The slide/finger-picking guitarist Brian Kramer talks about Junior Wells, Eric Bibb, resophonics, Mali music & Swedish blues scene

"Music is a deeper, more complex language than what we can process or understand with just the mind alone."

Brian Kramer: Deep Blues from the Roots

Brian Kramer has shared the stage and traded licks and recorded with Taj Mahal, Toumani Diabate, Bob Brozman, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Robben Ford, Geoff Muldaur, Bobby Rush, Bernard Allison, Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, John Mayall, Sven Zetterberg, Michael Barretto, Otis Grand, Jimmy Dawkins and many others; and performed at international events. A native of Brooklyn, Brian was barely out of his teens when he began hanging out with legendary blues men, picking up tips and advice from folks such as Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, whenever they visited his hometown of NYC. Junior Wells took a particular liking to Brian and paid careful attention in showing him the right moves and how to play from the heart.

In 1989, Junior joined Brian on his first record, Brian Kramer and the Bluesmasters featuring Junior Wells, Win or Lose, with Junior backing up Brian on almost every track and Brian supporting Junior on four of his songs. On these sessions were a gathering of the finest, most respected sidemen in the US, as well as former Rolling Stone, Mick Taylor. Throughout much of the 90s, Brian toured and continued to be a fixture within the New York club scene, performing frequently with the great Blues man Larry Johnson, until relocating overseas to seek a broader range of opportunities.

On moving to Sweden, Brian began to be featured on the tracks of several established artists such as Cyndee Peters, Derrick “Big” Walker, and others. In 1998, Brian joined internationally acclaimed artist Eric Bibb, performing the next two years on four successful coast-to-coast tours of the US and Canada, Europe and Japan. That same year, Brian began hosting the weekly Saturday Stampen Blues Jam. These jam sessions proved to be fertile ground for nurturing Sweden’s hottest new young blues talents. In 2000, Brian released an intimate, all acoustic recording titled Brian Kramer Trio and Friends, Live at the Folklore Center, the following year saw the international release by Armadillo Records, UK, of Larry Johnson featuring Brian Kramer & the Couch Lizards, Two Gun Green. From 2001 to 2005, Brian began releasing a series of albums in his own name: No Regrets, Everybody’s Story and I Want My Illusion. In 2007, the S. African Dept. of Culture invited Brian to perform and conduct workshops at one of the largest cultural festivals in South Africa. Just prior to this event, Brian had collaborated with Taj Mahal and local South-African musicians on a recording - Cross Boundaries - for use on a promotional CD for the Aardklop Festival. In 2008, Brian celebrated 10 years of performances at Stampen, commemorating the anniversary with the album: Brian Kramer & the Nights of Blu-topia. In 2014 Brian released his first novel, “Out Of The Blues,” (published by Bullet Point Publishing) and the new CD, “Full Circle”.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Brian, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & what were the first songs you learned?
I first stumbled across the blues when I was 15 years old in Brooklyn. Me and a good friend dared each other to “snatch” some records from a small used record store one summer day when we were bored. When we ran home, the records we took were not what we expected and there was a Lightnin’ Hopkins record that completely blew me away. I had never heard anything like it before! We started trying to figure out the blues right away, which was not easy on our own. I remember teaching myself Lightnin’s Trouble Blues, and Trouble In Mind. Muddy Water’s Walkin’ Blues & Cant Be Satisfied. And a whole bunch of Robert Johnson stuff.

My hope is that more young people get exposed to what is special about Blues, roots and "real" music. Connect to the soul and depth of it like it was originally intended. Once exposed to that, its difficult to listen to and accept crap.

Has it always been all about the blues? Or is there any other types of music, you could say you have been strongly affected by?

In the house and areas where I grew up my parents listened to a lot of Sinatra or Dean Martin or Elvis so this had an effect on my taste. Then the rock music of the day was all around us… But when I got hit with the Blues bug, it was not very popular in Brooklyn in the 70’s, so it felt like a secret language and I had to really seek it out. It’s not like today where you can just google or youtube everything, you really had to search.

How do you describe your music philosophy about the blues?
Blues is truth. It’s honestly reflecting the reality of one’s life and that doesn’t necessarily mean just the “low-down” stuff. It is also a celebration of one’s joy and love of life as well! Those aspects of the Blues are as much a part of people emotions are just beginning to be explored and used as an inspiration for people. It is just as valid because it is real to the individual. I also believe I have a responsibility with my music to give folks an experience that will empower them to be lifted over their personal struggle or suffering. That is my intention at least.

