Dave’s smoky vocals, percussive rhythm and innovative lead lines, Shari’s crisp picking style, rootsy leads, and stinging slidework, their music has been described as “street swing and stomp blues,” - like a testament to sounds once heard on the streets of Harlem, the juke joints of Mississippi, or from the jug bands of Memphis. They clearly love playing together, and when they do, anything can happen! Shari and Dave first met in the summer of 1991, crossing paths as performing blues musicians: Shari was the partner of harmonica legend, Madcat Ruth, (Madcat & Kane), while Dave was leading the electric blues band, Big Dave and the Ultrasonics. A happy marriage, thousands of miles of touring, and twenty years later, they've recorded their first CD as a duo.

Shari Kane started playing guitar at the age of five. By the early 1970's she had become a devoted blues fan, and learned how to play fingerstyle blues on the acoustic guitar. When she was sixteen, she began teaching guitar. She continues to teach, offering workshops in many of the cities where she performs. Shari's many years spent studying the work of the Delta Blues masters can be heard nightly as she picks up her acoustic guitar. Throwing herself into a stinging Robert Johnson interpretation, a jumping Robert Junior Lockwood shuffle, or the intricate fingerstylings of Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt, Shari's mastery of the acoustic tradition is apparent. In 1990, she began touring with harmonica legend Peter Madcat Ruth. The two recorded four CDs and played in venues nationwide as well as Spain, Brazil, Poland, Canada and the Cayman Islands. An accomplished slide player, she appears on Rory Block's 1992 release, Ain't I A Woman. As a guitarist with considerable versatility, Shari is emerging as one of the country's finest Blueswomen. Dave Steele first began performing as a barroom acoustic solo guitarist and singer while attending Allegheny College in Northwest Pennsylvania in the 1970’s. During the 80’s, Steele expanded his interest to electric blues, as a founding member of the Zipper City Blues Band. After seven years as a popular regional act, Steele moved to Ann Arbor, MI where he formed and led the popular blues band Big Dave and the Ultrasonics. The band featured his big-voiced singing and sly lead guitar work as they swung throughout the U.S. and Canada 150 nights a year, regularly lighting up blues clubs like Buddy Guy’s Legends and the Zoo Bar, while making main stage appearances at festivals like the Montreal Jazz Fest and repeat performances at Portland Waterfront Blues Festival. After four recordings, (the final one on the Burnside label,) the Ultrasonics disbanded. Steele took a break from performing at the turn on the century, but continued to playat home with Shari. Steele brings a basket of guitar influences to the partnership- single note lines inspired by B. B. King and Charlie Christian, acoustic ragtime and blues fingerpicking, and rhythm guitar, ala Count Basie accompanist Freddie Green - that mesh seamlessly with his wife’s dynamic fingerstyle and slide playing.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Shari: For me, the blues is such authentic music. It’s a genre where overblown doesn’t necessarily work. There’s a beauty in how real and genuine great blues is. The great lesson for me, is to feel comfortable about who you are, and what you feel, and what you have to offer to a song.

Dave: I’ll go backwards. The blues is deep music; it’s emotional and spiritual, even though a lot of people characterize it as devil’s music. The blues always reaches me whether it’s a nasty song about sex and partying, like Bo Carter wrote, or a song about spirit, like Blind Willie Johnson played. I like it all. What I’ve learned about myself from the blues is that I can devote myself to one pursuit for a long time. I started playing as a teen, and more than forty years later, I’m just as excited to learn a new song or to dig into a great guitar part as I was when I started to play. I can’t imagine my life without blues.

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

Shari: If I was to pick a way to describe my sound, or my ‘songbook’, it would be ‘guitar driven.’ The things I hear that grab me are usually the guitars. Anything with a backbeat, from traditional country blues to jump blues - swing, ragtime, gospel…I love all those styles. Lately I’ve been playing with the marriage of Appalachian music to the blues, Doc Watson would be a good example.

How do you describe Dave Steele sound and songbook? What characterizes your music philosophy?

Dave: I have played both electric and acoustic blues throughout my career as a musician. I like it all. I really enjoy developing the music that Shari and I play. Both of us have come to acoustic blues along our own paths. Now we’re enjoying merging what we know into new music. I’ve always loved playing finger style guitar; the first cool song I learned was Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” Pretty soon after that, I learned “Green, Green, Rocky Road” by Dave Van Ronk. Then I discovered John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis. At the same time, I was getting into electric blues. I saw James Cotton and B.B. King when I was in college and loved the power of those bands. Somewhere in there, I got to see Count Basie play a couple of times. I could see what Freddie Green was playing but I couldn’t hear him. Really, I’ve tried to play most styles of guitar that I’ve listened to, but realize that it all comes back to different forms of blues. Swing, ragtime and deep blues all find their way into our music.

