The Scottish Guitarist Dave Arcari talks about the Radiotones, Scottish Blues, and his reso-phonic guitars

Dave Arcari: Celtic spirit and passion

Slide guitarist & songwriter Dave Arcari’s alt.blues sounds owe as much to trash country, punk and rockabilly as they do pre-war Delta blues and have been showcased via six internationally-acclaimed solo CD releases. His latest album – Devil’s Left Hand – was released on Buzz Records on 1 November 2010.

His new album is scheduled to be released on French record label Dixiefrog in early 2012.

Arcari's festival appearances include Glastonbury (UK), Peer Festival (Belgium), BluesAlive (Czech Republic & Poland shows), The Great British R&B Festival, and Augustibluus & ViruFolk (Estonia).

He has also played industry showcases at the North by North East (NxNE) music festival in Toronto, Canada and he was a finalist the UK Indy Music Awards reaching the top four in his category (best male solo artist).

With more than 100 UK dates a year plus regular shows in Finland, Estonia, France, Germany, Belgium, Poland and Canada, Arcari is one of the hardest gigging live artists on the circuit. A series of shows with folks including Steve Earle, Alabama 3, Seasick Steve and Jon Spencer along with his relentless UK and European tour schedule have established Arcari as a formidable international solo performer who is fast building a media reputation as a 'hell-raising National guitar madman'.

Arcari's growing reputation was endorsed in Spring 2007 when he was asked to put music to Robert Burns’ (Scotland’s national poet) poem Parcel of Rogues for a BBC Scotland special to mark 300 years of the Act of Union between Scotland and England. He also presented the programme, interviewing many high-profile political figures, musicians and historians along the way.

In 1996 he quit his first proper band role as guitarist with Summerfield Blues (which won the Alexis Korner memorial trophy for 'Scottish Blues Band of the Year' at Edinburgh International Blues fest in 2003 - the same year the band released it's debut, and only, CD album Devil & the Freightman) to concentrate on his new found National steel guitar. It wasn't long, though, before he was joined by harmonica player Jim Harcus and the intended solo career went by the wayside as Radiotones started to form and evolved into the force it is today.

So while the electric Nationals and Marshall stack are on the back burner for Dave's solo appearances, his hard-hitting gravel-laden vocals and slashing bottleneck steel guitar make for an aggressive, dynamic blues-based sound that owes as much to punk, rockabilly and trash country as pre-war Delta blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

– I started playing guiutar when I was about 18 or 19....mostly Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs and a little rock’n’roll. But because I started to listen to more guitar I discovered blues and some of the guitar techniques. I used to go to a venue in Glasgow on a Sunday night and there was a guy called Big George playing with his band. It was blues and I loved it, so I guess he was my first inspiration for electric blues. Then, of course, I came across people like John lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and one of my favourites, Lighting Hopkins. That was just the beginning!


Tell me about the beginning of the Radiotones. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

– My first band, Summerfield Blues, had broken up and I was playing a few solo gigs with my first National guitar. At one of these shows a harmonica  (harp) player – Jim Harcus – was in the audience and asked if I wanted to work with a harp player. I said ‘yes’ and we did a few shows as a duo. But I had an idea to develop another band round my new style so we recruited a bass player (Adrian Paterson) and I chose the name. There were two popular bands in the UK at that time – Radiohead and The Bluetones...many people thought the name was a comination from those names, but the truth is ‘Radiotone’  was a type of National guitar. I liked it and decided to use it as a band name!


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

– With Radiotones I played ‘the Heart of Scotland’ Hogmanay show to welcome the new millenium/year 2000 – that was a great show.  Solo, I have had some great shows with people like Seasick Steve, Steve Earl, Jon Spencer and Toby Keith...and there have been lots of great festivals across Europe. I also had a fantastic showcase in Toronto, Canada a few years ago – I hope to go back there soon.


Are there any memories of the Radiotones which you’d like to share with us?

– although Radiotones only plays a few shows a year, the band is still going. We have lots of  experiences and stories...often including food...and a lot of things we daren’t mention!


Which artists have you worked with & which of the people you have worked with do you consider the best?

- I have been lucky enough to play shows with some big names. Two of the nicest people I;ve played alongside are Seasick Steve and Steve Earle. It really makes a difference when someone you hold in high regard is enthusiastic and encouraging about your music.


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

– There’s been quite a lot of ‘best moments’ so it’s very hard to pick one....some of the festival shows like Moulin Blues in Netherlands have great times in the last eyar or so. The worst experiances includea small gig in Cambridgeshire when someone asked ‘does he play any Queen songs’! After being politely told ‘no’, she returned a few  minutes later and said «what about some Christmas songs’. Fuck sake!


From the musical point of view, is there any difference between acoustic & electric blues?

– The differences are not so much between acoustic and electric blues...more in the specific style. Generally, though, acoustic blues can work better for a solo performer.  I play my own kind of finger picking style which works  on both electric and acosutic instruments.


What does the BLUES mean to you, what does Blues offered you & why do you play the blues?

– Honesty. Playing from the heart. No compromise. All these things. I like the simplicity of the blues form and how it can  be conveyed in an almost endless way...feel, tempo, dynamic etc.


