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|Very Outside -- Roy Rogers: Thursday, 11 p.m., Bandshell Stage|
|Music - Mississippi Valley Blues Festival|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Thursday, 18 June 2009 14:36|
Singer, songwriter, and slide-guitarist Roy Rogers is not a blues purist. He could write a song in the style of Robert Johnson - the reason he became a blues player in the first place - but what would be the point of that?
"I'm just trying to stretch it," he said in a recent phone interview.
So on his new recording Split Decision - his first studio album with his Delta Rhythm Kings trio in seven years - there's the instrumental "Your Sweet Embrace," with a flamenco section by Ottmar Liebert, and "Rite of Passage" has a warm, funky jazz groove before taking a guitar-solo detour into the blues. "Bitter Rain" deals with Hurricane Katrina and has what Rogers called "almost kind of a tempest riff," and closing instrumental "Walkin' the Levee" features sax and a guitar tone simultaneously fuzzy and razor sharp. "River of Tears" is an irresistibly upbeat pop number despite its theme of sadness.
The truth is that Split Decision is a stew of so many elements that its blues and guitar heroics get a little lost. As a singer, there's not much grit in Rogers' voice, and the music is similarly welcoming. And although he's considered one of the best slide players around, he's generally not showy; his mastery is evident in tone and articulation. Rogers said he wanted his guitar to "to have more of an edge" on this album, and he wanted to explore new textures.
His attention to nuance is part of the reason he's attracted to the slide guitar, which he said is "the most expressive of any way to play, in my opinion, blues, because you can get all those in-between tones."
Rogers' blues credentials are impeccable. He toured with John Lee Hooker and produced three of his albums (Boom Boom, Mr. Lucky, and The Healer). "You learn about life when you're on the road with John Lee Hooker," Rogers said. "Because his life is his music is his life is his music."
Asked about his memories of working with Hooker, Rogers cited a track from his comeback album The Healer: "When we re-cut 'I'm in the Mood' and Bonnie [Raitt] came in, it was pretty steamy stuff. They were great friends, and the stars were in the right place. I can remember setting them up real close together - not quite nose-to-nose - but I wanted to get that on tape."
As a producer and songwriter in addition to being a musician, the 59-year-old Rogers is particularly attuned to the dynamics and needs of the song, which is why you won't find extended solos on Split Decision. "I think it's a wank," he said. "You should say something that's appropriate for the song musically."
And while Rogers' latest album focuses on the song, audiences should expect something more raucous at the IH Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. Rogers promises a healthy portion of Robert Johnson, and a more aggressive approach. "My sets are not laid back," he said. "It should always be more powerful. Live is live."
The musician - who was named after the Roy Rogers - began taking guitar lessons when he was 12, and his teacher turned him on to Freddie King and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. But his mentor "was not a slide guy," the California-based Rogers said.
The budding guitarist got a taste of the slide for the first time when his brother brought home the Robert Johnson compilation King of the Delta Blues Singers, and that cemented his fate.
"It's always going to have a blues base for me," he said of his music. But the slide guitar is incredibly versatile: "It's a sound that can go easily with a lot of different things. The sky's the limit. It's only begun to be tapped."
Rogers said he's currently producing a spoken-word album by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and his list of potential projects shows that he's still looking to stretch the blues: a big-band record, and a Christmas album with orchestration.
"It would be very outside, though," he said of the latter. "It's not going to be a traditional deal at all.
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