Q&A with Boston-based Eric Sommer -- walking on the unmistakable sounds of life on the American road

"Blues and roots music is the undercurrent of American culture and has created most of it and supported and enhanced it in various, subtle ways."

Eric Sommer: American Songbook

Boston-based singer, songwriter and guitar player Eric Sommer offers global audiences the unmistakable sounds of life on the American road. Widely acknowledged to be one of the best slide-guitar players in the country, Sommer has mastered his craft by touring as a lifestyle, often playing over 250-280 shows in the span of a single year. Whether he’s delivering his aggressive, open tuning, “no fear playing” style alongside fellow musicians on national tours and showcases or performing pure blues and deep grooves in solo shows from coast to coast, Sommer lights venues on fire with his rare combination of extreme technical skill and down-home charm. Coupled with experienced New Jersey-based session players Jim Oakley on percussion and Zach Smith on bass, Sommer’s expansive sound broadens even further to include back-up harmonies, tight rhythms and harmonica grooves that promise to rouse audiences and pack dance floors. Eric Sommer and his trio, released their new album 'Brooklyn Bolero' (2016).

Eric started his musical career in the Boston area and has been a regular player on many national tours and showcases. He worked in Europe for two years on Danish, German and British rock stages, returned to Boston and formed The Atomics, a cult power-pop band in South Boston. His influences are as diverse as Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Steve Howe and The Ramones. Mr. Sommer's current project with power trio "The Solar Flares" shake up Chet Atkins and David Bromberg influences with those of Randy Travis and Elvis Costello - a remarkable mix. With open tunings, slide guitar, lap-slap tone guitar and a remarkably aggressive fingering style approach, watching Eric Sommer will make you jump out of your seat and holler for joy! There are very few players who have maintained this authentic American style of guitar and Eric Sommer is one of the very best.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe your sound and songbook? What do you learn about yourself from the American Roots music?

My sound is always changing – at the moment it’s a roots/blues improv, constantly exploring a bit of dissonance and layering it up with traditional blues changes…

If you are connected to the earth, if you are connected to struggle and pain, hardship and the voice of struggle in the deep and mid south in the 20’sand 30’s, every time you play a few bars of a blues tune, you are drawing on that well of souls and voices who created this most authentic form of American music: Lonnie Johnson, Muddy Waters, Arthur Cruddup, Charlie Patton, Charlie Musselwhite, Paul Butterfield – every time I play a note, I share their shadow. I share their shadow and if I am lucky enough they reach down and tap me on the shoulder to let me know I am getting close. I learn something about life, myself, the honesty of my own life and emotional truth with every song.

How has the Blues influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken? What does the blues mean to you?

Playing the blues makes life bearable, because at the end of the day, people are fucking incomprehensible. Playing this music relieves you of the burden, and I can lay my own burden down if only for a moment and I feel free and able to make a difference in the world.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

When I was 13 or 14, I was hanging out in Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA and it was a Saturday night and the rough and tumble of The Square was in full swing. I met these two girls, probably 17 or so, and we scored a bottle of Blackberry Brandy and then they took me into Boston to see a music show. We hitched down Mass Ave, thru Central Square and over the Mass Ave Bridge and we got to the corner of Mass Ave and Boylston St. – right next to the Mass Pike – and we walked over to the place called Jacks Drum Shop. It was closed, but the glass door to the left was open, and we walked down 5 flights of stairs to a dark, dank concrete bunker under the Mass Pike. The walls were covered in Egyptian figures and cartouche imagery, very King Tut, and in a room maybe 30’ x 150 feet there were people crammed into the space like sardines on holiday. The was a stage in the center and we wiggled ourselves right up to the front of the stage, 12 inches from the riser.

The lights went down… the place went crazy and out comes John Lee Hooker. John Lee Hooker opening for The J. Geils Band. At the end of the show, I went over to John Lee and I asked him if he had any advice of a young guitar play – and he turned me to face him, he put his hands on my shoulders and looked down at me and he said as clear as a bell in voice that was Crown Royale over #5 sandpaper “Son, there ain’t no shortcuts. If you ain’t playin’ then you just payin’”. I never stopped playing after that night. Rolling Stone included that show – which was put together by Peter Wolf – in its list of the 100 greatest rock and roll shows of all time.

