Interview with Memphis harpman Brandon Santini, a worthy artist to keep the blues alive the next decades

"According to researchers, blues music is listened to mainly by people in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s and we don’t have a strong younger audience and I am fearful that the blues audience won’t 're-generate' itself fully."

Brandon Santini: Memphis Breath Blues

There are many different opinions as to what the future of blues harmonica will be. Memphis based Brandon Santini is undeniably a worthy player to keep an eye on as the next decade unfolds. His name is worthy of conversations that involve Jason Ricci, Billy Gibson, Dennis Gruenling, Rick Estrin and other frontline harmonica players that have become part of a new wave in the blues world.

With tasteful speed and licks, he combines his respect to traditional blues with a present colorful style of playing. Raised in North Carolina, Brandon relocated to Memphis in 2003 where he began to absorb the sounds and culture of the Delta, honing his craft night after night, sweating it out in local Beale Street clubs just like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King. He fronted the Blues Music Award nominated band Delta Highway for six years and is now embarking on a solo career. Brandon's second album "This Time Another Year" released on March.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Brandon Santini sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I’ve always been a fan of big harmonica tone. Guys like Little Walter, James Cotton, and Gary Smith had great tone and that always caught my ear. I also love guys like Sonny Boy Williamson II who very seldom used an amplifier but had such a great natural acoustic sound and I’ve always used the sound from those gentlemen as a model for what I do. Now, I don’t sound exactly like them of course but I like to incorporate different styles from Louisiana to Chicago to the Piedmont to Memphis!

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

Blues means history and tradition to me. I’m obsessed with the history of the blues and fascinated by the lives that the original bluesmen and women lived. They suffered so much from oppression, racism, segregation and more than we will ever have to endure today. That’s what made that music so good back then. It had raw emotion in it. I am considered a traditional artist I think because I like to show respect to my forefathers in the blues and carry their legacies on. Their music has given me so much enjoyment that I feel it’s only right to give them the respect they deserve.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I would say right now is the most interesting period. My album is doing great. It’s receiving airplay on over 150 radio stations worldwide and it’s charted on The Living Blues Radio Charts for the last several months.  I released it on March 5 and it’s gotten nothing but great reviews and people are buying it. We are playing a whole lot of shows and staying busy.  Things are happening for me and the band as well as for my network of friends and it’s great to see friends like Victor Wainwright doing so well and it’s fun to watch his success and learn things from him. My guitarist Jeff Jensen has a new album that he just recorded and it’s coming out in the summer. I was fortunate enough to be asked to play on several tracks on it. I am on Robert “Top” Thomas’ new album as well. So I’m staying busy.  As far as the worst moment of my career…I don’t know that I really have anything to answer that with. The only thing that comes to mind is that when I first moved to Memphis I really had to slug it out to stay afloat and to survive. I had to work hard to break into clubs and get on stage. That was really hard for a few years but I stuck with it and now I’m doing interviews with great folks like you!

Are there any memories out in local Beale Street clubs “walking” with the Blues?

Oh man, there have been a lot of great memories on Beale Street.  I play a lot at Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall which is the last remaining Juke Joint on Beale Street. That was one of my first gigs and I’ve been playing there since 2004 when we aren’t touring or playing elsewhere. I remember so many hot summer nights there where we had this place packed with people and the floor was full of beer, Jack Daniels, and sweat and you could actually feel the stage and floor moving from the audience dancing in a groove. The best way I can describe it is a “wave” feeling under your feet. Almost like slow motion springs.  Man, people would be dancing so hard that they would be drenched in sweat and having the most amazing time. It would get so hot in there that people would faint from overdoing it. Man, I love that place!

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think the Blues is such a small genre that we are able to create a close knit family vibe. That’s a wonderful feeling to be a part of a family and I think people relate to that feeling. Blues lovers are the “chosen few” who understand the depth and beauty of this music. Scratchy records, unintelligible words from those old bluesmen doesn’t appeal to a lot of people but us blues lovers surely get it

Do you remember anything funny from the Delta Highway?