How started the thought of novel, “Out Of The Blues”?

Well, I've been writing and contributing articles to various publications including Blues Matters Magazine (UK) for many, many years. I've been wanting to challenge something longer, novel length and have actually written an autobiography about ten years back.

I asked a publisher here in Stockholm if he would read it and give me an honest answer if it was publishable or was I fooling myself. To my surprise he said it was, however the moment I realized that it was possible, I decided I didn't want anything published that was based on facts of my life when there are so many sides to the experiences shared. Not yet at least.

But, I then got a flash of inspiration for the story behind "Out Of The Blues" (Bullet Point Publishing), based on aging Blues musicians who live in NYC and following their ups and downs and struggles, with the NY club scene as a strong backdrop and was excited that I could actually spread many of my own experiences out over the different characters and the times without it actually being specific to my own life. The publisher read it, loved it and the rest it history.

Another interesting unplanned note; many of the lyrics for my latest album release; "Full Circle" were written the same period I was writing the novel, because the main characters are songwriters, so they wound up in the book as filler until I replaced with something else later on. That never happened and eventually I went in to record the album and when the book was agreed to be published, I suddenly realized there was a specific tie-in to the novel and the recording. So, they sort of support each other.

Do you have secret passions in music? Let's say Abba, for example?

Hmmm? If I tell you, I may be tortured for it! Let’s just say I can be a sucker for weepy-eyed ballads of the 70’s…

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Eric Bibb?

There are so many… 1999 we played an Art Center in Arizona on the bill with Alvin Youngblood Hart. Alvin Joined us at the end of our set for a few songs and it really got into the “holy” zone. I felt like the music we created that night burnt a hole in the universe! Years later I saw a list Alvin wrote on a web forum of his “top 15” musicians he’s had a blast playing with and was honored to see my name on his list. The years I played with Eric were wonderful and also validating that just two players with the right intention and focus and generate a renewed energy with rootsy, original music.

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

I can honestly say that I don’t have a “worst moment”. There have been lessons along the way that have to do with understanding how the music business works (or doesn’t work), but that has all resulted in understanding and sort of a collected wisdom (whatever doesn’t kill ya’, right?). Over-all it continues to be an amazing journey where I have the privilege to connect with listeners and lovers of my own roots/blues stuff and work with some of the most incredible and influential artists on the planet. But if I had to pick one moment; fishing with Taj Mahal on a boat for 5 hours and then recording in the studio together would be at the top of the list!

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

I would say certain people... Many great players and friends have passed on, like Junior Wells... Jenny Bohman...

But also in New York there was more of a "scene" or community feeling with the music environment, which is now mostly gone...

My hope is that more young people get exposed to what is special about Blues, roots and "real" music. Connect to the soul and depth of it like it was originally intended. Once exposed to that, its difficult to listen to and accept crap.

My fear is that artists will continue to be trivialized and under appreciated & underpaid for their talents, efforts and contributions toward a better soundtrack to this world. Spotify and various sites and download options offer an understanding that the music artists create should be free or cheap as possible. This undermines quality and robs us of our living.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Larry Johnson’s session?
Larry and I go back a long way. He was a mentor to me in New York and allowed me by his side on many shows in the early years. He has a reputation for being a very difficult man to deal with, but he is just brutally honest. I vividly recall the joy and laughter we had together the night before the sessions when we were running through the material to be recorded. He never seemed happier and I felt like he completely trusted me with his material. The actual session was pretty intense but in the end that album “Two Gun Green” is one of my proudest achievements!

Are there any memories from Buddy Guy & Junior Wells, which you’d like to share with us?

I used to hang out with those cats whenever they came into town. You have to remember at that time in the late 70’s, the Blues was very much neglected in the States. So the rooms they played would be half empty and mostly empty by the end of the night. They both really appreciated when a young person like myself at the time showed interest and I became close to them, especially Junior. The first few times I was around them backstage at the infamous Lone Star Café, I recall their generosity and willingness to jam with me informally and give me advice that would set me on this Blues path. When Buddy would pop a string on his guitar, he would hand it to me from the stage and I would quickly run to the dressing room and put a new one on and tune it. I would of course take a few seconds to squeeze a few licks out of his Guild Starfire semi-hollow body before I gave it back. Years later of course I recorded and released an album with Junior. Buddy wanted to/was scheduled to play on another release on mine, but the timing didn’t work out and then he started to get really busy…

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

I would probably contribute to more music awareness in schools. More workshops and opportunities for students to be exposed to great artists and be influenced as well as shown the value of it.

