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Blues Fest 2006: Sideman Steps Into the Spotlight -- Joe Krown, Saturday, 2 p.m., Tent Stage PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 27 June 2006 22:52

(Listen to this interview here.) 

Joe Krown Joe Krown carved out quite a career for himself as a sideman. Now he's reclaiming his role as a bandleader.

Through most of the 1980s, he ran a band and played keyboards in it with his wife in the Boston area. "The band and the marriage kind of split up months apart from each other," Krown said in an interview. So he made a decision: "I'm sick of being the bandleader. I just want to be a sideman for a while."

"A while" turned into close to a decade.

In the late 1980s, he was Chuck Berry's keyboard player when the rock legend played in New England. ("He never traveled with a band," Krown said.)

And then he hooked up with Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson for three years. "That was like blues boot camp," he said, as he plumbed the depths of blues piano and organ. One of his first gigs with Johnson was the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, where he experienced as a performer what other musicians had told him about. It "was one of the first festivals I played of that size when I started getting out of ... the New England area," he said. "This is what I heard about - the big blues festival."

And then immigration laws matched him up with another icon, the creaky-voiced musical meat-grinder that was Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Brown's band was headed up to Canada via New England, and "his keyboard player had a criminal record - like DWI or some crap like that," Krown recalled. "They needed someone to go across the border for a week." That was Krown.

Gatemouth and Krown kept in touch, and when the keyboard slot in the band opened up, he got the call. He moved to New Orleans - where Brown lived - in the early 1990s, even though the rest of the band was based in Nashville.

Krown is a native New Yorker, but he had a kinship with New Orleans music. "For me to come down here and play was kind of a natural fit," he said.

The partnership with Gatemouth lasted until Brown's death last year, and highlights included 62 dates opening for Eric Clapton, along with jamming with the likes of B.B. King, Carlos Santana, and Buddy Guy.

It certainly helped their relationship that Krown is as flexible in skill and disposition as Gatemouth was headstrong. Brown had "a very narrow, specific band of music that he likes to hear - mostly himself - and he was very anti-New Orleans music," Krown said. "He was very critical whenever I sounded a little too much like [Professor] Longhair. But he was very critical about everything. He had very specific ideas."

Krown traced Brown's dislike of New Orleans to the fact that he wasn't a native son, and wasn't accepted as part of the city's inner circle - home-grown musicians such as Dr. John. "It's funny," he said, "because he [Gatemouth] lived in New Orleans and he spent the last 20 years of his life living on the north shore" of Lake Pontchartrain.

The Texas-raised Gatemouth, of course, was a master of many instruments and styles, from blues to R&B to Cajun to country, but he didn't care for blues - or at least many blues musicians, whom he considered lazy, Krown said.

Krown said he simply enjoyed performing with "Gate," and wasn't bothered by Brown's closed-mindedness about New Orleans, or his direction to sound less like this player and more like that one. "Whatever," he said. "You know, it's all playing organ."

In the late 1990s, Krown starting thinking about life after Gatemouth Brown. "I was doing a projection for ‘Where is this going to be and what am I going to do after this?'" he said. In 1998, he released a solo-piano CD "to get my bearings," and an album with a full band followed. He's recorded roughly a CD a year since then, including his latest, 2005's Livin' Large.

"Through making all these records, it kind of revived my desire to just be a bandleader," Krown said.

Brown's touring slowed down as he got into his late 70s, and Krown's Gatemouth workload dropped from between 150 and 180 shows a year (before 2001) to roughly 75 in 2004 (when he and Brown last played the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival). That gave him time to re-establish himself as a solo artist and bandleader.

The 48-year-old Krown now has 10 gigs a week around New Orleans, sometimes playing piano by himself, sometimes with a trio, and sometimes with his funk band. "I also have a swing band," he said. (He'll be leading a trio at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.) "Sometimes I have Mondays off. I think I have two nights off this month."

His 2002 full-band disc, Funk Yard, was particularly well-received, landing on several publications' best-of-the-year lists. Louisiana's OffBeat magazine wrote: "This is a group of seasoned musicians who know how to play as an ensemble and how to lock into a groove tighter than a pit bull on the mailperson's leg."

Given the stature of the people with whom he's performed, the transition from sideman to bandleader has been relatively easy for Krown. He might not have been in the spotlight with Brown, but he certainly was on some big stages.

Still, when he started doing solo piano gigs, he was nervous. "That's like standing there naked a little bit," he said.

To listen to this interview, click here. 

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