A bluesman speaks
by Karl Bremer
From the Oct. 27, 1999 issue of Pulse Magazine
1999 KBA Award Winner|
Achievement for Blues on the Internet
Presented by the Blues Foundation
Trout to most blues fans in the U.S. and youll
probably be met with a blank stare and a Who?
But go across the pond and ask a European blues hound
about Trout and the response will be more like an
ecstatic Where? or When?|
Like so many bluesmen before him, Trout found boundless
success overseas with his powerhouse playing before he
started to make a name for himself here. He headlines
some of the biggest festivals in Europe, and a BBC poll
ranked him sixth on a list of the top 20 greatest
guitarists, right behind Jimmy Page. Yet Trout remains
relatively unknown in his home country, slugging it out
in such venues as the Gaslight Lounge in Grand Forks,
North Dakota and the Minnesota Music Café in St. Paul,
where he returns this week for his third local gig.
This paradox for the New Jersey-born and Huntington
Beach, CA-based guitarist is changing, though. His
audiences are getting progressively larger and more
enthusiastic and his name is showing up on U.S. blues
fests lineups with increasing regularity. Watching this
guy play gives you a quick explanation as to why: Trout
is an incredibly versatile journeyman player who one
minute attacks a Fender Strat like a wolf on raw meat and
the next is stroking sensuous lines out of it that
recalls Carlos Santana at his sweetest.
Im just starting here. Im a brand new
band in America, Trout says. This is my first
bona fide tour where Ive got a good booking agency.
Its all going for me. Ive got a good record
company (Ruf Records).
Trout has been pumping out records in Europe since the
late 1980s, building on his popularity established
through relentless touring and a five year stint with
John Mayall, where he traded licks with Coco Montoya as
the Bluesbreakers lead guitarist. When Mayall took
ill one night, Trout and Montoya took over fronting the
band and after the show, a Dutch record producer talked
him into going solo in 1989. Hes been wowing
European audiences ever since with his guitar
Trout plays rip-roaring, shredding guitar reminiscent of
the Luther Allison school of fiery intensity. Fanning the
flames behind him is a three-piece band featuring the
soulful Hammond B-3 of Paul Kallestad, rock-steady beat
of drummer Bernard Pershey and longtime bass ally James
I love my band, Trout enthuses. I think
theyre just amazing. One of the things I learned a
long time ago is you can put these great players together
but if theres no chemistry, it doesnt matter
how good they play. Thats why a lot of those
superstar bands of the 70s sounded like shit. What
makes a great band is chemistry and communication.
The big question for blues purists always is: Is it blues
or is it rock? Trout really doesnt care what box
you put him into.
I dont know where categories end. I read a
quote by Charlie Musselwhite and he said the blues is
everywhere and if he hears music that has emotion and
feeling, to him its blues. And I just read that and
said, Amen. Because I dont know about
these categories. I know that Im not interested in
playing what I call museum blues, Trouts term
for the retreads of old blues standards heard ad
infinitum from players everywhere.
Im not up for imitating the old masters. To
me, I dont want to be a mimic. I want to try as
hard as I can and with everything I have to push my own
boundaries and push my own limits. To get better every
night and to use the blues forum as a vehicle for the
creativity and not just get up and play Albert King licks
But Trout is quick to characterize those sentiments as
flattery as opposed to a put-down.
I love all those guys. Theyre my heroes, theyre
my idols. When I was growing up I immersed myself in that
tradition, but I want to use that as a springboard ...
and thats what I try to do on my albums.
A Bluesmans Resume
Trouts familiarity with the old masters goes far
beyond merely being a fan. Hes played with some of
the best. He recalls how he kind of fell into a gig
backing John Lee Hooker in the late 70s while
playing in a southern California club.
A friend of mine came by one day and said, I
was just up on the pier at Redondo Beach and theres
a bunch of old black guys that play there Sunday
afternoons. I told them about you and asked if you could
sit in and they said theyd let you play a song.
And I said, Shit, lets go. We drove up
there and he introduced me to them and I said, Well,
can I play a song with you guys? and they said,
Yeah, you can play one song. And I got up
there and played a song and they said, Stay up
here. And then at the end they said, Why dont
you join our band?
I happened to time it right, Trout continues.
The guitar player who had been in this band before
me was Hollywood Fats. And this band had been hired to be
in a Burt Reynolds movie called Sharkeys
Machine. Theyre in the movie but they didnt
want the white guy. So Hollywood Fats wasnt hired
to be in the movie and he got pissed off and left the
band. And that happened to be the same day I went up
there and they needed a guitar player.
It turned out to be the Coast to Coast Blues Band,
John Lee Hookers backing band. It was Deacon Jones,
Finis Tasby, J.D. Nicholson, all these great incredible
blues players. So I joined and it was through these guys
that I started meeting and playing with all these people
like Joe Tex, Percy Mayfield, Lowell Fulson, Pee Wee
Crayton. I did gigs with all these guys...
I ended up playing for about two years, five, six
nights a week in Watts and Id be the only white guy
in the whole place. That was an incredible education, you
know ... It was just an amazing experience.