But in the "music world" itself I would also offer more opportunities to youth. I have been doing that for many years over here in Stockholm and at the great club I am associated with; Stampen, and the result is a new interest is being fostered and lead by talented young musicians who feel encouraged and have the opportunities to develop.

Which memory from Junior makes you smile? What advice has he given to you?
When we did our album together (Brian Kramer & the Blues Masters, Win Or Lose) we were both locked in a tiny booth together most of the time playing our tracks side by side. Between takes we would joke around a bit or I would play a riff and he would jump in with a riff to respond. It was very surreal and incredible. The best advice I received from Junior was that I had “my own expression of the Blues” within me. I had my own voice, story and contribution & he told me as long as I respected the language,” I had the right to the Blues just like anyone else including himself”. That was a big deal for a young, white, Jewish kid from Brooklyn to hear at that time!

What is the “thing” you miss most from Junior Wells?
I miss not being able to call him and just hear his voice! He always made me feel capable and I take a part of his spirit with me wherever I go. He was a good friend.

In what age did you play your first gig and how was it like (where, with whom etc.)?
My fist “official” gig was when I was 20 at a place in Greenwich Village called Folk City (where Bob Dylan and others folk & blues legends played in NYC starting in the 60’s). I was with my school buddy Jon Nilsen who I learned guitar with and Pete Conway on harp (Pete played & recorded on Chris Whitley’s first album). It was actually pretty crowded and I was so nervous, but when I heard the first applause after a song, the nerves went away and I remember it being a blast! We were so hopped up after we did our set that we left the club and completely forgot to get paid! That doesn’t happen anymore…

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your experience from the workshops at cultural festivals in South Africa
That was an incredible, unforgettable experience. I was asked to organize a few workshops in a Township in South Africa in an area called Potchefstroom, by Johannesburg, and share my experiences with these struggling local musicians. I’m not saying it’s the same thing but it was a struggle growing up in Brooklyn and overcoming many obstacles to persevere and make my music happen so we were able to meet with an understanding on that level. I also study Buddhism and was able to inject a vibe of turning misfortune into fortune, which they really took inside. There is still a lingering tone of blacks being inferior to whites that peek through in that environment, which I reacted strongly to.  We were able to play together and create a joyful, memorable collaboration, on the same level. I’m hoping to return in the future for another chapter.   

What is the difference between a musician living and working in the U.S. and one in Europe?
I see it as a huge, unnecessary struggle in the U.S. over the last 20 years or so. The music and culture is not supported as it should be and so many great working artists can’t get decent gigs or what they are worth to perform. The European community seems to embrace culture in a way that is celebrated and it has been a haven for artists across genres to travel here and feel appreciated. I have always told my fellow music comrades that they need to get over to Europe somehow at least once a year to re-charge their juices and renew their inspiration. I have invited and continue to invite many friends over to play and experience the Stockholm blues scene.

What is the current state of the blues scene in Sweden where you live?
Very healthy! In some ways better than in New York. Or more like how New York used to be. There are a bunch of really good venues, lots of great musicians, the clubs are crowded and there is a healthy dose of new interest with the younger generation who are thirsting for the blues. It’s an exciting time for the Blues in Stockholm!

Blues is truth. It’s honestly reflecting the reality of one’s life and that doesn’t necessarily mean just the “low-down” stuff. It is also a celebration of one’s joy and love of life as well! 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
One wish for the Blues? That it is always fresh and honest by the artists who are creating it. It doesn’t always have to be a rigid traditional thing, but a respect thing where the honesty and reality of this moment is reflected in their blues. Then people will always be able to relate and connect, without having to know the history. They will just groove to it like it was in the very beginning.

Do you think that only real blues is something gloomy played by old grey-haired men with harps and battered guitars in some smokey, dark and little shabby clubs?
Absolutely not! I’ve seen blues by both old and young, in shitty broken down shacks and in high-class art centers. The Blues is the spirit to connect and lift people to another place! The only thing that has to be “real” is the person’s conviction. Age doesn’t matter, race doesn’t matter, sex doesn’t… Hell, instrument doesn’t matter, new or old, guitar, harp, bagpipes… Those who think otherwise may prefer their blues to be boxed in and served up sloppy, drunk and clichéd, however they are limiting their own view of the blues as a living, evolving music.

