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Roots Run Deep

Alison Jacobs and new partner Matt Mirabile bond through a shared commitment to writing and playing the blues—and knowing its rich history

By Erik Hage

Alison Jacobs is a slight thing in her 30s, but she talks it like an old salt. Blues history just seems to slide from her tongue, whether she’s glorying in a list of old names (Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, Lazy Lester, etc.) or verbally sifting through the genre’s many styles (country blues, delta blues, swamp blues, Texas blues). The local singer- songwriter is relatively new on the scene, but she has a clear idea of her mission—a big part of which is maintaining ties that run deeper than the obvious. “That’s the big thing for me, the history, the traditional side of blues,” Jacobs vehemently points out. “So many people come up and are like, ‘Oh, come on, I want to hear Susan Tedeschi or Janis Joplin…’ but I don’t do that. I do their heroes. I sing Ruth Brown or Big Mama Thornton. The women like that are my heroes.”

Jacobs is deeply wound up in the relative obscurities and deep strains of her chosen genre. Like the most zealous of music nerds, she excitedly unloads facts and names at the least incitement. (It’s a peculiar thing to witness: One usually expects such streams of lore to jump from the lips of middle-aged men who live alone with their records.)

But Jacobs and her partner, 19-year-old guitar-blues whiz Matt Mirabile, don’t just sit around and jaw about the blues, they also play it. And play it well, despite the fact that their collaboration is less than a year old. And it’s a testament to their talents that the Northeast Blues Society handpicked them as geographical representatives at last month’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis. (Mirabile, mentored early on by local player Charlie Smith, has been playing out locally since he was 12.)

That particular journey started in our region last summer, with the Colossal Contenders competition. “It’s something that the Northeast Blues Society puts on every year,” Mirabile says. “It’s a gathering of area blues bands, and they pick one winner to send down to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Challenge, which is a really big deal as far as the world’s blues spectrum goes.”

The brand-spanking-new collaboration won the local competition handily, and just last month they returned from the international stage. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it past the first round in Memphis, but it was an impressive gig for newcomers. “We had an awesome time; we got to see so many incredible bands,” Mirabile recalls. “There were something like 130 bands from all over the world: Poland, Italy . . . everywhere.” Jacobs points out, “The band that won our venue had been together for something like 13 years. They had choreography.”

The local group (rounded out by keyboardist Jeff Potter and bassist Todd Wulfmeyer) didn’t have the best time slot either. “We were like the last band the first night and the first band the second night,” Jacobs laughs. The first night, remembers Mirabile, somebody blew an amp, bumping them even later. “We came on way late, after about six or seven hours of blues. The next night it was like 5 PM. People were like, ‘Are these guys actually playing right now?’ It was so surreal.”

Nevertheless, says Jacobs, “We were proud of our efforts. We’re a new band.” (She also points out that they ate “killer barbeque.”)

Local music runs through Jacobs’ veins. Her dad was the “J” in J.B. Scott’s, the vaunted Albany rock venue of the ’70s and ’80s, and her stepdad was in legendary Albany new-wavers Blotto. Jacobs graduated from Albany High in 1987 and took a long path back home and to music, winding her way through SUNY Cobleskill, California, and her current day job at the New York State Assembly. But even though she was nurtured around music, it took until recently for her to pursue it with a purpose.

Returning to the area in 2002, she was fortunate to run into local (and nationally renowned) rockabilly guitarist Graham Tichy. “I owe a lot to Graham. . . . He was the first person that really motivated me,” Jacobs says. Tichy and local legend Johnny Rabb invited her on stage for a couple of songs at Savannah’s in 2002, and Tichy was impressed enough by the singer to form a short-lived rockabilly band, Ali Jean and the Struts. Tichy says, “Although Alison has a good working knowledge of rockabilly . . . her true love is the blues. Generally what impresses me the most about Jacobs is her in-depth knowledge of the styles she sings. She knows her stuff! She can eloquently discuss contemporary and past blues artists as well as any record nerd or music critic. She has done her homework, and it shows. To me, that immediately sets her apart from the common ‘blues/bar band’ singer, and it truly gives her depth.”

Tichy says he also ended up cowriting tracks with Jacobs for her and Mirabile’s new album, 50-fifty. “She approaches it with the unaffected perspective that it takes to write good simple songs, which is something that experienced musicians often find elusive,” he says. “My role in the process was mostly working with her on the musical aspects: too many measures on one verse or another and generally tweaking things so they made musical sense. But with a couple tunes she would start with just lyrics or a single melody line, and we would develop these ideas into full-fledged songs. There are a few in particular I’m very proud of, and I’m lucky because Alison could have shared these ideas and collaborated with a number of musicians.”

Tichy also hooked Jacobs up with her current guitarist (though Jacobs and Mirabile had encountered each other at Savannah’s Tuesday-night jams). “Graham said, ‘Look, you need a band and Matt is looking for a singer,’” Jacobs recalls. Mirabile adds, “Literally, this came together, like, two weeks before the [Colossal Contenders] competition.”

