For whatever reason you find yourself in a nightclub --- nursing a beer, drowning a broken heart, looking for love, or to actually hear the band --- you're bound to learn something. See Duke Robillard finesse and strangle notes out of his guitar and you've just had a lesson in the blues. Watching him play up-close and personal-like is a crash course in passion and quiet determination.
Most of life's lessons, especially those learned after dark, are at best fleeting. You'll soon discover that beer mugs aren't bottomless and that heartaches are. You'll learn (perhaps too late) love initiated over cocktails is frequently the gateway to more romantic tragedy. But through it all, Robillard's blues endure.
Twenty years ago I got the opportunity to open up for Robillard's trio and to get schooled in big six-string cool. He put everything into his playing and the audience got everything that came out the other end in spades. His attack was relentless: full of muscular attacks and soft, soft notes he would render by simply blowing across the strings. Robillard even slung my ES-350 to bang out Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days." The club owner also didn't pay me at the end of the night. "We didn't discuss money," he said with a snicker --- yet another lesson.
Robillard --- who just won his fourth W.C. Handy Award as "Guitarist Of The Year" --- is the player's player; a man who through the reverent application of his heroes' prints has become a hero himself.
"I'm the kind of person who loves all kinds of blues-related music," he says from his New England home. "I definitely have my own sound and my own style, but I also, many times during a night, pay tribute to the people that I have learned from."
He founded the legendary Roomful Of Blues back in 1967, long before jump blues was dug by thirsty ears outside the hipster realm. Besides his work primarily as a solo artist, he has been highly in demand as a sideman for folks like Bob Dylan, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Ruth Brown, Jay McShann, Herb Ellis, Jimmy Witherspoon, Robert Gordon, Scott Hamilton, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, who he briefly joined after Jimmie Vaughn split.
"I've always, for the most part, been a frontman," he says. "I like that because I like to do, you know, whatever it is I like to do. But then again, I love backing up people. It brings out a different side."
Being able to do whatever he wants has led Robillard to finally dish out a beautifully humble and accurate tribute to blues master T-Bone Walker.
Blue Mood is Robillard's homage to an influence that has been readily apparent to anyone who's heard him play all along. It's no secret.
"I've always wanted to do it," he says. "He's been one of my main influences and he is the creator of electric blues. It's long overdue, really. For the last 20 years I figured I was gonna be doing this but I just didn't know when. The time just seemed right now."
The record is right, too... and downright righteous. Robillard technically nails Walker's slick, terse attack and warm, cutting tone. As the band pumps and swings throughout the disc on tunes like "T-Bone Shuffle" and "T-Bone Boogie," Robillard's guitar counters, chops, and syncopates as if to add "yeah, that's right" to everything the horns have to say.
Robillard sings in a soulful yet casual style that is similar to Walker's wail. But then again, he always has. If things were different, I know T-Bone would salute Duke the same way. I know he would.
Duke Robillard plays an outstanding blues double bill with John Hammond Thursday, June 17, at The High Falls Festival Site, at 5:30 p.m. Free. All ages.
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