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

There are too many to really go into, but when I was with The Atomics in Boston, I still did a lot of solo shows for Don Law and Fred Johansen at The Paradise theatre and the Berklee Performance Center. The Atomics played a show on a Friday night at The Rat in Kenmore Square; there were two other acts on the bill – and we were in the middle. The place was jammed to the rafters and it was a very raw scene. All the bouncers were huge Boston College linebackers and they were really brutal. So we watched the first act, and right in the middle of their set, some college kids sitting up front threw an empty pitcher of beer at them… these two huge guys literally appeared out of nowhere, picked these four guys up and dragged them towards the back door – it was so violent and so fast that we figured it was all over. So we finished our set and as we were changing the stage we grabbed our gear and headed for the back door. Just as we were going up the concrete steps something moved in the dark and we stopped… it was those four guys who had been dragged out and they were in a heap at the bottom of the stairs and they were not moving. There was blood everywhere. We got the gear and hustled out.

So I did two weekend shows in a row with Bram Tchaikovsky and Wreckless Eric – Nick Lowe type bands – and the following week I was on the bill at The Berklee Center with The Byrds. This wasn’t the original Byrds, Neil Young and Stills were not with them, but Roger McQuinn, Gene Clark and Chris Hillman were, and it was a sold out room… I went up to the rafters after my set, climbed up to the walkway over the stage and leaned against the wall next to the huge ropes that held the curtains and galley, and looked down to the stage 30 feet below at the Byrds doing a perfect version of Chestnut Mare. The Atomics took a show at a place near The Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI and we get to the show and the headliner is – Jello Biafra and The Dead Kennedys. Our set tore the front of the stage away and after they fixed it, the DK’s came on. There was a space at the back of the stage that went down a floor to the basement – there was nothing there – no railing, no warning tape - and everyone told us to be careful. We were, but we’re watching the DK’s and Jello keeps getting closer and closer to the back of the stage and with a jump from the stage he went right down the crawl space… one floor down. Jello did not come back and the show was over.

"My sound is always changing – at the moment it’s a roots/blues improv, constantly exploring a bit of dissonance and layering it up with traditional blues changes…"

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

These days, from where I tune-up, the music I see and generally hear – with rare exception – has no authenticity whatsoever. None. The bands and songs are agenda-driven, with very little attention to mastering the craft, having something to say, lyrical gravitas or meaningful engagement. There is a good film on Bob Dylan, No Exit or something, and an excellent story in there is the one about what happened when he arrived in NYC. There was a buzz about this singer and writer from Minneapolis and his show was coming up at The Bitter End or Gerd’s Folk City or some place like that, and the buzz finally came around to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and their response was “What does he have to say?” In Dylan’s case, plenty!

Ask that of most bands or the wave of singer-songwriter types and their numbers dwindle from 1,000 to maybe 2 or three.  These days you need to be good at it all – writing, singing and playing; you need creativity and you need to have something to say. You need a mission, you need to have a point of view and you need to rely on your own self to communicate your own message – in a unique and original way; Hopefully a message that resonates with people or sees injustice and works to change it or make it better in some way. As a writer and player I think it is my mission to make the world a better place. In that context, there is nothing I can learn from Demi Lovato.

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

I wish people would stop confusing “looking good” with “being good”. The cult of self promotion has produced a generation of smoke and mirrors “stars” whose resumes are paper thin, who clog up the system with their whining… but have incredibly well produced marketing and promotional materials.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of American music from Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle to The Ramones?

