Bad Shit Is Good For You
An interview with Todd Sharpville (Pt. 2)
Words: Vincent Abbate / PHOTO: Jennifer Noble
In the first part of my interview with Todd Sharpville, the veteran British bluesman spoke about the many artists who have inspired him and his unique strategy for staying busy when live gigs dried up during the COVID pandemic. Part two of our conversation is about his recent performance on Germany’s legendary Rockpalast program and how the personal challenges of the past have made him a more resilient and happier man today.
Who Is Blues: For my money, your album Medication Time is one of the best blues albums of recent years. When did you record it and what led to the release on the French label DixieFrog?
Todd Sharpville: I recorded it in Rhode Island, where the producer Duke Robillard is based, and planned to release it prior to the lockdown. The Covid era changed everything. I touched base with Dixiefrog after the third lockdown and thankfully, they loved the tracks.
WIB: The release of Medication Time seems to have led to your invitation to perform on Rockpalast, Germany’s longest-running live music program. A career-changing event possibly?
Todd Sharpville: As I said earlier, so much of the grassroots landscape has been torn apart by the crisis, so I was hoping the album would somehow help me get things back on track. My lockdown project left me with a huge amount of personal debt, so I kept my fingers crossed when Medication Time was finally unveiled. The album received so many lovely reviews from around the world, which prompted the German TV company WDR to contact me. They kindly offered me the Rockpalast gig which was a personal honor to do. I’ve recently concluded a record deal for the recording which will be released as a live double album/DVD boxset this year. I’ve taken on a new booking agent because of it and will be touring heavily for most of next year. So yes, Rockpalast has helped to unlock a new door to my future as an artist.
Bad Shit Is Good For You
An interview with Todd Sharpville (Pt.1)
Words: Vincent Abbate / PHOTOS: Chris Giff, Jennifer Noble
Within the blues world, we talk until we’re blue in the face about axe-shredding guitarists and leather-lunged singers. We admire the proud keepers of the flame and purveyors of tradition. Recently it seems we’ve become enamored with glamour and coolness as embodied by some of the genre’s younger, more marketable stars. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
But if you ask me (no one has!), what the blues needs most of all is personalities. In other words: artists willing to stand onstage and be real. Musicians who are not afraid to reveal themselves as flawed, fallible human beings.
Take veteran British bluesman Todd Sharpville. At his recent performance in Bonn, Germany – a 90-minute show captured on video – one of the first things he says as he greets his audience from behind a piano is: “This is a song for everyone who’s failed. We’re all fucking human. We all fail at some point or another.” He then proceeds to sing the opening number, “The Blue Standard,” in a voice laden with sorrow and hurt. Yet there’s an undeniable glimmer of hope in his delivery, too.
Just like his outstanding 2022 release Medication Time (an album inspired by his brief stint in a mental institution earlier this century), his recent date with German television revealed Sharpville as a master at conveying moods and emotions. Taking the stage at a mid-sized venue called Harmonie, he and the members of his six-piece band were not out to show the world how talented they are at string-bending and paradiddling. Rather, they had come to make a series of statements about the human condition. Gripping moments from that performance – soon to be released on CD & DVD – include the aforementioned “The Blue Standard,” the stirring “Love Knows No Bounds,” the tortured and harrowing “Medication Time” and the heartbreakingly personal “Won’t Say Goodbye” – cathartic explorations of imperfection, shared humanity, mental illness and grief.
The Interviews: Blues Encounters 2000 – 2020 is the second installment in the Who Is Blues book series. It includes conversations held during the past two decades with B.B. King, Bobby Rush and more than a dozen other artists. The following is an excerpt from the chapter on singer, guitarist and songwriter Walter Trout.
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Interview by Vincent Abbate
Though practically all of our interaction has been via the phone, I feel like I’ve gotten to know Walter Trout a little bit during the latter part of his career. He may be a celebrated blues guitar hero, but he’s also someone who will treat a stranger like a friend.
