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Into the Blues
Andrew Gilbert | Photo: Rachel Kumar | March 16, 2017
A quintessential American genre of music is flourishing—and continuing to evolve—in the Valley.
A funny thing happened on the way to Silicon Valley becoming the global center of the digital revolution. While producing disruptive technologies that have upended one industry after another, the region has become a thriving hub for America’s most enduring and influential indigenous art form: the blues. And the world is taking note.
In January, The Blues Foundation, the Memphis-based organization that presents the genre’s most prestigious awards, announced nominations for the 2017 honors, and three Bay Area women are in the running. San Jose’s Lara Price is up for female soul blues artist of the year. Powerhouse Oakland vocalist Terrie Odabi was tapped for female soul blues artist of the year and best new artist debut. And Oakland saxophonist Nancy Wright is a contender for best instrumentalist. All three women are first-time nominees and released albums last year recorded and produced by guitarist Christoffer “Kid” Andersen at his Greaseland Studios. The San Jose recording facility has made such a potent impression that The Blues Foundation bestowed Andersen with a 2017 Keeping the Blues Alive Award.
Veteran Bay Area blues players increasingly flock to the South Bay to record at Greaseland and perform in clubs like San Jose’s Poor House Bistro, Campbell’s Little Lou’s BBQ and Redwood City’s Club Fox, while musicians around the country are wondering whether to pack up and head west. If the renaissance has gone largely unnoticed outside of blues circles, well, it’s a cultural treasure that’s used to being overlooked and undervalued. Despite serving as the foundational stream for almost every American pop music current of the 20th century—from jazz, R&B and Broadway show tunes to rock ’n’ roll, country music and hip-hop—the blues today occupies a small and neglected niche of the music market.
In other words, shifting the blues center of gravity south from Oakland and San Francisco doesn’t require heavy lifting. “In order to move it from one place to another, you need about a medium-size truck, or maybe a 10-seat van,” says the Norwegian-born Andersen, who cut his teeth backing touring American blues artists on the active Oslo scene before relocating to California in 2001. “When I came here it seemed like there was a remnant of a scene, particularly around the Poor House Bistro, which is a fantastic club. What’s happening now is there’s this sense all over the world that the South Bay is happening.”
Andersen had been angling for a gig that would bring him to the United States for years. He finally found the ticket via veteran blues saxophonist and vocalist Terry Hanck, who was based in Santa Cruz at the time and in need of a guitarist. In 2001, it wasn’t an obvious choice for a gifted and ambitious young European blues player to move to Northern California, but Andersen says he’d “been paying attention to what was going on in various places in the U.S. I dug what I was hearing on the West Coast, while most things out of Chicago had taken place decades before. I did get an offer from a guy in Chicago, but he had just finished a four-year prison stint for shooting his old guitar player, so I passed on that.”
These days, when Andersen isn’t recording projects at Greaseland, he can be found on the road with Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, a long-running gig that has earned him four consecutive Blues Awards nominations for best guitarist. Part of why he’s thrived on the South Bay scene is his flexibility. The region isn’t associated with a particular blues style, like the searing Chicago sound, Oakland’s funk-laden East Bay grease or the laid-back jazzy West Coast approach that emanated from Los Angeles. Instead, the scene reflects Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ethos, in that some of the key movers and shakers are immigrants like Andersen, artists drawn here by the sense of boundless possibilities. No player has garnered more attention over the past year than harmonica player Aki Kumar, who gave up his tech day job in 2013 to focus on music full time.
Born and raised in Mumbai, India, he grew up hearing a global array of sounds, from John Denver and Mozart to Bollywood hits. He studied classical North Indian vocals for several years as an adolescent and played around with an inexpensive Chinese-made tremolo harmonica as a teen. But Kumar never had a chance to hear the blues until he moved to the United States in 1998 at the age of 18 to attend college in Oklahoma City. Before the year was out, he transferred to San Jose State and found work as a software engineer after graduation.
Listening to oldies radio, he gradually discovered the blues when he sought out the roots of doowop and early rock ’n’ roll hits that caught his ear. Coming to the music without preconceptions, he was struck by its emotional intensity and rhythmic drive. “I didn’t have any sense of, this is cool, or this is not cool,” Kumar says. “I was in my 20s, not looking to be part of a clique. I heard the music and it was great.”
