New Yorker guitarist J. Blake talks about Leslie West, Steve Cropper, American Blues News, & his blues paths

"For me it is all about feeling and attitude and I’m not really sure where that line, that I mentioned above, is drawn."

J. Blake: Big Apple Blues Comin' Home

Whether it is fronting one of New York City's hottest blues bands or opening for Kiss as an indie-rock guitarist on the side-stage of Jones Beach's Nikon Theater, J. Blake has been a staple of the NYC music scene for the better part of a decade; headlining at many of the city’s most famous venues, including The Bitter End, Kenny's Castaway, Crash Mansion and The Canal Room. Over the years, he has played lead-guitar for many notable NYC blues and rock acts and was a founding member of the indie-rock group Roadkill Breakfast.

These days he’s doing what he is best known for; fronting one of New York’s most fun and high-energy blues bands, The J. Blake Blues Band (formerly known as The Earthquake). Though the personnel have changed through the years, The J. Blake Blues Band has been one of NYC's premier local blues bands since 2004. They’ve had repeat gigs at many of NYC’s most prestigious live music venues and have gained the respect of some of New York’s most prominent musicians. Their sound can best be described as a high octane combination of Chicago & Texas style blues…with a healthy dose of rock ‘n’ roll and at times, a touch of funk. The band’s strengths lie in the showmanship of their fearless frontman, their musical chemistry and their ability to freeform jam. They take great pride in the fact that critics have called their sound "authentic" and the fun they have on stage "infectious." These days he is doing what he does best, flying solo and serving up a unique blend of classic and contemporary blues, rock and jazz with a guitar-driven debut album titled “When You Coming Home?” Provides listeners with an eclectic mix of blues originals and re-imaginings of songs from music legends Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Howlin' Wolf and jazz guitar-great John Pizzarelli. With nine tracks that vary in "feel" from the classic grooves of Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley to the mellow vibe of Tom Waits-esque jazz to the distorted tones of Black Keys-style blues-rock, J.Blake's sizzling debut is sure to have a little something for everyone.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues and who were your first idols?

I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and though a lot of players may snub their noses at Clapton these days, back in the early-90s he had a huge resurgence. I think it started with the album JOURNEYMAN, but in 1992 UNPLUGGED came out and all of the sudden he was “God” again!
In 1994 he released FROM THE CRADLE and though I didn’t really care for it when I first heard it, it ended being a very important album for me. Soon after its release, here in the USA anyway, PBS aired a documentary about Clapton and his blues heroes called NOTHING BUT THE BLUES. It featured live performances of Clapton on his 1994 blues tour intercut with interviews of him talking about the songs’ original artists and stock footage of all the blues greats. That documentary is probably what really made me fall in love with the blues. For me it not only introduced me to the blues’ biggest icons, but it put the music in a context and showed how much tradition played into it. After that, I was on a mission to learn as much as I could about guys like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Elmore James, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, etc.

   Then after I was hooked on the music, it seemed to me that the next logical step was to get a guitar and learn how to play it. So Clapton was a gigantic influence on my getting into the blues and then deciding to pick up the guitar. Past that, I really connected with guys like Freddie King and Otis Rush…and then of course Stevie Ray Vaughan. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I came to fully appreciate guys like Muddy and “the Wolf.”
Funny enough the other huge influence on me and my playing is Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath. Sabbath rocked my world when I was about 16 or 17 (when I heard the album PARANOID for the first time). Iommi is just an amazing player and composer and Geezer’s lyrics are completely unique. I know that nobody would ever consider them a “blues band,” but I connect with their music in much the same that I do the blues.  It’s harsh, raw, emotional and dark…I think it is coming from the same place.

What experiences in life have triggered your ideas for songs? How do you describe your songbook?                       (Photo by Nelson Onofre)

I wrote a weekly column for a blues website for many years and was frequently asked to review new music.  It was a very tough job, because I was frustrated at the lack of originality in a lot of the CDs I was receiving, but at the same time, who am I criticize somebody’s art?  It was a great learning experience for me though and I was able to identify what I liked about some of the CDs and what I didn’t about others.  It made me realize that if I was going to record an album of blues music, I really had to do my best to make it my own and not just rehash old standards the same old way.   So in many ways the material I chose was a direct response to my days of reviewing blues CDs. I don’t know if my debut album (When You Coming Home?) is entirely successful, but my goal was to provide the listener with a wide array of blues styles (old and new) and, in the best-case scenario, maybe even help people expand their views of what “the blues” can be.

