Q&A with New Orleans musician Keith Stone -- touches with respectfully the New Orleans music and culture

"The term “Blues” is greatly misunderstood by many people, and it can conjure 10 different images for 10 different people."

Keith Stone: The Saints Returns

Keith Stone is a New Orleans guitarist/singer and song writer whose guitar versatility combined with his soulful bluesy voice quickly reveal his New Orleans roots. Since his birth in uptown New Orleans in 1965 he’s been saturated with the sounds of the land from Satchmo to Dr. John. Stone began playing guitar and hanging out with New Orleans street musicians when he was 16 and at 18 he played his first paying gig with the “Slu Foot Blues Band”opening for Rufus Thomas at the B.B. King Home Coming Festival in Indianola, MS. He would spend the next five years playing clubs in and around the French Quarter with a variety of blues bands. In the spring of 1990 Stone began a five year journey with Willie Lockett & the Blues Krewe.

As the youngest member of the eight piece show band, Stone grew leaps and bounds under the tutelage of the bands senior members whose resume’s included the who’s who of the music industry. During this time Stone shared the stage with New Orleans music royalty such as, Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Dr. John, Walter Washington, George Porter, JR., and Davell Crawford. From 1990 -1994 the band performed and opened for artist like Ray Charles, Gladys Night, Ricky Skaggs, and Albert Collins. They were featured in OffBeat Magazines’ November 1992 issue and in a review of an uptown performance Stone and fellow guitarist Michael Sklar were called “two ace guitar pickers” by writer Scott Aiges. By the fall of 1990 the band began featuring guitar legend Wayne Bennett, who became a close friend and mentor of Stone’s. On Saturday, April 25, 1992 Stone played his first New Orleans Jazz Fest with Willie Lockett & the Blues Krewe featuring Wayne Bennett. Stone would play the next two Jazz Fest before leaving for South Carolina in August of 94 following a conversion experience that would end years of drug addiction.

In 1998 Stone became an ordained Christian music Pastor for a large church in Lexington, SC. But when Katrina hit in 2005, he and his wife Cindi used their influence to send food and supplies to the metro area and in 2007 they sold all their possessions and returned to New Orleans to begin a non-profit organization that recruited thousands of volunteers and raised millions of dollars for Katrina relief and recovery. In 2008 he began sitting-in around town with old friends and in 2011, as a minister, Stone officiated the funeral of New Orleans Iconic personality, Coco Robicheaux. Keith Stone’s new album “The Prodigal Returns” released at early 2016 with a special guest appearance from Dr. John.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues and New Orleans culture?

I’d have to say that I’ve learned I’m a late bloomer and this is the best city in the world to chase your dreams no matter your age, and Blues is a music that is age irrelevant. I’ve also learned that creativity breeds creativity, and when you live in a city that is filled with innovation whether its music, food, or any form of art, and you tap into that creative reservoir, it becomes second nature to blend thoughts and ideas together and develop something completely original even of it seems familiar. Also, I’ve learned that I get home sick when I’m away for too long because I miss the diversity and feel of New Orleans.

What does the blues mean to you?

Everything! Blues is the most expressive music I’ve ever played. I can express sorrow, joy, intimacy, love, and even sense God’s presence when it’s played. The term “Blues” is greatly misunderstood by many people, and it can conjure 10 different images for 10 different people. When I play the blues I’m baring my soul for the world to see. I’m giving a piece of me away, all the while hoping it will be well received and enjoyed. The Blues is one of the greatest gifts I’ve received and it’s one that cannot be separated from my being. I’m very thankful to be able to play the blues and if I didn’t I’d have a bad case of the blues.

Photo by Adam Levy, 2015

How do you describe Keith Stone sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

Fun, innovative, diversified, electric, and sometimes edgy.

Give it 100%, 100% of the time. Take care of the music and the music will take care of you. Stay open minded and learn something from everyone whether a virtuoso or a beginner. Always be a student of the music who’s willing to take risk and stretch beyond yourself, and find ways to say the familiar in such a way that it sounds new.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

All of them! I’m a sponge for experiences with people. However, having had the privilege of working with the legendary Wayne Bennett when I was in my mid-twenties was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had. The last 2 ½ years of his life my wife and I were honored to be his friends. Not only did I get to spend time learning on the gig from Mr. Bennett both on the road and at home, we also spent two Christmases and his last Thanksgiving together. He treated me more like a son than a friend. I also have another friend who is a fantastic guitarist who is 20 years my senior and he still contributes to my betterment. He still busts my chops if I get slack. His name is Michael Sklar and we talk every day.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

When something seems hard or difficult, it’s only because you’re not familiar with it. Once you learn it and become familiar with it (whatever it is), it’s not hard or difficult anymore, so relax and learn something new.

