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Keepin’ it down-home style: Saratoga Acoustic Blues Society.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Old Soul

Saratoga trio aim to preserve the legacy of acoustic country blues

By Glenn Weiser

When the young Bob Dylan first heard a recording of Robert Johnson, the quintessential prewar country-blues acoustic guitarist and singer, he was stunned by the raw power of the music. In his 2004 book Chronicles, Dylan writes, “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up. The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window. When Johnson started singing, he seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.” Similarly, Eric Clapton encountered Johnson’s music in 1962, and was overwhelmed by the haunting vocals and intricate guitar work, saying in his autobiography Clapton, “After a few listenings I realized that, on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work.”

Robert Johnson’s music may have mesmerized Dylan and Clapton, but in today’s blues scene, acoustic players often get short shrift. Despite the wide range of picking styles within the genre, country-blues performers are routinely shunted off to side areas at blues festivals, and aren’t as likely as electric groups to get prime evening slots on main stages. Ask the graybeards of the blues why this is and you probably will be told there isn’t much demand for the spiritual descendents of Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, and the other prewar guitar wizards.

A hope to end the second-class status of early blues by fostering awareness of this vital, earthy music is, in part, why three musical Saratogians, Phil Drum (56, a clinical psychologist), Ray Giguere (54, a professor of chemistry at Skidmore College), and Dave Scheffel (52, an artisan woodworker), last year chartered a nonprofit, the Saratoga Acoustic Blues Society (myspace.com/saratogaacousticblues society). With funds raised from their local performances (they keep none of the money for themselves), they have been bringing in country-blues artists to the area for concerts. The next show will be this Saturday evening (March 21) at Stockade Oriental Rug Imports (543 Broadway, Saratoga Springs), headlined by Paul Geremia, a veteran folkie who has crisscrossed the country performing country-blues for more than 40 years. Because of Geremia’s preeminent ability to re-create the challenging guitar parts of the prewar players, the trio consider him the greatest living acoustic bluesman.

I first met the members of the SABS last month when we took part in a fingerstyle-guitar workshop at the Dance Flurry in Saratoga. Phil Drum, playing guitar, offered Blind Blake’s “West Coast Blues” and a version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” while guitarist Ray Giguere, backed by Dave Scheffel on harmonica, delivered tunes by Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson. Later that day, the SABS trio did their own concert at the Flurry.

The story of three people dedicating their time to raise country blues up from relative obscurity starts in e-mail exchanges and a get-together on a recent Sunday night in the living room of Phil Drum’s Saratoga Springs Victorian-style house, where they explained how they met and why they wanted to promote this music.

Ray Gigure was the first among them to focus on prewar blues. “Acoustic blues is the unsung hero of American music,” he said, and went on to describe players like Geremia, John Hammond, and Roy Bookbinder as “national treasures, just like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and Rev. Gary Davis were in the ’60s.”

In 2004, Giguere asked Dave Scheffel, a habitué of Saratoga’s open-mic scene, to back him at a weekday night jam at Doc’s Steakhouse on Putnam Street, and the two played regularly for the next year or so. Phil Drum moved to Saratoga in 2005 and began playing at Caffe Lena’s weekly Thursday-night open mic, where he too teamed with Sheffel, who introduced him to Giguere. “We hung out every week at the Lena open mic,” Drum wrote. “I always did some blues but I really am pretty eclectic. I started connecting with Ray and Dave around old-time blues and guitars and guitar styles. Ray told me about Blind Blake and I checked him out and was knocked out by him and challenged by tunes like ‘West Coast Blues.’ ”

The three became mainstays of the Lena open mic and friends in the process. Although Caffe Lena, to its credit, regularly features blues artists, the trio were hungry for more of the music, and decided to start a nonprofit corporation to promote concerts, serving themselves as the officers. Last year the Saratoga Acoustic Blues Society was chartered, and in July the society launched with its opening event, the Blues Celebration, at Stockade Oriental Rug Imports.

“It included Rick and Sharon Bolton, Mike Eck, Thomasina Winslow, Mark Tolstrup, Tom Evans, lots of good players and friends,” Drum wrote of the show. “We also brought Joan Crane in for a free concert in Congress Park in August 2008. Next thing we did was a show with the theme Blues for Hard Times at the Saratoga Borders with the Bentwood Rockers. We also played at the Saratoga library in December 2008, at the Dance Flurry in February 2009, and at the Saratoga Arts Center in February 2009 opening for Mark Tolstrup and Dale Haskell.”

Sarah Craig, the manager of Caffe Lena, lauded the group’s efforts, saying in an e-mail message, “I’m glad to have SABS drumming up new interest in acoustic blues and giving the artists another place to work. It takes a lot more than one venue to keep non-commercial music alive.”

The appeal of country blues was summed up by the late Piedmont country blues guitarist and singer John Cephas, who died on March 13 at the age of 78. Like Phil Drum, he was influenced by Blind Blake. In a New York Times obituary last week, Cephas was quoted as telling the Washington Post in a 2003 interview, “The music itself, played in the technique that we play it, when people hear, it is so emotionally captivating. You hear that wonderfully melodic, alternating thumb and finger, you just stop and say, ‘I want to go hear more of that!’ It’s instant emotional appeal, and people all over, wherever they heard it, they’re just drawn to it.”


ROUGH MIX

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail tips and information to tigerpop1@yahoo.com or metroland@ metroland.net.



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