I wouldn’t even know where to begin! We had so much fun in that band. I was in my twenties and really having a great time touring and playing music and enjoying the success. I learned a lot during those years on how to run a band but we always naturally had a lot of fun and always kept the mood light with our humor.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Gary Clark, Jr. joined us onstage last year and that was a real treat. He’s such a great, genuine guy and it was an honor to play with him. I think for me, being able to jam with Bob Margolin, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith is about as cool as it gets. All we were missing was Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins on that stage!  As far as memorable shows, there have been plenty. The most amazing experience is being able to play in Cairo, Egypt as part of BLUZAPALOOZA. That was amazing.

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

I think anytime I get to meet an esteemed or legendary musician I take it as inspiration. I don’t what the best advice is but there has been a lot of guidance throughout my career.

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues & what are the secrets of blues harp?

I think the harmonica is such an honest instrument. It is the only instrument in the world that you can breath in and out to make sounds so you are literally breathing the music naturally. Horns can only make proper notes when blowing out. It’s such a beautiful instrument when it is played correctly and can mimic the human voice and it’s inflections. It can cry, moan, and laugh. As far as secrets, if you find them please let me know! There are so many facets of blues harp and it’s really an amazing world. There are guys like Jason Ricci and John Popper who can do the most amazing things with the harp. I think the real secret is to form your own style and play it like you would but don’t forget about the guys who have laid the groundwork for the blues harp. Basically, play like yourself but show respect to the guys before you and utilize what they have done and build on it and take it to a new level. We each have our own speaking and singing voice and your instrument should be no different. People try to play just like the guys I mentioned, Jason Ricci and John Popper or Little Walter for most blues players but those guys don’t sound like anyone else. They have their own sound and that’s what we all need to strive for.

Are there any memories from the road with the band and recording time which you’d like to share with us?

Again, there are too many to try and narrow down but I had such a great time recording my newest album, “This Time Another Year.” We recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis where a lot of great music was made. George Thorogood,  The Allman Brothers, Freddie King, The Staple Singers, North Mississippi Allstars, Luther Allison, Jimmie Vaughan, Bob Dylan, Michael Burks, B.B. King, ZZ Top all made music there! So it was an honor to record in such a historic and big studio. The band really played their hearts out on the album with Jeff Jensen on guitar and vocals, Bill Ruffino on bass, James Cunningham on drums and our friends Victor Wainwright on piano and vocals as well as Chris Stephenson laying down the organ.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

The rawness of the sounds. There are still a lot of bands that have “the sound” but it’s gotten more polished over the years. Maybe this is just the traditionalist in me talking.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of Blues music?

Obviously I hope for Blues music to grow larger and be able to compete with the Pop, Country, and Hip Hop markets here but we are very far from that. The blues is a very small genre compared to those genres and I wish that it could grow into that. You know, Blues was considered “Pop” music at one time! I fear that this music will be forgotten one day. According to researchers, blues music is listened to mainly by people in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s and we don’t have a strong younger audience and I am fearful that the blues audience won’t “re-generate” itself fully.

Which memory from BLUZAPALOOZA tour to Cairo, Egypt makes you smile?

Man, what an incredible honor that entire tour was. Being able to visit The Pyramids, The Sphinx, tour the National Museum and see King Tut’s belongings, as well as mummies was very neat. I think meeting so many people who were only exposed to B.B. King as far as blues goes was really neat and to see their expressions and hear their kind words was very amazing. We put on some incredible shows with Billy Gibson and Eden Brent. The most memorable thing  for me was after our show at The Cairo Opera House where both American Embassy personnel and local Egyptian citizens were in the audience we had the Egyptian members rushing the stage seeking autographs and handshakes. It was such a commotion and it really made us feel good about what we did. It also made us feel like The Beatles! What an honor it was to know that we made an impact on their lives enough to have them want to physically touch us.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of James Cotton and Butterfield to Rick Estrin with new generation?

They are all part of an eternal bridge that links the generations of players. Cotton was a generation before Butterfield and Butterfield was a generation before Estrin. The line of influences is obvious and now there’s a new generation of harp players that I consider myself a part of that Estrin has influenced. Cotton, Butterfield and Estrin…those guys are all the real deal and I love all three of them. They don’t need no overblows!

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

I love this question because I’ve often thought about this. I haven’t really decided where yet. I would either go back and see Robert Johnson playing at a house party or to Chess Records for a day and see a session of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, or Little Walter and drink with Sonny Boy Williamson. That would be an incredible experience and I can only imagine the things that would go on!

Brandon Santini - official website

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