The great lesson of The Ramones, Steve Earle and Townes – and the one thing that connects them - is that great technical skill isn’t necessary to create world-changing and genre-blending/bending musical statements. And that is precisely what the American music catalog is about. The drive to sing and play and to make a noise someone will hear and listen to is more important than the skills needed to be Pat Martino or Charlie Parker. A decent idea, executed with passion and commitment, beats a great idea, poorly executed… every time. When Townes was revolving around Galveston, Texas and playing the Old Quarter Acoustic Café, he was watching and learning and crafting his story-telling, carefully putting these wonderful images and characters to music, using rudimentary chords and melodies to drive the story. His songs were stories first, which harks back to Negro Spirituals from the 17th & 18th century American South where American music really developed. Stories, oral histories sung to whatever musical accompaniment was available, is the American musical starting point and Steve Earl and Townes followed, stepped and danced right into that tradition with their natural approach and precise writing. Pancho and Lefty is a beautiful example of that process. 

Steve Earl is the consummate singer/folk singer who, with decent technical skill, has created a perfectly balanced American song catalog from the folk singer side of the tracks. He is in the American tradition of moderate technical skill coupled with wonderful stories using bare-bones musical skills to craft magic. These two guys pulled from Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and others whose desire to tell the story exceeded their technical skill by a mile. And it didn’t matter one bit because the chords were so simple, the structures so easy that the sound became accessible, the story was able to be shared across all lines.  Lonnie Johnson and Charlie Patton developed and their technical skills eventually surpassed everyone in their orbit! There isn’t an easier answer to The Ramones. These guys’ desire to make music, to create an outlet for themselves I technical skills and they succeeded in spit of those limitations. And that is reflected in the music they made – the writing resonates with the “everyman” in all of us – so pure, so vibrant and so, so raw and honest.

What touched (emotionally) you from the European music circuits? What are the differences between European & American scene?

The two stand out attributes of the European music circuits are the intensity of the song writing and the performers and the fact that the audience listens. And I means really listens – stops the cell phones and chit chat and really listens. And that is the main singular difference I noticed the last time I was in London, Oxford, Tingewick and Islington or being part of a songwriters’ night or show case in London – at The Betsy Trotwood, for example at The Lantern Society evenings - is marked by the audience paying such close attention to the lyrics and the poetry, and the fact that nobody makes a sound when a performer is on stage – it is a remarkable thing to witness.

At a Lantern Society event, I watched a number of singers and writers take the stage and no matter their level of accomplishment, the audience was riveted to their performance. You could hear a pin drop.  Every nuance of the lyric or poetic line was captured in the moment, relished by the audience and absorbed and respected. The poem whose meaning hung on a refrain or a stanza or a single line of poetic glory once put out there to the audience seemed to hang in the air, float over the audience like a literary cloud of nuance and gravitas, meaning and mayhem… and each performer was given the opportunity to be heard and embraced. You don’t see that too often in an American music, literary or “spoken word” environment. The general experience of the audience in the US – and their collective attention span - is usually punctuated by cell phones, the constant undertow of conversational waves, and the generally agenda-driven whining by performers interested in themselves more than anything/anyone else. There are some spectacular bright spots: The Cheatham Street Warehouse and Wake The Dead Coffeehouse in San Marcos, Texas, The Bowery Poetry Club in NYC and The Cave in Chapel Hill, NC. But as more venues go out of business, there are fewer and fewer new venues coming into the scene to take their place.

"Playing the blues makes life bearable, because at the end of the day, people are fucking incomprehensible. Playing this music relieves you of the burden, and I can lay my own burden down if only for a moment and I feel free and able to make a difference in the world."

What is the impact of Blues and Roots music and culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Blues and roots music is the undercurrent of American culture and has created most of it and supported and enhanced it in various, subtle ways. The Americana movement is a direct result of folks search for meaning and relevance in a musical world which has been under constant assault by a wave of false prophets who confuse “looking good” with “being good” and mistake “volume” for “value”. Great venues with audiences anxious to hear meaningful lyrics, messages and poetic interpretations of the experiences of others are out there but harder to find. So much of the “village square” has now been taken over by flash political movements whose agenda seems to be to silence opposition, silence competing ideas and silence debate on the most important ideas. Music and lyrics – to remain relevant and to be able to contribute to the collective good – ought to challenge and confront this excess, take a stand and communicate a more inclusive vision. That is where meaningful writers and musical people can resurrect the clarity and the power of the early folk and blues movement, and start to recapture and redirect that truth forward.