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

- My whole life has been interesting – to me anyway! And I wouldn’t change any of it. I have had interesting ‘day jobs’ in the past in PR, journalism and design but I suppose the last 15 years of being self employed in the music industry has been the highlight so far. Mostly because of my love of music and travel – as a musician I am lucky to be able to indulge in both.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

- Am I good? I don’t know! But the thing that helped me develop my performance was busking in the streets....and the most important factor in developing my playing style was my inability to learn ‘normal’ guitar riffs and stuff so I had to do it my own way. It was hard at the time, but well worth it now.


What mistake of music you want to correct? Give one wish for the BLUES

- There are no mistakes. I hope and wish for blues and blues-based music to keep evolving and growing.


You have traveling all around the Europe. What are your conclusions?

- The grass on the other side of the fence is always greener! As a Scottish/UK-based artist I find (generally) better conditions for live music outside the UK...but I think most musicians have to travel beyond their own doorstep to find this.


Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet?

- Probably some fo my influences....Delta blues guys like Blind Willie Johnson, Bukka White and Son House – and some of the rock’n’roll folks like Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochrane and, of course, the legends like Roy orbison, Johnny Cash and  Elvis.


What were your favorite guitars back then? Do you prefer playing acoustic or electric guitar?

- When I started out with my first band I palyed Fender Stratocasters for regular tuning stuff and Telecasters for slide. Telecasters are still my favourite electric guitars but I’m most at home playing acoustic National Reso-Phonic guitars.


Where did you pick up your guitar style & what were the first songs you learned?

- I am completely self-taught. My style developed through and inability to play or copy any of the ‘normal’ styles so I had t come up with my own way of playing. It’s a kind of hybrid finger-picking, alternating bass, slashing approach!


In which songs can someone hear the best of your guitar work?

- On National guitars, probably some of my newer songs like Devil’s Left Hand and Hangman’s regualr tuning check out stuff like Homesick & Blue and Stagolee.

What are the common factors of exhaling and playing the guitar?       

- You have to breathe when you play!


Do you know why the sound of the reso-phonic guitar is connected to the blues?

– resonator guitars became popular with the pre-war Delta blues guys because of their volume which helped them get heard in noisy juke joints. Oh, and they’ve even been known to stop bullets....


What are the secrets of reso-phonic National guitar? What does “body metal guitar” mean to you?

– the secret is in the spun aluminium cone, the resonator itself. The metal (bell brass, or steel usually) bodies add a characteristic tone, but the resonator has an identifiable sound even in National’s wooden-bodied guitars. The craftsmanship and quality of National instruments also puts them ahead of the rest.


Where did you pick up your slide style? 

- Mostly self-developed in an effort to copy some of the old Delta blues guys like Blind Willie Johnson and Bukka White...but also combined with some country and rock’n’roll influences.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

– I’m still looking for the secrets!


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?

– Blues is about honesty and simplicity. Pople can identify with the style which is both familar but possible toe volve to give a new angle.


Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?

- So many I hardly know where to start...Blind Willie Johnson, Bukka White, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Lighting Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Cedell Davis, Junior Kimbrough, RL Burnside.... Phew!  I don’t buy many records these days...and I listen to a lot of 50s-style rockn’n’roll, country and Amerciana stuff. Last record was a download version fo Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska to replace and old vinyl copy that got damaged.


How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?

– A lot! The internet and downloads have revolutionised the industry. There’s both good and bad aspects, but I think overall the internet is a good thing as it helps listeners discover all kinds of new music rather than what the major record comapnies want to sell.


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

- The live show is the most improtant thing. Do your own thing, write your own songs and keep control of your copyright.


Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your work with Robert Burns?

- I wrote the music for Burns’ Parcel of Rogues poem for a special BBC programme. It was very successful and I was asked by a Burns ‘guru’ to play at a special concert in Glasgow to celerate the ‘Year of Homecoming’...I was asked to play two songs, but I don’t think the organiser knew my music other than Parcel of Rogues! I explained my usual style was maybe not appropriate so he suggested I put music to another Robert Burns’ poem – MacPherson’s Lament – which i did and it was a great much so that I included it on my Devil’s Left Hand album and a new version will feature on my new album coming out on the French Dixiefrog label in March 2012.


Any comments about your experiences with Steve Earle and Jon Spencer?

– Steve Earle was a really nice guy...having heard all the tales about his past I was worried he might not be such a good guy, but he was great. Jon Spencer wasn’t quite what I expected....let’s leave it at that!

What are some of the most memorable interviews you've had for a BBC Scotland?

- Some of the early sessions and interviews with Radiotones were great...but making the Parcel of Rogues programme was good. Not just writing and recording the track, but interviewing key historical, political and music experts in Scotland was intertsing and awoke a new enthusiasm for Burns’ and his work.


When it all began for the blues in Scotland? Which is the most interesting period of Scottish blues & why? 

– You could say it began in the 18th century with Robert Burns! Folks like the late, great Tam White came to light in with the British blues boom of the 60s... while more folk-oriented artists like Hamish Imlach were also important. Later, people like Alex Harvey and Frankie Miller had a strong blues influence as did artists like John Martyn and Jackie Leven. Blues and blues-influenced music is going through a strong period at the moment – there are loads of great Scottish blues bands and solo artists out there at the moment...


What characterizes the sound of local blues scene? Who is considered the "godfather" of the Scottish blues?

– The celtic spirit and passion. And the Godfather? Tam White , of course!


Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?

- I’m not that keen on cover versions and the ‘standards’…I prefer the more obscure stuff. I would term Jitterbug Swing (Bukka White) a classic along with Blind Willie’s Soul of a Man….

Dave Arcari's website

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