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Friday, January 27, 2012

Gonna Boogie Anyway - Chris James and Patrick Rynn

Chris’ dazzling guitar work is featured even more prominently than on its acclaimed predecessor, and for the first time on disc, the pair performs four unplugged selections, James’ vocals ringing with extraordinary force over rollicking grooves anchored by Patrick’s rock-steady bass. Original material dominates; the album’s four covers include two Bo Diddley gems (“Little Girl” and “Dearest Darling”). Piano legends Henry Gray and David Maxwell and veteran Chicago drummers Sam Lay and Willie Hayes are all on board, as is their harp-blowing cohort Rob Stone. Chris and Patrick return the favor on Rob’s new Earwig CD, Back Around Here.

Stop And Think About It spread the names of Chris James and Patrick Rynn far and wide. The CD was nominated for a Blues Music Award as best debut recording and won a Blues Blast Award as best artist debut. “Mister Coffee,” a standout original from the album, was nominated for a BBA and a third place finisher in the Independent Music Awards, where Chris and Patrick were nominated for a People’s Choice Award. And in 2010, Patrick was nominated for a Blues Music Award as best bassist, adding another impressive honor to their shared trophy case.

The San Diego-based bluesmen inaugurated their musical partnership in 1990 when both were in Chicago for the first time. The sartorially splendiferous duo has been inseparable ever since, their telepathic onstage interplay always in evidence whether they’re digging deep into classic postwar blues or dishing up the meaty, satisfying originals prominently featured on their new CD. By the time of that fateful first meeting, Chris, once a teenaged musical prodigy, had logged plenty of gigging miles, fronting bands long before he ever visited the Windy City.

Born in North Carolina but raised in the warm and sunny climes of San Diego, Chris was thoroughly hooked on blues as a child. “My stepdad got me hooked on blues, and I started playing blues piano by the time I was 11. Chuck Berry was the first guy that was really a big influence on me,” he says. “When they were interviewing him, he talked about the same four guys all the time. He talked about Muddy Waters and Little Walter, Elmore James, and Charlie Christian.”

Chris tracked down a BBC radio documentary on Berry to investigate the Duck Walker’s major influences first-hand. “The very first thing they played was Muddy and Walter: ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You,’” he says. “That was the song that I heard that I just said, ‘This is what I want to do!’” Also on the tape was pianist Jay McShann’s “Confessin’ The Blues,” featuring singer Walter Brown. “That was basically one of the very first blues songs I remember learning the words to. That’s why it was important for me to put on our very first CD.”

Transfixed by anything having to do with blues, Chris snagged a gofer job at a local blues festival where he met legendary shouter Roy Brown, received an impromptu guitar lesson from Lowell Fulson, and talked to Texas-bred guitarist Tomcat Courtney, San Diego’s top bluesman then and now. “I just saw him, and I really liked Tomcat,” says Chris, already skilled enough on harp at the tender age of 13 to join Courtney’s band shortly thereafter their first encounter.

“I only played harmonica with him for maybe six months or something like that, and then the bass player quit. And then Tom just gave me a bass and said, ‘Okay, boy, here’s the bass. The bass player’s quit. I need you to learn this by next week!’” laughs Chris, who followed orders. Soon he was alternating between bass and guitar with Courtney before switching over to guitar altogether. Tomcat’s main haunt was the Texas Teahouse, where the Texas-born guitarist headlined Thursdays. “The place was packed to the rafters, like a sardine can, with college kids,” says Chris. “There were times the place was so packed in the summertime that we couldn’t even get off the stage to take our break. We just stayed up onstage.”

Although blues remained Chris’ primary passion, it wasn’t his only idiomatic interest. “When I was 17, I stopped playing blues for a year because I wanted to get myself a music education,” he says. Veteran jazz saxists Gene Porter and Jimmie Noone, Jr. provided it. “I started hanging out with these guys, because other than having a natural ability to play, I wanted to know what I was playing.” After absorbing their combined wisdom, it was back to Tomcat and the blues for another extended stretch. Chris made his recording debut at 17, playing harp, piano and guitar on Italian country blues guitarist Roger Belloni’s The Lemon Grove Tapes.