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

I’ll tell you about the time I told Wayne Bennett to shut the F#@& up in front of 10,000 people at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. It was April of 1992 and I was in a Blues show band. There were eight of us plus Mr. Bennett. We had spent some time on the road with Mr. Bennett earlier that year and he developed a habit of telling his story to audiences during the show. It was great to hear him share about all the greats he’d worked with and where he studied music, but after a while his time got longer and longer until it took up no less than 20 minutes of a set. Well, when we got the gig for the Jazz Fest we only had a 45 minute set and we were billed as “Featuring Wayne Bennett”.

We took to the stage and played about four or five songs before we brought Mr. Bennett on, which was what we always did. Man, when he hit that stage the crowd drew closer and condensed so that folks were shoulder to shoulder. There were so many cameras you could hear their sound over the monitors. Mr. Bennett laid into that Gibson L-5 and set the stage on fire! The crowd erupted when he finished the first number. Then we went into a nice greasy slow blues, and then Mr. Bennett stopped playing and grabbed the mic. My heart sank into my stomach. I knew what was coming, but it couldn’t happen now. Not here!

You have to understand; I loved him dearly and always treated him with the utmost respect. I only wanted the best for him. Mr. Bennett began to tell everyone who he was and all the great people he worked with just as he had done on tour, but now we didn’t have the time to spare. I could feel the band’s angst growing. I was the closest in proximity to Mr. Bennett and before I knew what happened I had positioned my mouth directly behind his left ear so the mic couldn’t pick up my voice. I said “Wayne shut the F#@& up! Stop telling these people who you are and play your guitar so they’ll know who you are! Let them hear how great you are!” He turned his head slightly and with a stage smile acknowledged what I said, and then he proceeded to burn the stage to the ground with that L-5.

Man he played his tale off and tore the place down! When our set ended, on time I might add, there were half a dozen photographers waiting in the wings to snap pictures of Mr. Bennett. From the moment I had spoke those word into his ear, I was sick to my stomach. I felt awful that I had cursed the great Wayne Bennett on stage in front of 10,000 people. I put my head down and with my axe in my left hand I started to exit the stage. I had to walk right past Mr. Bennett and all those photographers taking his picture, and I was miserable. As I passed him to get to the stairs he suddenly grabbed me and pulled me to his side and said, Smile son, smile! Hold your head up and smile big! Thank you! Thank you, son! Thank you so much!” the cameras continued to take shots but now I was part of the picture. He later gave me a huge hug. He wasn’t the least bit angry with me, just grateful.  It still brings tears to my eyes thinking about it. 

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

I miss the big bands with horns, two or three guitars, B3 Organ, and everyone dressed up. I really dig and miss that expression of the blues. The T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Albert King style of tight sounding bands looking sharp have always appealed to me.

"Blues is the most expressive music I’ve ever played. I can express sorrow, joy, intimacy, love, and even sense God’s presence when it’s played."

Photo by Rick Moore

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

No fears and lots of hope. I have hopes that this music we call the blues will continue to generate new and younger audiences who in the words of Albert King will “take it further”. I have a great hope that a new generation of players will rise and bring the blues to the fore front of mainstream music again in the same way the Rolling Stones, Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughn did in their time. I think we’re on the verge of another Blues Revival and the charge is currently being led by Joe Bonamassa. 

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

That the powers that be in the music world would make an honest effort to publically recognize a wider variety of musical genres especially those genres that have been the foundation of modern music.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of New Orleans music from the Blues, Soul to Jazz, and Caribbean music?