He spent several years taking classes at David Barrett’s School of the Blues in San Jose, and the veteran harmonica player turned Kumar on to Chicago harp masters like Little Walter, James Cotton and George Smith. Barrett nurtured Kumar’s budding talent by emphasizing the importance of getting together with fellow students to perform, and before long, he started sitting in at local jam sessions.
Making a name for himself as a rapidly developing player with a communitarian ethos, Kumar has played an essential role in building the South Bay scene. He’s helped turn the Thursday night session at Little Lou’s into the liveliest jam in the region and recently launched a Tuesday night jam at the Poor House Bistro, where the international reach of the blues is often on full display, with visiting musicians from Russia, Brazil and Chile dropping by to sit in.
“In April I’ll be playing with guys from Finland,” Kumar says. “This music is supercompelling. It has an instant appeal, and people from outside the U.S. come in without biases and filters. It’s pretty common across the world that people don’t appreciate what they have at home, and the truth is, the blues isn’t represented in the media here. You have to go out of your way to find it.”
The blues scene sometimes takes a self-defeating attitude by policing the borders stylistically, but Kumar has found a great deal of support as he’s honed a highly personal genre-expanding repertoire. He gained international attention with his 2016 album, Aki Goes to Bollywood, a deliriously inventive mashup of blues grooves and Hindi film themes by composers such as R.D. Burman (“Janu Meri Jaan”) as well as Anand and Milind (“Eena Meena Deeka”). Recorded at Greaseland, naturally, the project has found fans among Bollywood aficionados, blues lovers and people with ears attuned to unusual sonic hybrids. Encouraged by the overwhelming response, Kumar is busy working on a follow-up, “which will have a lot more originals,” he says. “I’ve got songs I’ve written in Hindi in the same spirit of fusion insanity.”
While Andersen and Kumar are breathing new life into the South Bay scene, this isn’t the first time the blues have boomed here. Guitarist, vocalist and stalwart bandleader J.C. Smith came up during the 1980s, when the nightclub JJ’s Blues kick-started a vital scene presenting local players and guitar legends like Albert King and Albert Collins. Smith had grown up in San Jose hearing his Arkansas-born father play stinging blues licks on his guitar, lines he’d honed since the 1920s entertaining customers of his bustling moonshine business. Though only a few South Bay venues focused on the blues in the ’80s, the music was a regular part of the rotation at an array of night spots. “When the news started getting around, guys would start coming up from L.A. and doing gigs all around the South Bay,” Smith recalls. “Big Bob Corona’s Keystone was my second home for a long time. You could see guys like Albert King, Gregg Allman and Johnny Winter, who halfway lived in the place.”
One reason the South Bay scene has taken off again is that the blues abhor a vacuum. The advent of the Great Recession in 2008 forced Tom Mazzolini to close the world-famous San Francisco Blues Festival, which had run for nearly four decades. The demise of the Monterey Blues Festival in 2012 was another body blow. These days, the summer Redwood City PAL Blues, Music, Arts & BBQ Festival is one of the region’s best, along with San Jose’s Fountain Blues Festival, which Ted Gehrke has somehow managed to keep afloat at Plaza de Cesar Chavez Park after skipping several years (it’s next scheduled for June 24).
The surest sign of the scene’s health is that established players have been drawn to the area. Guitarist Big Jon Atkinson, a rising star in his mid-20s who plays with Kim Wilson, recently moved up from Southern California. And Chicago guitarist Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, one of the Windy City’s most celebrated bandleaders of the ’90s, put his career back on track after eight years off the scene with his 2014 album, Greetings From Greaseland. He was so taken with the South Bay action that he moved here last year after several trips to perform around the region with Kumar.
“It only takes a few people who are really good at what they do to build a scene,” Burgin says. “Like in a restaurant, Aki is the outside man. He’s a great front man who’s good at making things happen. And Kid’s in the back of the house, a great engineer and musician. They started their own thing doing really quality work, and it became something that people jumped on.”
Originally published in the March/April issue of Silicon Valley