In 1990, Chris made his first pilgrimage to Chicago, where he heard dazzling blues piano emanating from the Underground Wonder Bar one evening, courtesy of local 88s ace Detroit Junior. “I was so excited meeting Detroit Junior that I asked him if I could sit in,” says Chris, who proceeded to do so on a borrowed guitar. “I ended up playing the whole second set with him. So then the break came and I said, ‘I appreciate you letting me sit in!’ And I was going to be on merry way. And Detroit stopped me. He goes, ‘Do you want to play the third set with me?’ I said, ‘I have nothing better to do, man. I’d love to!’ So I stayed and played the third set. I finished out the night with him. I finally said goodbye, and I was walking out the door, and he hollered, he said, ‘Hey, one more thing–what are you doing tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He goes, ‘Well, I’m playing here again. You’re hired!’”

When he wasn’t playing behind Detroit Junior (whose “Call My Job” remains a blues classic), Chris made the rounds of the local jam sessions. At the now-defunct B.L.U.E.S. Etc., he first encountered his future musical partner Patrick. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

“We did not hit it off when we first met each other,” admits Chris. Fate decreed that the pair would cross paths again very soon. “About two days later after that, I’m working at the Guitar Center, and in walks this guy. And it was Chris,” says Patrick. A couple of days later, Chris came back to the guitar emporium again.

“I’ve got a guitar in my hand, and I’m playing. I’m squeaking around on it, doing some stuff, trying to play some slide things,” says Patrick. “The phone rings in my department, and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got to get the phone.’ I hand the guitar to somebody, and I get the phone. And I’m on the phone, and my back is towards the people, and I’m facing the wall. Well, all of a sudden, about halfway in this conversation, I start hearing the heaviest traditional country blues. And I turn around, and it’s Chris. And I just got this big smile on my face, and he stood there grinning at me. He was playing ‘Terraplane Blues.’

“We became instant friends. He was in Chicago visiting his cousin, and he didn’t have anything to do, so he ended up coming down to the store just about every day. He’d be back in the acoustic room, and he’d be teaching me how to play this stuff.” Chris convinced Patrick to concentrate exclusively on bass rather than spending time playing guitar. “He saw something in me that I didn’t even see,” says Patrick. “He says, ‘Man, you’re a bass player!’”

It wasn’t like Patrick didn’t have experience holding down the bottom in a blues band. Born in Toledo, Ohio, he was classically trained on bass before a high school buddy urged him to check out a high school jazz ensemble led by veteran saxist Floyd “Candy” Johnson, who invited the young bassist to play with the orchestra. “He pulls out this piece of music and he sets it down. He says, ‘We’re gonna play this. You just play this.’ I said, ‘Okay, no problem.’

“It was the bass line written out,” continues Patrick. “So he counts it off and we get into it and we start playing, and I get to the 12th measure. There’s no repeat sign, there’s no turnaround, so I stop playing. So then about 25 measures into the piece, Candy Johnson gets this funny look on his face and he stops the band, and he goes, ‘Boy, what the hell are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean? You gave me this piece of music, it’s got 12 measures, no repeat sign. I thought I was done!’ He said, ‘Son, this is blues. You just keep playing!’ And it turned out it was Duke Ellington’s ‘C-Jam Blues.’ And that’s how I got introduced into blues.”

Patrick had a blues epiphany at age 18. “I was in this bookstore at the university, and every second quarter of the school year they had a tape sale,” he says. “I saw this one, and it was pretty cool, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll get this.’ So I paid five bucks for it, and I threw it in my backpack and I went to school. Then at the end of the day, I was going home and I remembered I had that tape in my book bag. I stuck it in, and I pressed play. And my God, it still puts a lump in my throat. My whole world just changed, man. It was The Best Of Elmore James. And that first tune on there, ‘Dust My Broom,’ he hit that slide and went into it, and man, I got chills up and down my spine. I got a lump in my throat. It just moved me so heavy, man. I was like, ‘Wow! Wow!’ It just blew me away.”

The Griswolds, led by brothers Art and Roman Griswold, were Toledo’s top blues band. Patrick’s cousin urged him to check them out at the Longhorn Saloon. “After about four months of going down and seeing the Griswolds, one night I walked in and I had my harmonica in my pocket, and I asked if I could sit in. And they said, ‘Sure!’” says Patrick. “We did a couple of songs, and boy, I stunk the stage up so bad. But I was up there playing, and I was digging it. I was hooked!”