Our first “phoner” coincided with the release of his Luther Allison tribute album Luther’s Blues in 2013 and introduced me to Walter as a plain talker whose New Jersey accent would always remind me of home. Our second conversation was as emotional as it gets, as he was still processing the near-death experience that inspired the writing of his unforgettable Battle Scars album. By the time we discussed his subsequent record We’re All In This Together, the worst of that storm had passed and he had emerged as someone the entire bluesrock scene could rally around. Mixed in was a quick hello and a handshake before a concert in Leverkusen, Germany – the only time we’ve ever spoken face-to-face.
His fans love and respect him. And yet, Trout routinely gets pounded by critics for his explosive, sometimes frenetic style of electric guitar. “You play too many notes and you’re too loud,” complained one of his detractors years ago. In an act of rebellion, Walter chopped that statement down to five words – “Too many notes, too loud!” – and began using the phrase as his official slogan on T-shirts and other merchandise.
Trout’s uneasy relationship with more traditionally-inclined listeners became a topic of our fourth and most recent interview, conducted once again by phone during the run-up to his latest studio album Ordinary Madness, released in August of 2020.
In and Out of the Blues
An interview with Jon Amor
Words: Vincent Abbate
(Author’s note: Exactly one year ago tomorrow, on November 28th 2018, British musician Jon Amor released the brilliant and eclectic Colour In The Sky – an essential album that is perhaps his finest collection of songs to date. In the interview we conducted a few weeks later, Jon provided deep insight into his songwriting. He also opened up about the personal challenges he was facing while making the record. But a bout of procrastination and the unforeseen circumstances of a tumultuous winter caused me to shelve the article. Colour In The Sky deserves better than that! And perhaps some of you missed it. So today, with my apologies to Jon, I give you our interview.)
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Since this blog and its companion book series are called Who Is Blues, I’ll pose the dreaded question: Is Jon Amor blues?
Sure he is. As guitarist and singer, he’s been in some of the best blues bands to come out of Great Britain during the past three decades. Amor is a founding member of The Hoax, who enjoyed a run of critically acclaimed albums in the 1990s and whose raw, edgy sound was last heard in 2014 on their full-length B.B. King tribute Recession Blues. He also tours off-and-on with a pair of blues “supergroup” projects, DVL and The Boom Band. Moreover, with two excellent (and highly recommended) releases from his own Jon Amor Blues Group between 2011 and 2012, he demonstrated – like few others have – that electric blues can be rooted in decades-old traditions without carrying the stench of mothballs.
By constrast, on his occasional solo releases he works comfortably both alongside and well outside the blues genre. Those records are where this talented gent tests the limits of his songwriting muscle. As a lifelong devotee of the blues, Amor bemoans the lack of well-rounded artists on today’s scene, and rightfully so. “Too often, lyric and melody are treated as if they are just filling time between guitar solos,” he observes in the Q&A that follows.
Six Questions on Rock ‘N’ Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry
Words: Vincent Abbate
When introducing Chuck Berry on the Mike Douglas Show in 1972, former Beatle John Lennon stated, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” Though it appears the line was written for him, there’s no denying Berry’s influence on Lennon, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and just about anyone else who has picked up an electric guitar during the past 70 years.
With his newest album Rock ‘N’ Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry, bluesman Mike Zito – like Berry a native of St. Louis, Missouri – reveals his profound love and admiration for Berry’s musical legacy. The 20-track collection of classic rock’n’roll songs was two years in the making, as the singer and guitarist sought to celebrate the late musical legend in grand style by inviting A-list guitarists to re-interpret Berry’s songs. Credited to “Mike Zito & Friends,” the album’s roster of guest artists includes Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Eric Gales, Tommy Castro, Robben Ford, Sonny Landreth, Luther Dickinson, Joanna Connor, Albert Castiglia, Anders Osborne and even Chuck’s grandson, Charles Berry III.
It’s good to have friends.