You have played with many guitarists. It must be hard, but would you try to give top 3, which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you? 
1) Larry Johnson at a huge blues festival in Sweden, 2001 just the two of us on stage while Larry mesmerized thousands of blues fans. The power that just two musicians with only guitars can create was awesome!
2) Bob Brozman… I booked Bob’s first shows in Sweden & he invited me on stage with him for a show that showed me this master of the slide guitar was also a humble and gracious teacher. He never once made me feel intimidated. We also recorded a few tracks together.
3) Not a guitarist but a Kora player… Toumani Diabate from Mali; who I admire greatly and fell in love with his sound, vibe & culture. I was with him backstage at a big show he was doing in Stockholm and I had my National with me. We started playing a bit & it was feeling so good when he said; “OK Brian shall we go now?” I was like, where? He said “…to do a sound check together, music that sounds this good must be shared with the people”. So then I found myself on stage with the greatest, most acknowledged Kora player on the planet! That was probably the greatest experience of my career!

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

I always like to say if I had a time machine, I would probably like to be in Chicago, mid 1930's and walk into a club where Big Bill Bronnzy, Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie were on stage jamming and having what they called a "head-cutting" contest! To see these and other great artists in their absolute prime and the height of their success.

That would be something!

And while I was there, I'd probably grab a couple of National resonator guitars, which only cost about thirty or forty bucks back then...

I've heard two sayings about the blues, which are a little bit confusing. One is "Blues is a healer". Another one "You have to feel blue to play Blues". If it's suppose to be a healer, why should it make one feel sad?

I believe it’s more like you have to “own” or take responsibility for your personal hardship or suffering in order to deal with and overcome it. Then it becomes a healer. Music is a deeper, more complex language than what we can process or understand with just the mind alone. When we filter our sufferings through the blues, we are able to raise ourselves above it and find a way to live through it with more conviction and strength. That’s how it’s worked for me.

The Blues is the spirit to connect and lift people to another place! The only thing that has to be “real” is the person’s conviction. Age doesn’t matter, race doesn’t matter, sex doesn’t… Hell, instrument doesn’t matter, new or old, guitar, harp, bagpipes…

Do you know why the sound of resonator guitar is connected to the blues? What are the secrets for resonators?
They are definitely a unique voice to the blues, though originally targeted to Hawaiian players in the 1920’s. I think it’s a vocal quality; they are a bit rougher, raw and with the slide can be very much like the voice.

Most people know musicians of their recordings, tours and live shows. You are also known for your work with youth etc. Would you tell a little bit about that?

Well I have been working with students and kids for many years with music, in schools and privately. I’ve organized events and benefit concerts where the student and their music is the main focus. It’s a great privilege to earn the trust of young people.

I presume that big part of your life is somehow connected with blues. Do you have any hobbies, which do not have anything to do with music?

I have a family, wife & two teenage kids so life is pretty full but I am also an illustrator & wish I had more time for that. I have also been a contributing writer for Blues Matters Magazine (UK). I really like writing and am working on a book as well.

Which are the best and the worst things in touring?
In the beginning when I was younger it was anything goes! Sleep anywhere, play anywhere, get paid or not… These days you start to miss your “comfort zones”, you own bed, your solitude. I love to travel and want to more, but it does get harder and has to be for the right reasons these days. I really like when there is attention to detail in all aspects.

You have pretty interesting project, the weekly Saturday Stampen Blues Jam. Where did you get that idea?
Well it simply didn’t exist when I came and moved here! I grew up around all these great jams and watering holes for blues music in the states and was longing for it. I was actually amazed they didn’t have one and it reflected in the blues community. The blues scene was very closed and exclusive… When I first started it in 1998, it was a huge success & all these closet blues musicians came out of the wood-work to be part of it. The public was also amazed because this is not really an “improvisational” orientated culture, so it was and is fascinating for Swedes to witness musicians who have never played together before make great music. 14 years later and it is strong as ever and that has reflected in the over-all tone and expansion of the interest in the blues here in Sweden as a whole. People travel the globe to experience it. At least 5 other popular jam sessions in clubs have developed around Sweden inspired by what I have been doing at Stampen.
Of all the things I’ve done, people I’ve played with, places I’ve travelled, that’s most likely what I will be remembered for in the end.

Brian Kramer's official website

      Photo Credits: Michel Verlinden, Chris Rees, Pelle Piano, P. Dekker

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