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

Shari: I was lucky to meet and play with some amazing blues players - Robert Lockwood, Johnny Shines, Junior Wells, Magic Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Honeyboy Edwards, and younger players like Paul Geremiah, John Hammond, Rory Block, Dave Van Ronk…I’m afraid to leave so many great players out. They were all such torch bearers for me, and I was so touched by their openness and generosity.

Probably the best advice given to me was early in my career, Madcat & Kane was on a bill with the Lonnie Brooks band, and Lonnie’s son Ronnie came up to me and said, ‘Let loose, just jump off the edge.’ That was great advice.

Teaming up with Peter Madcat Ruth, and playing with him for nearly 25 years was an incredible experience. We had been friends for about ten years, before we started working together - trading blues records. We started working together just at the time that so much of the old blues was being reissued, first on cassettes in the early nineties. We listened to so much great stuff in the van. It was because of him, that I got to travel to so many places, hear so many blues icons, and meet so many great players. I will always be grateful for that.

Finally, I have to say that the luckiest meeting of a bluesman, was meeting my husband. From the get go, he has always treated me as an equal musician, and been my greatest champion. We have learned so many styles together, backed each other up when we were working out things on guitar, and played countless hours upon hours together. I could listen to him sing until the day I leave this earth and I’ll still never get enough of his voice. Besides being a mother to my son, playing at home with Dave would have to be the greatest joy in my life.

Dave: In the 1990s I used to play at a club in Cleveland, Ohio called Wilberts. The great blues player Robert Lockwood Jr., Robert Johnson’s step-son, was living in Cleveland. He’d hang out in the office, (he played there every week,) I’d been listening to him for a long time then. I love the way he merged swing and delta blues. He inspired me to try to do the same. I didn’t have a deep personal connection with him, but he had a reputation of putting wanna-be blues players in their place. Still, he heard my band a couple of times, and always encouraged me, even though the first words out of his mouth were, “Too loud!” I was thrilled to hear him play in a club; I never expected to talk with him. His open attitude and encouragement were beyond belief. I also learned a lot from Ernie Hawkins, the great finger style blues player from Pittsburgh, PA. In the 80s, I saw him for the first time opening up for an Irish band, just throwing down on an acoustic guitar. I realized I had a lot to learn then. I’ve learned a lot. I still have a lot to learn. We became good friends, and I love to hear his recordings. When my band, Big Dave and the Ultrasonics, was playing during the 90’s, I opened for a lot of great musicians- Paul de Lay, Bobby Blue Bland, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Holmes Brothers, Snooky Prior, James Harman. I loved being around those guys, but Ernie and Robert have probably influenced me the most.

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

Shari: I don’t know why this is my favorite one, but I guess it is. We were on a show with Junior Wells and his band. It was a convention, I think of cardiologists, and we were playing at a banquet. They had two stages set up, one at each end of the banquet hall. There were tables set up for the doctors to eat at, it was all pretty swanky. In the middle was a huge buffet table, with all kinds of food. Near the desserts, there was what looked like a manikin, face all painted white, with a hat on it’s head, and fruit all stuck into and around the hat. We didn’t know that there was a hole in the table, and some guy was sitting extremely still underneath the table, with his head poking out. We were standing with Junior by the fruit, and the head started talking to him. He couldn’t get over it. It freaked him out. Junior was really scrappy, but for some reason that really shook him. He said it was that he could not believe that someone would do that for a gig.

Dave: One of my favorite memories from being on the road came in Portland, OR. My band was booked for the Waterfront Blues Fest which is a great blues festival. At one of the pre-festival parties, we were playing the role of house band, backing up a lot of great harmonica players- Paul de Lay, James Harman, Lee Oskar. De Lay and Harman were having a great time ripping on Oskar who was constantly fidgeting with his gear. All the while, we were playing behind them, and especially de Lay was getting down. Sadly, he’s dead now, without the recognition he really deserved as a great and innovative harp player.

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

Shari: I love the blues of nowadays. There are so many great players of all kinds of blues. There’s a guy named Blind Boy Paxton, who makes me feel like I’m listening to someone in 1938. There are great bands, Duke Robillard, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, that sound just like that Chicago jump style that Little Walter did so well. Derek Trucks can sound like the reincarnation of Blind Willie Johnson, or Duane Allman. The only thing I miss, are the people who have passed. I miss them badly. It’s hard to believe that we’ll never hear them live again. I didn’t get enough of them. I want to see them again, hear what they’d be playing now. I wish more of them had been caught on video.

Dave: What I like best about blues from the past is quirkiness. When guitar players “composed” it felt looser. Reverend Davis was a genius who played as a soloist most of the time. He could play a single tune for a long time; I’m thinking about “The Walking Dog Blues” for example. He just kept inventing as he played. I could listen to that kind of guitar playing all day. Still, I love bands, and there are great blues players coming up today, acoustic and electric. The blues changes but as I once read, (I think it was Robben Ford speaking,) “Blues is a Big House.” I love to hear a single player pushing his/her guitar. I equally love to hear a great swinging band. The blues will continue, I’m confident.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues?