Asked to define their sound, Mirabile says their blues is “definitely not hardcore traditional by any means, but it’s blues with strong traditional ties.” And as the conversation turns back toward “tradition,” Jacobs lights up, is off again and starts spewing out facts like a caffeinated history professor.


ROUGH MIX

PARTY FOR THE CAUSE On Saturday (Feb. 25), do your part to support artists from still-recovering Katrina-ravaged New Orleans by attending a Mardi Gras benefit party, called Compassion, held by Pittsfield, Mass.-based arts collective the Storefront Artist Project. According to SAP press, they are working to “bring New Orleans artists to Pittsfield this summer to reinvigorate their artistic hearts and souls.” Donations collected will directly benefit this specific goal. The benefit will feature fun treats like Southern-style fare catered by Ruth Bronz and Jennie Fink; American roots musician and New Orleans native Chip Wilson, with Jeff Haynes of Pat Metheny Group; and Sean Harkness of Windham Hill Recordings. After dark, three New York City DJs (Blockhead, Ninjatune, and funk-soul DJ L-Train) will provide the soundtrack for a dance party. The party will take place at the Howard Building (124-126 Fenn St., Pittsfield, Mass.). Tickets are $25 at the door starting at 7:30 PM; admission reduces to $10 after 10 PM. SAP are enlisting the help of volunteers for the event. If you’re interested in volunteering, call Maggie at (413) 441-5981. For more information on this benefit and the SAP, visit storefrontartist.com.

IT’S A HOLIDAY! (WE’RE GONNA HAVE A CELEBRATION) Longtime area favorites Super 400 will celebrate 10 whole years of making music together this Saturday (Feb. 25) at 10 PM at the Ale House (680 River St.) in Troy. That’s right, it was in February 1996 that the group jammed in an old warehouse on River Street in Troy and pretty much instantaneously became a band. Since then, they’ve played as a trio throughout the decade, in addition to doing session work and side projects with other artists here and there. They’ve released critically acclaimed albums and rocked out at hundreds of shows. And if that’s not enough, here’s the mark of success: Troy mayor Harry Tutunjian has proclaimed that Feb. 25 will be Super 400 Day in Troy to honor the band for their decade of contributions to the music and arts communities. According to band press, Mayor Tutunjian “is proud of his hometown and likes to recognize the achievements of other native sons and daughters.” Ronni James of the Tech Valley Times once wrote, “Simply put, Super 400 has zeroed in on the lost art of the rock & roll power trio, and mastered it in the process.” Congratulations to Kenny Hohman, Lori Friday and Joe Daley of Super 400 on 10 years of rock & roll. For more information on Super 400, visit super400.com.

TWO FOR THE PRICE OF, WELL, TWO Area alt-rocker Joe Nacco will celebrate the release of his fourth album in three years, Requiem for Civilization, with not one, but two CD-release parties at Valentine’s (17 New Scotland Ave., Albany)—one solo and one with a full band. Nacco says that his purpose for doing this is so audiences can experience two versions of the album. The full band show will be on Friday, March 3 ($5); the solo show will be on March 10 ($3). The first 25 people in the door for each show will receive a free copy of the disc. For more information on Joe Nacco, visit joenacco.com.

 

LIGHTS . . . CAMERA . . . ACTION ACTION! Swedish band the Sounds have confirmed a 40-date North American tour (including a stop at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas) after a successful tour of Scandinavia. The tour will coincide with the release of their new album, Dying to Say This to You, coming out March 21 on Scratchie/New Line Records. Now what, you may be asking yourself, does this have to do with local music? Well, it just so happens that a band from Long Island called Action Action will be a support band for the entire tour (along with New York City alt-rockers Morningwood), and a couple of the Action Action boys—Clarke Foley and Adam Manning, to be specific—were in the locally successful pop-punk band Count the Stars. You remember them, don’t you? After Count the Stars got signed to Victory Records, the band soon fizzled, and Foley and Manning joined Mark Thomas Kluepfel and Danny Leo to form Action Action in 2004. The band’s debut release on Victory, Don’t Cut Your Fabric to This Year’s Fashion, sold more than 50,000 records, and the boys just followed it up with their sophomore album, An Army of Shapes Between Wars, which was released in January. So it looks like our hometown boys are on the rise, and we wish them luck on their big upcoming tour. For more information on Action Action, visit action-action.com. MARCHING TO THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUMMER Pittsfield, Mass.-based pop princes Hector on Stilts have inducted a new drummer into their lineup: none other than Albany’s (and Metroland’s) own John Brodeur. Brodeur (of the Suggestions and Five Alpha Beatdown) has replaced previous drummer Jay Schultheis. Catch the new HOS lineup at their next local show at the Skyline (90 N. Pearl St., Albany) on March 16 before they embark on a tour that will involve a cross-country trip to venues in cities like Hollywood and Tucson. In other news, Hector on Stilts are actively seeking Hecterns (ahem, interns) to help with all the work it takes to keep a band going. To learn more about HOS and available Hecternships, visit hectoronstilts.com.

—Kathryn Lurie



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