Back then, says Trout, playing with marquee artists didnt
guarantee a big paycheck. Blues was at its bottom.
It was the disco era. With John Lee Hooker we were
playing little clubs and we were making like $25 bucks a
night in the band. And a lot of nights you didnt
get a hotel room, so youd have to provide your own
place to stay. You either slept in the car, or on the
stage, or hopefully youd find a woman to take you
home. All the band members were struggling, struggling to
just get by.
After stints with John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton,
fate put Trout in the right place at the right time again
when he was hired by Canned Heat in 1980.
It was the first tour after Bob Hite had died. They
were gonna break up when he died and then they got
offered a tour of Australia and they decided to get back
together and do it without him. They decided Henry
[Vestine] was drinking too much and they wanted another
guitarist. I was playing at a famous club in L.A. called
the Lighthouse, where people like Charlie Parker used to
play. I was playing with a group called J.D. Nicholson
and the Soulbenders. J.D. was an old black piano player
who used to play with Little Walter [Jacobs] and was
married to his niece or something like that. And these
guys from Canned Heat walked by and they heard the guitar
and came in and asked me to go on the road. Thats
when everything really changed for me.
Trout remained with Canned Heat for five years, playing
both guitar and harmonica, when Mayall picked him up in
1985. He continued to polish his reputation in Europe
over the next five years. But eventually his desire to
develop his own voice became too strong and he went solo
with his own band in 1989.
While in Europe, Trout found a friend in Luther Allison
and they discovered they had a lot in common.
Luther was a dear friend of mine. I got to play
with him at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1986an
awesome experience. He and I used to get together in
Europe when I was starting my own band and talk about how
both of us were doing so good there, but having a hard
time getting going over here. We kind of bonded over our
desire to get going in the United States. (Allison
moved to Paris in 1983 and never looked back until his
U.S. come-back in 1994.)
Luther wasnt concerned with fitting what some
critics idea of what blues is supposed to be,
Trout observes. He was concerned with playing with
every ounce of expression and emotion and feeling and
energy that he had in his body. And thats what I
try to do too. I get the criticisms a lotMan,
youre playing way too many notesthis
and that. Man, I play whatever comes into my head and if
I play it , I mean it. Either you like it or you dont.
I dont know what to tell you.
If you dont like it, get the fuck out. Go out
and listen to someone else. Go listen to someone imitate
Muddy Waters. Go listen to a mimic. To me, a lot of those
bands might as well be Rich Little imitating Jimmy
Cagney. They dont have any of their own soul and
they bore me.
Since embarking on a solo career Trouts playing
does, indeed, wander into the realm of rock/blues and
even psychedelia, a la Allison, Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana
or Jimi Hendrix.
When I was a sideman I learned to fit the music of
the people I was backing up, he explains. But
when I went solo it freed meI could play whatever
the hell I want
Im not worried about purists.
A lot of purists sort of look down their noses at me and
I outrage them. And then Im doing my jobI
wanna outrage em, slap em around and wake
em the fuck up!
His writing has taken on a personal tone as well. I
try to write something that means something to me. For
instance, on this album (his latest on Ruf Records,
Livin Every Day) I seem to have a lot
of tunes that have a theme of You may die tomorrow,
so you better make the best of what youve got. You
better live for this moment and you better go for it with
everything you have because you dont know
whats gonna happen to you tomorrow. The older
I get the more aware of mortality I become, as I lose
friends like Luther Allison. That seemed to be the theme
on this record.
So what inspires me, I try to write about things I
feel, things Im concerned about, things I believe
in, that have happened to me or friends of mine. Or
things that are happening in the world. I dont do
too many hypothetical tunes. They pretty much come from
Trout and his band, the Free Radicals, maintain an
unmerciful touring schedule. He guesses theyll
perform about 320 shows this year. In August alone they
shared the headliner slot with Buddy Guy at a festival in
Notadden, Norway; received similar billing at festivals
in Colne, England; Skanderborg, Denmark; Zurich
Switzerland; two festivals in Holland on a single day and
several club gigs in Amsterdam, London and Stockholm. In
between all that, they flew back to New York for a
four-hour lay-over to do a gig with Sammy Hagar and then
headed back the same day to finish their European tour.
Im lucky in that I like the road, Trout
laughs. I enjoy being a gypsy. The thing in the
equation that has changed in recent years is I got
married and had children. Thats a little rough. I
got married in 1991 and have a 6-year-old and a
3-year-old and one of the things I try to do is have them
out there with me sometimes. They were at the Eureka (AR)
Blues Fest and theyre going to be in Denmark with
me. And, he adds, In the middle of August weve
got a week off. Im gonna be with my family. Were
gonna rent a house at the beach on the North Sea and were
gonna live as a family and Im not gonna play my
guitar. Im just gonna be a dad.
But Trout shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon,
taking his music wherever he finds an audience. Call it
blues, call it rock Walter Trout comes to play.
Walter Trout plays Saturday, October 30 at the Minnesota
Music Cafe. 9 p.m. $7. 612-776-4699.
Pulse Magazine Website: www.pulsetc.com