It’s been said that Congo Square is the genesis of all New Orleans music. This is the place that became a melting pot of French Creoles from Haiti, West African Slaves, and even some Native American tribes. They would come together to buy, sell, and trade goods and celebrate with music and dance. It was here at Congo square these cultures began to blend the sounds of their traditional musical interments with European instruments. Congo Square is called the birthplace of Jazz and it actually predates Blues. Eventually the Sicilians would come to the city and bled there rhythms and instruments together with these sounds and begin to play what we call Dixieland music. I think Congo Square is where all of these genres came from including funk.    

"I’d have to say that I’ve learned I’m a late bloomer and this is the best city in the world to chase your dreams no matter your age, and Blues is a music that is age irrelevant." 

What was it like being born and raised in NOLA when you were growing up? What are some of your most fond memories from that time?

I count it a blessing to be a Native New Orleanian. New Orleans has been called the most unique city in America, and for good reason. We have our own style of food, style of music, Mardi Gras, more music festivals than any other city in the world, an abundance of seafood, and Saints football. When you grow up here, you’re saturated with this Gumbo of a culture; Creole, Italian, French, Irish, Native American, Caribbean, African, Spanish, and many other nations. Then there’s the Mississippi River running right through the middle of the city. That river brings the world to the city and for me it represents the flow of life. The river has its own sound with all its maritime traffic, and when it’s the foggy season the sound of fog horns fill the city and I find that comforting. As a kid I used to love riding the bus into the city with my mom and grandmother; the sound of music and the smell of fresh seafood being fried was everywhere. We have carnival season which last a little more than a month most years, and it ends on Mardi Gras Day. The last two weeks before Mardi Gras we have parades every night with marching bands and combo bands on floats all playing New Orleans music. It’s really quite the scene.

What touched (emotionally) you from the local culture and music? Why NOLA is a Mecca of avant-garde people?

In the words of Jon Cleary “I ain’t putting nobody down, don’t want rock nobody’s roll… What we got is mo’ hippa than what you got.” The music and culture of the city is so diversified and rich in flavor it attracts people from all over the world. Jon Cleary is considered one the most prominent New Orleans musicians, and yet he’s from the UK and moved here when he was in his early 20’s. This music culture touches something deep within and infects your soul with its unique musical bacteria. Once you get it, you’ve got it and it ain’t going away. It’s really hard for me to put my finger on any one thing, but it is very emotional.  I sing about it in the song “Take Me Home” which I wrote to reflect my longing for New Orleans when I’m away from her. The line “where yesterday’s today and tomorrow’s in no hurry to show” is about how the city seems to live in the past and it’s not in a rush for what the future holds, and maybe that’s why we still celebrate and play the songs of days gone by. Maybe it’s because we’re at the mouth of the Mississippi river and everything that flows from all those cities up river converge in this place to create this unique blend of musical and cultural gumbo that the world comes to enjoy. I guess you just have to visit to understand.

"Give it 100%, 100% of the time. Take care of the music and the music will take care of you. Stay open minded and learn something from everyone whether a virtuoso or a beginner."

What is the impact of Blues n’ Jazz (and New Orleans culture) to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

All of our Mayors are required to be efficient “Second-Line Dancers” in order to properly govern the city. Well, not really but all of our Mayors do “Second-Line”. Let me answer the question this way. Last week a Jewish man named Jimmy Glickman died. He was the beloved owner of one of the last, and most successful, stand alone music stores in the city. His death was sudden and untimely and it rattled the music community to the core. Jimmy’s best friend was a non-Jewish African-American. His funeral was held at a Synagogue and was attended by hundreds of working New Orleans Blues and Jazz musicians from all religious, political and cultural back grounds. We all cried together that day. Our music brings our diverse culture together to celebrate and enjoy life. At times our musicians and politicians even join forces for the betterment of the people.

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

I’d want to go back to Cosimo Matassa’s Studio on October 16, 1953. That’s the day Eddie Jones (aka Guitar Slim) recorded “The Things I Used to Do” which was produced and arranged by Ray Charles. Mr. Charles also played piano on the track. It’s said that Guitar Slim would suddenly stop in the middle of a take for reasons unknown. This led to dozens of takes being recorded and until they hit the right one. If you listen to the recording real close you can hear Ray Charles shout “yeah that’s it” at the end of the song signifying they had made it through. I think it would be great to have experienced that day which would turn out to be an historical day for Blues and Rock & Roll.

Keith Stone - Official website

Photo: Keith Stone & Dr. John, 2015

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