East Orange, NJ native John Mooney, 44, has forged a unique musical niche through the ingenious marriage of two disparate blues traditions: Mississippi Delta country blues and the distinctive rhythms of New Orleans.
He comes by both honestly, having spent many of his teenage years as a friend and musical protégé of seminal Delta bluesman Son House, who then lived in Mooney's hometown, Rochester, New York.
Mooney was raised on the music of the great blues artists of the early and middle 1900s. When he was growing up in upstate New York, Mooney listened to the radio a lot, disdaining the rock and roll of his peer group in favor of the blues.
In the early 1970s, Mooney spent several years as a traveling street singer traversing with his National Steel guitar while based mostly in California, Arizona and Texas. He settled in New Orleans in 1976, absorbing the unique percussive flavor and rhythmic character of the Crescent City's music, and gradually evolved from an acoustic musician to an electric bandleader.
In either setting, Mooney is a gifted performer with a memorable personal style. He plays blues with a distinctive, original touch. He writes much of his own material and never plays anything by anyone else that he does not arrange himself.
A forceful musician, Mooney is also a commanding vocalist, a singer of liquid subtlety and big-hearted tones. On stage he is vibrant, dynamic, almost frenetic. Off stage he is easygoing, mild mannered, almost shy.
Since 1981 he has been touring with his group, the Bluesiana Band, performing throughout the U.S., Europe and Japan.
"Late at night I would fish around the radio and I would pick up these live shows from Knoxville, Tenn.," Mooney said in a recent interview. "They would be playing blues, and it seemed more real than anything else on the radio. I basically was playing Delta-style blues exclusively until I met Son House in 1971. He was a big influence on my slide guitar playing as well as teaching me how to sing loud, but with feeling and clarity. He always told me 'I better have fun with my life, because if I did not somebody else would for me.'
"I learned to play music listening to Scrapper Blackwell and then Robert Johnson. Professor Longhair, Earl King, Fird 'Snooks' Eaglin Jr., Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, Malcolm 'Dr. John' Rebennack Jr., James Booker, Champion Jack Dupree and Mem Shannon were also major influences on my musical perspective. I also listened to a lot of Professor Longhair's melodic vocal phrasing and synthesis of Caribbean, boogie woogie and street-parade rhythms."
Mooney's most recent CD Dealing with the Devil-a live solo 1995 recording in Bremen, Germany released by Ruf Records in 1997-is an intense, very electric effort that finds him fully up to the task.
When asked to describe his sound Mooney laughed, and said: "It is Delta funk, New Orleans second-line blues mixed with Professor Longhair. It is real danceable, up-tempo, funkier than Chicago blues bands."
Despite his success and popularity in New Orleans, Mooney moved to Pine Island almost four years ago, and now lives next door to his parents.
"I wanted to get my kids out of New Orleans: It was getting too crazy up there and not the best environment for my family," he said. "And the school in Pine Island is great, so it is better all the way around."
Mooney is a devoted father to three kids: ages six, seven and nine, whom he describes as "the reason for all of this. I live for them," he said. "Everybody looks at you different when you start a family. You become part of a different society."
When asked if there was any promising musicians among his beloved pack, Mooney smiled and responded: "They all love music. My daughter, who just turned seven, brings her friends over to our house and they sing and dance to my music and what is playing on the radio or stereo. We call them the Star Fruit Girls. She knows all the words to Britney Spears and TLC, among others.
"The hardest part is when I leave home to go out on the road. They always ask why I have to go. There is so much going on today; pressures from other kids and outside influences at school and such that it is tough to be away from them for an extended amount of time. But my parents and fiancée help me out a lot and take care of them when I am away."
Mooney said folks should avoid the French Quarter if they are looking to listen to authentic, live blues music. "Check out places like the House of Blues, Maple Leaf, Carrolton Station and Tipitinas," he said. "At any of those places one will find good music in a safe and entertaining atmosphere. And-depending on the particular evening-one might even find myself and the band playing there."
This review is copyright © 1999 by Matt Alcott, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.