Keep It Weird
An interview with Dudley Taft (Pt. 2)
Words: Vincent Abbate
After Part 1 of our interview went live on Who Is Blues in mid-September, bluesrocker Dudley Taft closed out a successful European run with his trio before returning to his home base in Cincinnati, Ohio. There, he’s performed at the Blink Festival, appeared on local television and been nominated for a Cincinnati Entertainment Award as Best Blues Artist. Simple Life, the album he released on September 6th, has been hovering in the upper reaches of various roots music charts and getting favorable reviews in the press. All in all, the positives outweigh the challenges he encountered while touring around Europe, which included a blown amp, shoddy foot pedals and a touring van that came to a hair-raising halt on a busy stretch of Autobahn.
Bassist Kasey Williams, an Ohioan, and British drummer Darby Todd, both of whom were sharing that ride with Taft, play a more active role in the second and final part of our interview. As the evening wore on, tongues got looser and our conversation became somewhat more scattered. There was less talk about the new album, more about the blues, playing live and making music in general. When the smoke cleared, the opinions expressed by this trio of seasoned musicians underscored my overriding impression of Dudley Taft: He puts the song first and doesn’t give a tinker’s dam about categories.
Keep It Weird
An interview with Dudley Taft
Words: Vincent Abbate
Last time I checked, Dudley Taft was still waiting to be invited on one of those fancy schmancy blues cruises. You know – those overblown guitar orgies at sea that seem to be popping up all over the place.* Six albums into his solo career, the singer/guitarist still hasn’t become part of that exclusive back-patting mutual admiration society. And perhaps his “outside the box” approach means he never will. For now at least, he’s a lone wolf – an outsider who may or may not be looking in.
(*Note to Joe: I’d be happy to accept your invitation to the next cruise. Anything from the “mid-ship balcony” category upward will do.)
Yet with each new release, a few more people do seem to be picking up on what the persevering, axe-wielding longbeard from Cincinnati is putting down. Among today’s blues-rockers, Dudley Taft has a fairly unique skillset.
The Man from MARZ
An interview with Mike Zito
Words: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Marcella auf der Heide
Meet producer Mike Zito. Oh, I know: We all love to watch Mike get onstage and tear down the house with one of his reliably staggering performances. A charming dude who is only underrated as a guitarist and singer because his songwriting is so good – what’s not to like?
But for the past decade or so, the St. Louis native and 2018 BMA-winner as Rock Blues Artist of the Year has been moonlighting at the mixing desk. When the head of the Germany-based Ruf Records label, Thomas Ruf, asked him to come to Berlin and supervise a trio of young, fairly inexperienced female artists during the making of an album called Girls With Guitars, Zito jumped at the chance. He followed that up by producing one of those three axe-toting ladies, Samantha Fish, on her first two solo records for the same label. Fish has since become one of the blues’ hottest properties. Knowing that he had a hand in getting that particular ball rolling, Zito can look back with a certain fatherly pride.
Outside The Box
An interview with Scottie Blinn
of Black Market III
Words: Vincent Abbate / Photos: Josh Rose, Nick Abadilla
Honest, gritty and effective. Those are some of the words that leap to mind listening to Dashboard Jesus, the latest musical offering from Black Market III. The album reflects the sensibilities of these San Diego stalwarts, who trust in the value of hard work and choose blue-collar edginess over Hollywood flash.
The trio revolves around singer/guitarist Scottie Blinn and singer/bassist Roxy Coverdale – partners in life and in music. Blinn was bit by the blues bug at age 16, after catching a performance by Stevie Ray Vaughan at a local open air festival. But rather than become one of a hundred thousand SRV copycats, Blinn latched on as a sideman with another native of Texas, Tomcat Courtney, who grew up on the music of Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. This elder statesman of the San Diego blues scene, now 89 years old, led him deep into the heart of the traditional, down-home blues.
The No Bullshit Factor
An interview with Sue Foley
Words: Vincent Abbate
Sue Foley is in a good place.
Even though I’ve had a few and she hasn’t – “I’d really love a beer, but don’t want to start drinking yet” – she’s the one who’s in high spirits during our pre-show interview, laughing about life and being back on the road in Europe after a long hiatus. Hot on the heels of The Ice Queen, her first solo album since 2006’s New Used Car, the Ottawa native is a renewed presence on the international blues scene. She refuses to think of it as a comeback.
“That sounds so depressing. It’s not like I went anywhere!”
Let’s consider that for a moment.