As for the song choices themselves, there are a few original compositions on the CD, but it is mostly made up of covers. Two of the songs, “More of the Same” and “Rocking Chair,” were written by friends and former indie-rock band-mates of mine, Justin Ettinger and Matt Jacob. So I did those songs as a tribute to those bands and to honor the collaborations I had with those guys…plus they are great songs. I tried to make those songs my own, to a certain extent, but hopefully I also managed to stay true to Justin and Matt as well.

“Honey Bee,” is a Tom Petty song and it is the cover song that I changed the least on the album, though there definitely are some differences between my version and his. Petty and The Heartbreakers did a week’s residency at the Beacon Theater in New York City and I attended one of the shows. He played this song that night. I had never heard it before and it blew my mind. I just thought it was a fantastic song; very heavy and “rocky,” still blues, but pushing blues past it’s breaking point into rock. I didn’t initially intend to record it for my album, but my band and I were having fun playing it live and we had time to lay it down in the studio. So we did.

One of my favorite musicians of all-time is jazz-great John Pizzarelli and he was a big influence on the remainder of the covers on the album.  John is known as one of the great interpreters of the “American Songbook” and he definitely is, but since the late-1990s, he’s also been giving other styles of pop songs a jazz twist. He’s been re-imagining material by artists like The Beatles, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Neil Young and even Led Zeppelin as jazz numbers and I find that totally inspiring.  “Headed Out to Vera’s” is the most direct tribute to John on the album.  It is one of his songs, but instead of doing it with its usual jazzy swing-feel, I decided to re-imagine it as Chicago blues box shuffle; kind of in the style of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. John also influenced how I approached turning Willis Dixon’s “Spoonful” into a smoky jazz/lounge track and even though it’s not jazz, that idea of “re-imagining” also influenced my cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” I just wanted to see if I could present those songs in a different light and make them work.

Lastly, the band I used to record the album hugely influenced the songs I did and how I did them. I have, what I consider to be, the best rhythm section in New York City. I may call the shots and decide what songs we will do and usually even how we will do them, but Mike Berman (bass) and Scott Hamilton (drums) are always completely honest with me about what they think works and what doesn’t. They usually understand what I am going fo, even if I can’t really explain it and then they contribute their own ideas and in the end, they manage to make what I am trying to do, even better. Steve Hastings on keys, was a complete Godsend. He and I have been friends for a long time and he is an extremely talented musician. He is not a blues pianist at all, but his agreeing to sit in with my guys and me didn’t just change how we sounded, but also changed how we played and how I thought about approaching new material. He has tasteful jazz chops and I never would’ve attempted to do “Spoonful” and “A Song for Judy” the way they are on the album, if we didn’t have Steve in the band. Even though I arranged them, he is the one that gives those songs their flavor.

Which was the best and which was the worst moment of your career?

Well the above gigs were definitely two of the best. The worst one that comes immediately to mind was when my blues band and I played a dive-bar in Greenpoint Brooklyn. It was just a gig that we shouldn’t have been at. If I recall correctly, the group before us was a punk band.  The sound in the place was awful and the club made us cut our set short, because after the punk band left…the audience did as well. It was not a fun night…

What characterizes and what does the BLUES mean to you ?

Well the first part of that question is a tough one and a notion that gets me in trouble on the blues website that I write for, The American Blues News. Many blues fans are traditionalists and they like their blues a certain way.  Sure there is “blues-rock,” but there is a fuzzy line when it comes to how far the blues can be pushed before it is no longer “the blues.”
For me it is all about feeling and attitude and I’m not really sure where that line, that I mentioned above, is drawn. I could argue that, to me, a lot of Black Sabbath songs are blues. I challenge anyone to listen to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and then honestly tell me that they don’t think that guy had the blues! At the end of the day, it is all in the eye of the beholder…but my “definition” of what constitutes “the blues” is a lot looser than most.