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

As I enter the time machine, my driver would be Robert Johnson; I would ask him to drop me off in Helena, Arkansas around 1930 for a first hand look at the place, then to take us over to Clarksdale, Miss to look at the intersection of Highway 61 where the “Crossroads” is located and where he sold his soul to the Devil. I have been there so I want to make sure it’s the place Robert remembers. Then I would ask Robert to slide over so Albert King could join us, and drop us off in 1936 in Deep Ellum, in Dallas, TX where he recorded so many of his songs… From Deep Ellum we need to move to 1950 in Memphis, TN and when we get there we ask Elvis to jump out of his pick-up truck and to squeeze on in with us and then Jerry Lee Lewis gets in and drives and he moves us up to 1955 over at Sun Studios – we need to stop, and get out to meet Sam Phillips, see the wonderful Shure 58 mics he’s using, make friends with everyone and then we ask Elvis to drive us up to 1955 in Chicago and Chess Records, where we all get out meet-up with Buddy Guy and he and Albert King go off on some goose chase but we’re good because Paul Butterfield gets in along with Al Cooper and Mike Bloomfield and we talk about East Meets West and how that record was made. Then we kick everyone out of the Time Machine, clean out the beer bottles and ciggies, and grab Mike Bloomfield and get him to drive us to the 60’s and the studio where he and Bob Dylan made “Like a Rolling Stone” and he played the organ part. We jump up to 1962, at The Indra Club in Hamburg, and we check in with the early Beatles doing remarkable work playing 8 hours a nite, 7 nights a week. We jump back into the Time Machine and now Bert Jansch is driving, and we head over to folkie London to hang out with Davy Graham and watch him invent the DADGAD scene. Then we shift gears again and we are in Oklahoma in 1925 and we hang out with Charlie Christian and watch him transform the jazz scene with a totally unique sound and technique. He jumps in and we head back to NYC and 1959 to check in with Miles Davis and John Coltrane; they don’t want to take a ride with us so we grab Otis Redding and head over to Detroit and Music City and we hang out with Berry Gordie and The Funk Brothers and watch as they record hit after hit after hit for Aretha, Marvin Gaye, The Crystals, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and do it all from a garage and a dirt floor recording studio…

We drop Otis off and pick up Billy Gibbons and head down to 1972 in Houston, Texas to watch ZZ Top turn vintage blues licks into roof-shakin’ Texas Boogie… and then we pick up Greg Allman and head to 1978 and Muscle Shoals, Alabama and watch the Allman Bros with Duane put it all together with southern roots boogie… then we pick up Bonnie Raitt and jump to 1971 in Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Mass and hang out with her and watch as the blues scene takes root in Boston – J. Geils, Magic Dick, John Lincoln Wright, John Pousette Dart, David Landau and Bruce Springsteen… and then it transforms again to Boston in the mid 70’s with The Cars, Orchestra Luna, Boston and Spider John Koerner. We pick up Bob Dylan and he drives us to Saginaw, Michigan and Whites Bar, the home of Bob Seeger, The MC 5, Grand Funk Railroad and Question Mark and The Mysterians. We grab Bob from the bar, we rev the time machine up… and we are in Gerd’s Folk City in NYC in 1962 watching a young Bob Dylan perform “Mr. Tambourine Man” to 10 people…Bob gets out of the Time Machine, we say thanks for the ride and he turns and says “Don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

I jump into the Time Machine, throw everyone out, and rev it back to right here, right now…. you have to look back to see where you’re going, but there’s nothing quite like the here and now. So I jump out of the Time Machine, set it to idle… and head across the street to hear Pastor Rod Flash at The Church of What’s Happen’ Now. Amen.

Eric Sommer - Official website


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