Shari: Things have definitely changed since I started out. In those days, it was hard sometimes, but you had to make a decision. Either, you let yourself get brought down by the difficulty, or you hung on to the great experiences - all the people that showed you something cool on guitar, or supported your music in so many ways. That’s what I tried to do. And there were awesome people out there that made it worth it, and easy to make that choice! Plus, there was a rich history of serious players that were women. Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elizabeth Cotton, Etta Baker, Rory Block and Del Rey had already settled the issue. The world was just still catching on. Very quickly though, serious female players started getting out there, Sue Foley, Debbie Davies, were really making headway in the blues scene, and it made it a lot easier for the rest of us. Nowadays, there are so many great female musicians, that it’s pretty much a moot point. I see youtube videos of young girls, in their early teens, and they are awesome guitarists! It makes me so happy, because most of all, I think the best destiny is where there is no more issue - male or female, no big topic!

From the musical point of view what are the differences between: American & Canadian scene?

Dave: I played a lot in Canada in the 90’s. I can’t speak to what’s happening there now. I enjoyed the audiences, especially in Quebec and British Columbia, but there were a lot of blues fans in every city from the east to the west coast. There were some great players too- a hot guitarist I met in London, Ontario, Tony D, Big Dave McClean out on the plains- but that was a while ago. Canada subsidizes its musicians to a degree, but these guys weren’t breaking the bank. They toured a lot to pay the bills, just like American musicians. The U.S. is the great market place, but artists rarely get paid well here.

What were the reasons that a white East Coast musician to start the Blues/Folk searches and experiments?

Dave: What started me was what starts most musicians. In the 60s, there were some great commercial radio stations in the U.S. I listened to the radio. I heard blues before I even knew what blues was, by listening to the radio. I started playing guitar after I was attracted to pop music- James Taylor, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin- but soon realized there was a lot of much deeper music where that came from. In college, I got exposed to a lot of great acoustic players- Jorma Kaukonen, Leo Kottke, John Fahey, John Renbourn. From them, I just kept going backwards. Eventually, I got back to Blind Blake, Reverend Davis, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Lockwood, Johnny Shines, Skip James, the usual suspects. They were all great, creative guitarists who are unsurpassed.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

Shari: We were in Kansas City, at a great old blues venue, BB’s Lawnside BBQ. Late into the night, after most of the crowd had gone home, a group of people came in and sat down. They just started talking with us, and calling out requests for old blues songs. It really touched me that they knew so much about this style. They were really digging deep! Songs I hadn’t played in decades, it was so much fun to pull those out for them. Man, I could have played for them all night.

Dave: My wife makes me laugh every day. Not only is Shari a great player who loves blues as much as I do, she also has a great sense of humor. I’ve never met a musician who I feel more compatible with.

Do you know why the resonator is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of acoustic blues?

Shari: I’ve always thought that the resonator was a prototype of an amplifier. Those guys were playing outdoors on a weekend night, people were partying hard and dancing. Sometimes they were outdoors, and I think that the resonator projected so much volume that they could keep a loud party going!

Boy, the secrets of acoustic blues - it’s a secret so I can’t tell you. Just kidding. I don’t know, but I’d have to say that the rhythm of acoustic blues breathes a little. It’s not straight and even like a metronome. It’s hard for some people who’ve been in bands, in front of a rhythm section to get used to. You have to listen to a lot of those old records to get the feel for the waviness of the groove.

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

Shari: Time travel! I want to play with Lonnie Johnson, or Blind Blake. Robert Johnson. I want to sit backstage with Robert Lockwood again while he was on the phone with John Lee Hooker.  I want ask Magic Sam to play his boogie for me!

Dave: I’d get more musicians paid. A lot of greats never get paid for their genius.

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

Shari: Well, I know that you are going to ask my husband this….so I’m putting in a caveat that we get to take our cell phones and video our days and share them with each other. I know he’ll pick Blind Blake. Me too, I’d love to sit with him all day and see him do that thing he was doing with his right thumb. But, I’m gonna let Dave go and do that and just watch his video. Me, I think I’ll go back to the studio where Lonnie Johnson recorded those early tunes, Steppin On the Blues, Playing with the Strings. I’d love to watch that.

Dave: I would definitely want to sit in the corner when Blind Blake was recording. He was a virtuoso guitarist. He sang a lot of light-hearted songs like “Too Tight” and “Police Dog Blues” but he sang some dark tunes too like “Rope Stretchin’ Blues”. His life is a complete mystery but lots of guitarists still wish they could play like him today. He embodies why I love the blues- he had a sense of humor, showed a bit of mischief in his music, while playing serious guitar like it was easy. Yes, I’d want to sit in that room listening. I’d hope he did a lot of takes of a tune like “The West Coast Blues.”

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