     As the main “reviewer” for The American Blues News, I listen to a ton of new blues albums. I guess they are considered “contemporary,” but most of what I hear is not really “contemporary” at all.  It is old… in some cases the songs are new, but the feel, the vibe is old…and there’s nothing wrong with old…but it is not new.  In my opinion a band like The Black Keys is making “contemporary blues.” In my opinion they’re taking the blues some place new and fresh…but at the same time they’ve managed to “call back” to some very unique times in blues music history…most notably Chess’ psychedelic experiments of the 1960s. For me, that’s the sound of 21st century blues…it is a wonderful balance of retro and modern and it is not restricted by 12-bars and 3 chords…but I realize that most people would just consider it rock…and I find that sad.

How would you describe the sound of J. Blake? How do you describe your music philosophy?
Well the sound of “J. Blake” and the sound of “The J. Blake Blues Band” are actually two very different things.  Currently the J. Blake Blues Band is a fairly traditional electric blues band.  We may get a little funky, a little jazzy, a little rocky…but in essence we are a pretty straightforward Chicago-style blues band.  I do my best to keep it from getting too formulaic, by keeping it high-energy, rowdy and fun, but we’re not reinventing the wheel. The goal for that band is to put on good a show.  We play a lot of songs that have a vocal call and response aspect to them…where the band and the crowd get to yell lines back to me during the live performances, etc. We have fun playing and we always hope that that fun translates to the audience, but The J. Blake Blues Band (at this point) is pretty much strictly a live barroom blues band.  
     As for the “J. Blake sound,” I’m not sure I have one yet. I’m currently writing/gathering material for my first studio effort and though it will contain some blues and its overall vibe will be bluesy, as a whole I’m planning on it being very different from what The J. Blake Blues Band is known for. And I am very excited about it.

Are there any memories from the J. Blake Blues Band that you’d like to share with us?

If I had to pick a specific memory, it would have to be the time we headlined at New York City’s historic rock club The Bitter End.  It was a great a show. We were called J. Blake & The Earthquake back then and that line-up of the band was particularly good. It was at a time when I was just coming into my own as lead vocalist and front-man (previous line-ups of the band featured other lead vocalists, with myself on lead guitar and acting as bandleader). 

The place was packed and the audience was great…so much so that the club’s management wouldn’t let us end the show!  They were afraid people would leave if we stopped playing. Every time I tried to end the show, I’d hear the sound guy’s voice in the monitors saying “You’re not done yet.  Keep playing.” Finally after playing for almost 3 hours, I just ran out of songs to sing and I called it a night…to the management’s dismay.

Are there any memories from the “When You Coming Home?” studio sessions, which you’d like to share with us?

We have always been a live band, but when I decided that I wanted to record and which songs I wanted to try, my band graciously decided to make the effort and take the journey with me. For that, I will forever be grateful. We spent several months rehearsing and arranging the material before we decided to test it out in front of a live audience, which we did at a venue called The Shrine in Harlem. We debuted this material there and it went over very well. So I knew we were very close to being ready to record.  Unfortunately, shortly after the gig, Steve (my keyboardist) notified me that he was going to be moving away from New York City and leaving the band. So I made the decision that we needed to get into the studio and record what we could, before he left. We went into the recording studio on a Sunday morning, just days before Steve left and we laid down the backing tracks for 11 songs in one day. I then went back and re-tracked vocals and some of the guitar stuff for 9 of those songs. To be honest, our intention was to just record demos, so that I could have something to show a new keyboardist when I found one. I had bigger plans for what I wanted the “album” to be. I wanted to have guest appearances by other musicians and I wanted to have a producer, etc. I wanted it to be a bigger deal than it ended up being, but when all was said and done, the tracks sounded pretty good and I felt that they captured that line-up of the band very well. So I decided to just release those demos as the album, to preserve that line-up of the band as a, sort of, snap shot or time capsule of the band and where we were musically at that point.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?