Four months later, Patrick noticed a bass onstage belonging to saxist Eli “Professor Easy” Gardner at another Griswolds gig. “I said, ‘Well, I play bass!’ I didn’t play blues bass, but I play bass. He said, ‘Well, come on!’ So I sat in, and I sort of rudimentarily knew how to play a walking bass line from playing jazz in the jazz band. So I got through the 12 bars of it. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was doing it well enough to where Fess looked over at Art and said, ‘Hey, that bottom sounds pretty good, don’t it?’ Art was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, that sounds pretty good!’ Art used to talk real fast. So they said, ‘Hey, can you come back tomorrow night?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’” Patrick borrowed a bass and amp from a local music store for the gig. “I didn’t get paid, but I played the whole night with them,” he says. “After a couple of nights of that, I ended up playing with them for five years.”

Patrick’s first Chicago visit came in the spring of 1990 at the behest of one of Chicago’s most revered harp players, the late Junior Wells. The two had met at a Toledo blues festival that spring; when Wells’ set with Buddy Guy was rained out, his band came down to visit the Griswolds that evening. Fortuitously, Junior found himself in need of a bassist when it came time to sit in. Patrick was more than happy to volunteer his services.

“I played an hour-and-a-half with the band and Junior Wells,” says Patrick. “That night changed my whole life.” Wells was impressed. “After we were done playing, Junior says to me, ‘Son, you play pretty good. The fest in Chicago is in a couple weeks. I’d like to invite you out to be my guest!’” During his brief stay in Chicago, Patrick met the cream of Chicago blues royalty. “I went down to the Checkerboard Lounge, and that day I played onstage with James Cotton.”

After such an exciting weekend, the Toledo blues circuit didn’t seem as enticing, so Patrick decided to move to the Windy City that autumn. “I packed up everything I could get in my car, which wasn’t very big at the time,” he says. “I had a thousand bucks in my pocket, and I went to Chicago. I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a place to live.”

With both young bluesmen settled in the Windy City, Chris drilled Patrick on the traditional aspects of the blues. “Nine hours a day, every day, having to listen to records and learn how to play with the music and learn how to get that internal music without a drummer. He was teaching me how to play bass lines and walk the bass and how to do different grooves, like a lump or a slow Muddy or a B.B. King shuffle,” says the bassist. “He was teaching me the rudiments of everything. And I was learning and listening and going out to the clubs every night. Man, I was exhausted. But over time, it started happening.”

They landed their first weekly gig together at the Tip On Inn and took it from there. The pair’s first big break came as an outgrowth of a tribute to harp immortal Little Walter at Rosa’s Lounge with an all-star cast of Chicago blues giants in attendance, including Louis and Dave Myers, Billy Boy Arnold, Jimmie Lee Robinson, Big Moose Walker, Sunnyland Slim, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and plenty more.

The pair didn’t know they’d be asked to perform. “Louis and Dave and all these guys, they wanted a break. But there were so many guys in there that they needed people to play,” says Chris. “They asked me, ‘Do you know Little Walter?’ I said, ‘Of course I know Walter’s stuff!’ So they put us up there, and we started playing. And there’s Willie Smith and Sam Lay and all these guys, looking at us playing. I was so nervous it was unbelievable. It was a miracle I could play, ‘cause these guys were all looking at me and Patrick playing.”

It took a few months, but that winning performance paid off. “The phone rang, and Chris runs in the house, and he’s in there for about a half hour,” says Patrick. “And he comes running out. He says, ‘Get packed! We’re going to Atlanta!’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?” He said, ‘Sam Lay–we just got hired! We’re going down to Atlanta for a week and playing!’ The two anchored the powerhouse drummer’s band for five years. “Within six to seven months of being in Chicago, we ended up being in a national act,” says Patrick. The two first recorded together as members of Sam’s band, the tapes debuting in 1994 on Appaloosa as Sam Lay Blues Band Live. Slide Guitar Blues, hailing from the same date, later came out on Icehouse and marked Chris’s first vocal outings on record. More recently, they backed Lay on Hightone’s live Rhythm Room Blues in 2001.

