By TOM CHESEK
It was no less an old bluesman than John Lennon who said, “the blues is a chair, not a design for a chair or a better chair… it is a chair for sitting on, not for looking at. You sit on that music.”
Of course, when the person in the chair is someone with the skills and savvy of Gary Wright, that functional piece of furniture can be a throne of kings. The Red Bank-based singer and guitarist (who, just to clear things up, is not this Gary Wright) shares a passion for the blues with a great many other veteran performers on the Shore soundscape but in the hands of this southpaw stringbender, the legacy of the earliest blues recording artists comes alive. You hear the wise cat’s instinctive sizing up of the room and the audience, the troubador’s sense of social justice, and the crossroads at which the scholar’s pure research transmutes into joyous poetry.
A Red Banker for the past 28 years, the Long Island native would become known as co-fronter (with ex-wife Jennifer Wright on vocals) of Terraplane Blues, a band that released two CDs, played several major blues festivals, opened for some pretty legendary acts, and even made it to the finals of the 2000 International Blues Challenge in Memphis.
In the years since the Terraplane was permanently garaged, Wright has gigged extensively with reggae unit Predator Dub Assassins; sat in with his friend Chuck Lambert; produced the forthcoming CD by Richie Havens Band veteran Poppa John “Bug”; taken part in multi-artist benefits (such as a recent event in Asbury Park organized by the nonprofit Musicians on a Mission), and even showed up at the odd house party sort of affair including, in the interest of full disclosure, a 2011 happening that took place at this correspondent’s digs inside the Stephen Crane House.
This Friday night,Wright becomes the latest guest performer to join in the Shore’s longest-running house party the Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Foundations renewed series of Reckless Steamy Nights at the Womans Club of Red Bank. It’s a rescheduling of a November 2012 date that was postponed due to structural damage to the venerable venue and if you’ve yet to attend one of these unique and intimate events inside the historic Anthony Reckless estate on Broad Street, you owe it to yourself to take in some fine and fascinating sounds, take a tour of the landmark house, and take a break for conversation and refreshment with likeminded music fans.
The Blues Desk at redbankgreen went looking for Mr. Wright, in advance of what promises to be his first (and, hopefully, far from his last) full-band solo showcase.
redbankgreen: Gary, we should mention here that you and I go back to the late 1990s; to when my daughter attended Red Bank Primary School and you were running the after-school Y Kids program for the Community YMCA. The kids really liked Mr. Gary as I recall!
It wasn’t until a little later on that we realized just how authoritative a blues musician you were, especially the first time we heard you perform a solo acoustic set. It was one of those moments when the conversation stops and you’re like, ‘well now, what is THIS?’ In the middle of a scene that’s never lacked for talented bluesmen, it’s still rare when you find something that channels the old masters in such a seriously scary-good fashion…
GARY WRIGHT: I take it seriously, but at the same time I have fun with it. Blues music is not meant to be a museum piece. To me it’s as relevant now as when Charley Patton first played it.
You could say that I’m channeling my ancestors… it’s not necessarily a conscious thing. The guitar is the drum here. It can all be traced back to Africans playing on the drum centuries ago; a spiritual thing.
There’s definitely a percussive quality to how you approach the guitar.
I learned pretty early on that rhythm guitar isn’t just about playing chords. It can be that thing that sets the pace and the passion for the entire band, the whole song. I look to guys like Keith Richards, Richie Havens, guys who have that pulse, you know? And Jimmy Nolen, from James Brown’s band in the 60s. He started putting the beat of the song onto his guitar, because he said that the drummer in the band just couldn’t keep up.
I’m glad you used the phrase “museum piece” a moment ago, because too many people who are otherwise very skilled players can often tend to approach an old song with a little too much reverence, to keep it frozen into a certain arrangement.
One of the most interesting things to me is to hear different interpretations of the same songs. In Chicago during the height of the blues era, you’d go into a club and you wouldn’t hear a song played just like it was on the record. Songs were made short for radio and jukeboxes when they did them in the studio, but on stage they could end up lasting for 10, 12 minutes.
One of the many people that you got to share a stage with was the late Hubert Sumlin, who played several times around Red Bank, Asbury Park during the last years of his life. I had the pleasure of meeting him too, and to me the records that he did with Howlin’ Wolf are just the be-all and end-all.
Hubert said that Wolf was like a father to him, a father who slapped him around when he did something wrong! Those guys were proud men, despite their lack of education. Playing the blues was a sacred thing to them, a serious business, but not something pretentious. At any given night in this country, there’s a blues band playing somewhere inside a bar. But you’re rarely gonna find a jazz band in a bar, not in this day and age.
I suspect you grew up in an environment where you got exposed to lots of music. What are some of the records or performers that really kickstarted it for you?
When I was a kid we had all sorts of music in our house: doo wop, gospel, R&B, Chuck Berry. I responded to Fats Domino… and one of the first records that really jumped out at me from the little transistor radio was Mickey and Sylvia doing “Love Is Strange.”
But the first time that I heard Robert Johnson, something in me shook. Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf… they speak to me across time. And Miles Davis was a huge influence on me, in the sense that he pursued different sounds; the way he chose his bands. That’s what being an artist really is. You have to challenge yourself, to paint in different colors, different textures.