Other than The Bitter End show mentioned above, one of my favorite gig memories was when I played with a band that opened for Kiss. It was while I was playing lead guitar in a contemporary rock band called Roadkill Breakfast and we didn’t exactly “open” for Kiss, but we played the side-stage at a popular New York amphitheater called Jones Beach before Kiss hit the main stage. We basically entertained Kiss’ fans while they waited for the main attraction. None the less, we received a warm reception from hundreds of members of the “Kiss Army.” It was a great and thrilling experience.

From whom have you learned the most about blues music...and the “blues life”?
I’ve learned a little something from all of the blues greats.  Everything you need to know is right there in their music…all you’ve got to do is listen to it.

What are some of the most memorable interviews you've done?
Because of my relationship with The American Blues News, I have had the opportunity and the honor to interview several amazing musicians…many of which are heroes of mine. Choosing the most memorable is impossible, because there were things about all of them that I will never forget.
Other than music, my biggest passion is cinema. So speaking to Chris Dreja (of The Yardbirds) about working on Michelangelo Antonioni’s BLOW UP was a terrific treat.  
In the same vein…asking Steve Cropper about working with John Carpenter on the musical score for the film VAMPIRES was also incredible. The question caught him completely off guard. He let out the most marvelous belly laugh and spoke about the experience with great fondness…I actually think he loved talking about it. That was a great interview.
Tommy Castro was completely charming and outgoing. He and I talked for a very long time and he was very gracious and a pleasure to talk to.
And of course there’s the great Leslie West. His sense of humor is very dry and he has no problems with busting the balls of a complete stranger…so it wasn’t the easiest interview I’ve ever done, but it was a great experience. He’s a huge hero of mine and he was very funny and extremely friendly.

Which was your most difficult interview and which was your best?
My very first interview for The American Blues News was with Robben Ford and it was by far the most difficult. I was very nervous and the website was still very new and nobody knew who we were yet….so between my nerves and his not knowing where the interview was going to be published, I don’t think he was thrilled to be doing the interview. 

It ended up being a good interview and he was perfectly nice to me, but it was a tough experience. Thankfully I learned a lot from it and I don’t hold it against him.  The fact that it didn’t go smoothly was not entirely his fault. I’d love to interview him again sometime, because I know I could do a better job.
As for my best interview, I’d have to say it was with Steve Cropper. At the very least it was my favorite. First of all he’s Steve Cropper!!!  So just to be given the chance to talk to him at all was/is a complete honor.  The fact that it went as well as it did was really just icing on the cake.  He couldn’t have been nicer and he was just super easy to talk to. It didn’t really feel like an interview.  It felt more like two friends chatting.  It was an absolute thrill and a memory I will always cherish.

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

I miss the true blues greats the most. We still have Buddy Guy and B.B. King, but we’ve lost so many great bluesmen and though great musicians are out there, we have lost most of the “real deal” guys. There are so many I never got the chance to see play live. That is sad and I feel that their absence contributes to the fact that young people (in general) don’t seem to be into the blues as much as they used to be. In the 1940s and 50s, the blues was young people’s music and even if you look at the 1960s and 1970s, there were tons of great young musicians who loved the blues and were creating blues for young music lovers. Even though there are still some great young musicians falling in love with the blues, they are (for the most part) still catering to that same audience of blues lovers from the 1960s and 1970s…who aren’t young anymore. Of course, someone could argue against this and there will always be exceptions to the rule and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am, for the most part.  Guys like Black Joe Lewis, Gary Clark Jr. and The Black Keys, etc. are current and great and are appealing to a younger audience and in my opinion, these are the modern blues musicians, but to most people they are considered rock. So I fear that “new” blues will die out or become stagnant, because some blues fans aren’t opened to having blues evolve and many of today’s rock fans aren’t educated enough to know that they are listening to blues. The plus side is that the music is being made and is out there; even it is not labeled “blues.” It just makes it a little bit harder to find.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

He may not be a real “bluesman,” but when I asked Steve Cropper if he had any tips for all the rhythm guitarists out there. He laughed and said “Don’t drop your pick.”                                                               (Photo by Nelson Onofre)

Of all the people you’ve met, who do you admire the most?