The two grew close to Dave Myers, co-founder of the Aces and a Chicago blues electric bass pioneer. “We used to go over to his house and spend all night just sitting in his kitchen playing. Chris on guitar, Dave on guitar, me playing Davey’s bass. I always knew I was doing okay if Dave was smiling. But as soon as I started doing something that wasn’t right, he’d kind of screw his face up a little bit and look right through me. And he’d go, ‘Why are you doggin’ your bass?’ I’m going, ‘I didn’t know I was!’” says Patrick, who was surprised to see a photo of Candy Johnson in Dave’s collection (ironically, the saxist occasionally shared a bandstand with the Aces during the ‘50s). “Dave Myers was a huge influence on me. Not only was he an influence, but he was a really dear, close friend. He was a friend first before he was an influence. And I miss him a lot. I still think about him when I play.”

While playing in Woodland Park, Colorado in 1994, Lay invited college student and budding harp player Rob Stone to sit in with them that night. Like Chris and Patrick, Rob felt a migrational pull to Chicago. The three teamed up as a unit there before Chris and Patrick returned to San Diego (they can be seen in action at the 2000 Chicago Blues Festival in Godfathers And Sons, part of Martin Scorsese’s PBS-TV blues documentary series). When Stone decided to make an album, he asked his friends to come back and help. “Robbie wanted to start getting gigs in Chicago on his own, so he needed to have his own CD,” says Chris. “We were working on the CD and recording it, so then we said, ‘What are we gonna call the band?’” They decided on the C-Notes, in honor of Rob’s spendthrift ways and Chris’s penchant for spending his last buck on CDs.

No Worries, Rob Stone & the C-Notes’ acclaimed 1998 debut album, was just the beginning. In addition to co-starring on the C-Notes’ potent 2003 Earwig release Just My Luck (they co-wrote nine songs with Rob on the set, which featured guest appearances by Dave Myers and Sam Lay), the pair has recorded with piano pounder Dennis Binder (2007's Hole In That Jug on Earwig), and played on legendary Chicago guitarist Jody Williams’ second Evidence album in 2004, You Left Me In The Dark (Chris had the honor of playing alongside one of his heroes, Robert Jr. Lockwood, on the set). They’d begun playing with Jody near the beginning of his heartwarming comeback, when they traveled to Westport, Mississippi with Sam Lay to play the 2000 Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival.

“Jody did not come down with a band. So they were scrambling around trying to find someone to play with Jody,” explains Chris, who cites Williams as one of his guitar heroes along with Louis and Dave Myers, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Luther Tucker. “I said, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll back up Jody!’” Back in Chicago, Jody hired the Blue Four as his band (Willie Hayes was on drums). “He liked playing with us,” says Chris, “and he saw that we were reliable and dependable.” They traveled the globe with Williams until 2004; Chris contracted a serious stomach ailment in Italy in 2004 that prematurely ended that stint with the revered guitarist.

After an unexpectedly lengthy recovery period in San Diego, Chris was well enough by July of ‘05 to travel to Europe as a member of Phoenix harpist Bob Corritore’s band. That led to his being asked to join the Rhythm Room All Stars. “I was in the band for like six months, then Patrick came aboard,” says Chris. Their explosive exploits at the Rhythm Room can be heard on House Rockin’ And Blues Shoutin’!, a 2007 live disc on the Blue Witch label where they back Big Pete Pearson and Billy Boy Arnold. They also played brilliantly on Downsville Blues, Courtney’s 2008 national debut CD for Blue Witch.

Neither Chris nor Patrick can fully explain their ESP-like musical compatibility. “When I started playing with Chris, I didn’t know anything,” ventures Patrick, whose bass influences in addition to Dave Myers include Willie Kent, Ransom Knowling, and Big Crawford (as you might expect after encountering the latter two names, he’s just as conversant on upright bass as on electric). “Because I’ve learned all that stuff, I have the tools and I have the way of playing to make the chemistry between me and Chris just work.”

Gonna Boogie Now extends an impressive winning streak that hit full stride in 2008 with Stop And Think About It. “The first CD was a band CD, the ensemble Chicago thing that we do with harmonica and the full band,” says Chris. “Gonna Boogie Now is more guitar-oriented.”

That unusual dedication to presenting something fresh and exciting every time out, whether on album or onstage, bodes well for the bluesmaking future of Chris James and Patrick Rynn.
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