My uncle Barry Sample was in a band in his high school days, a James Brown sort of frontman who also played some guitar. He taught me how to play not so much as a music teacher, but he showed me more of an attitude. He played with a lot of passion. I would take his guitar and play around with it when he wasn’t looking, but he must have known that I was learning to play that way, and playing as a left-handed guitarist not restringing the guitar but learning it backwards.
Hendrix, if I’m not mistaken, would re-string his guitars. Did that thought ever occur to you, or had you gotten so used to playing it the way that you first learned it?
Jimi changed his strings, but other lefty guitar players Albert King, Otis Rush, Dick Dale didn’t re-string.
Being a Facebook pal of yours, I get to see all of the music clips and videos you post, although I’d be a liar if I said I clicked on every one of them. You must put up like 15 at a time! And one of the bands where you just kind of get possessed by the spirit is the Rolling Stones. I dare say you’re probably the single biggest Stones fan I’ve ever known. Do you go way back with them or was that a relatively more recent discovery for you?
I started listening to them when I was 6, 7 years old. It was because of my uncle that we had the first Rolling Stones album in the house. “Route 66,” “Carol,” “Can I Get a Witness” the guitars on that album just jumped out of the speaker at me. I had never heard guitars played quite like that before. To me it didn’t matter that these were young, British guys who’d been to college it had that feeling.
We’ve talked a lot about Chuck Berry, who’s just a whole branch of music unto himself, and how the Stones and their contemporaries were influenced by that first generation of rock and rollers. What are some of the threads that you pick up on, that run from the early folk blues guys on into the classic rock era?
Years ago our band got to open, at what used to be the Garden State Arts Center, on a bill with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. We got to dance on stage with Richard, and watching him you could really pick up on how lot of the early rock and roll guys grew up in Southern Baptist, Pentecostal households. I’m from a Southern Baptist background myself, and I always loved hearing a good sermon. The dynamic performance, the expression of it I incorporate a lot of that into my singing.
Chuck Berry I’ve seen several times, and to tell you the truth he wasn’t always hitting the right notes on stage, but to me he’s this brilliant innovator who really hit upon a way to take the music that influenced him, and to make it attractive to a teen audience, a white audience really. He was always a little older and smarter than a lot of the other guys from that time. He’s had his troubles with the government and he’s been accused of being all about the money but he wasn’t about to accept being treated the way that a lot of the old guys were treated. A lot of these people came from a background that was below what we call poverty, and to them the offer of a new Cadillac and $200 was worth signing their songs away to some record company owner or a deejay.
I remember the Terraplane Blues band as a real fixture on the regional scene, especially in the warmer weather months when you did all the festivals and free outdoor concerts. Then even though I’ve run into you regularly over the past few years, there was a time when I sort of lost track of you as regards the music. What are some of the things you’ve been up to in the wake of the Terraplanes?
When my ex-wife and I broke up after the last Terraplanes gig in 2007, that was it for a while. I spent 11 years with that band, and being in a band is like family, in that they’ve got your back whether or not you’re getting along or not. But divorce takes a lot out of you, and at that point I didn’t want to start another band.
I was friends with Tim Boyce [aka Master Timo of Predator Dub Assassins] and I asked to sit in at one of their shows. I told them ‘I need some therapy’ and they invited me to sit in for the night with them. Well, that all-night sit-in lasted five years, which I enjoyed because I didn’t have to lead the band, didn’t have to book gigs I’d just show up and play.
Music is still what I do. I’ve worked with Chuck Lambert and with Poppa John, who I’m producing now. Poppa John’s music has elements of blues, jazz, R&B, funk, and there’s a great influence from Richie Havens there also. He calls it ‘blues fusion’ but that doesn’t completely describe it either. It comes out his own way!
He’s also among the many people who have appeared in the Reckless Steamy Nights series at the Woman’s Club. Have you played any of those shows yourself?
I played there as a trio with Terraplane Blues. Acoustically it’s a great setting, a real listening room. I just need to explain to some of my friends what the Woman’s Club is. They’re like, ‘oh, there’s gonna be women there?’
So what can we expect to hear in this, your first full-length solo gig in some time?
It’s going to be a mix of solo acoustic and band sets. I figure on doing about 20 minutes solo to start a lot of blues, some reggae, some old R&B. I might even make up stuff on the spot.
After that I’ll be joined by the band. We’ve got Max Carmichael, who I’ve known since we were kids, on acoustic and electric guitar, and lap steel. John Yindra from Predator Dub Assassins on keyboards, and James Keenan, who filled in with P-Dub, on bass. Then we have Jason ‘Boxcar’ Battle on drums, who I’m borrowing from Chuck Lambert’s band. We may even have a Q&A session give everyone a chance to get to know the musicians.
Well, it’s great to see you back performing in a band context again, and I hope this Friday night finds you looking into the notion of doing some more of a good thing.
I’ve gotta be true to who I am as a musician. I look at this five-year period, since the last time I led a band, as being a way for me to grow as a musician, and as a person. And now I’m ready.
The music goes on inside the old Anthony Reckless House (Broad Street near Reckless Place) this Friday night, between the hours of 8:30 and 11pm. Its BYOB, with a $10 donation requested at the door (proceeds benefit the scholarship programs of the Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Foundation). Call (732)933-1984 for more info.