As far as music personalities go, the answer is unquestionably (jazz-great) John Pizzarelli. I was a huge fan of his for years before I met him in 2002 and now ten years later, I am fortunate enough to call him my friend. Aside from being one of the greatest guitarists of all time, he is genuinely one of the nicest guys I know and when it comes to his fans, he is incredibly gracious. He is also one hell of a showman. He can work a crowd as well as he can play the guitar. What he does on stage is a dying art form and I’ve learned a lot about performing from him. He is a true inspiration.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet and spend a day with?

Freddie King is probably my all-time biggest blues hero, but I would probably pick Muddy Waters. At least from a musicianship standpoint, I don’t think I’ve ever read an unkind word about him. By all accounts he was very warm and generous when it came to younger/less experienced blues artists.  I would love to be close to that energy for a day and I know there is a ton I could learn from him.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Indie Rock music?

I’m not sure. It is not the popular opinion, but I think blues is all about feeling and can span over any genre. I think one could argue that Beethoven had the blues and I could argue that Black Sabbath was a blues band for their generation. So in that sense the blues is everywhere, but in a specific and more definable way, I think the musicians that play music are the “lines” that connect these different types of music. Musicians know their influences and their intentions and if those things are blues-based, than they are connecting the blues with everything they do and play.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure I agree that some styles of music are just “fads” and then just simply go away. I think that one of the great things about music is that it evolves. Rock today is different than it was 10 years ago, but it is still rock. The same goes for Pop, Rap, Heavy-Metal, etc. The notions of “being a fad” and “changing” are two very different things.
The thing about the blues, aside from its transition from acoustic to electric, is that it hasn’t changed (much). Referring back to what I was saying about with The Black Keys, I actually think it is rather sad and could eventually be a hindrance that in most people’s eyes there is no room for the blues to really evolve…and still be called “blues.”  
    As for why it doesn’t change…it is and has always been heavily rooted in tradition. It is the foundation of pretty much all modern popular music and for aspiring musicians; its fundamentals are fairly easy to learn. Most musicians will probably never learn how to really play the blues really well, but almost everyone learns its most basic elements before they learn anything else. Its “simplicity” makes it universal… and the fact it is packed with emotion and soul, makes it extremely accessible to listeners.

What is your music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is…
I have many interests and passions, but few things bring me as much joy as music…playing it, listening to it and writing about it. I have many “dreams” when it comes to music; being given the chance to play alongside my idols, performing at Madison Square Garden, having somebody come up to me and tell me that my music “means something” to them…but to be honest, I’d be perfectly happy if I could just make ends meet as a musician for the rest of my life.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the Big Apple’s blues circuits?

Well, in terms of laughter, I sometimes laugh at great guitar solos. I’m not sure why, but when I’m at a concert and somebody rips an amazing solo and makes choices that surprise me, I tend to chuckle…with enjoyment and awe. Most recently, that occurred at a Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers concert at Madison Square Garden a few months ago. Mike Campbell is one of the most unrated guitarists in music and, needless to say, I smiled and chuckled a lot while watching him display his mastery over his instrument…and no they didn’t play “Honey Bee” at that particular show.

As for being “touched’ emotionally, even though the blues scene is dwindling in New York City, in terms of venues to play at and audience numbers, the community is still very strong and there are many great musicians keeping it alive with things like open jams and blues showcases; where we can get together and hang out and play the blues together for the sheer enjoyment and the love of the music. I’m touched by and grateful for people like Big Ed Sullivan, Christine Santelli and Arthur Neilson for keeping these things alive for us and to Johnny Childs for spreading the NY Blues word through the New York City Blues Society. There are other people too…too many to mention. It is a great community to be a part of.

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

I’d rather not choose just one, but I don’t want to cheat with the question. So I will give a specific answer. I’d like to go back to April 24, 1969 at the Super Cosmic Joy-Scout Jamboree in Chicago, Illinois, to see the recording of the live material for Muddy Water’s Fathers and Sons album. It is a great album, with a fantastic multi-generational band. I’m sure it was a hell of a show.

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