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The next Stevie Ray? Blues maven Albert Cummings.

Zoned for Success
At home in Williamstown, Albert Cummings is just a regular guy with a construction business. But when he straps on his Stratocaster, the blues world takes notice

By Erik Hage

There seem to be two sides to Albert Cummings. One is the blues guitarslinger and vocalist, a man who has toured with the likes of B.B. King and played and recorded with (and become a close ally of) Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rhythm section. This Albert Cummings is fast becoming one of the most renowned blues guitarist-songwriters to ever call our region home, a man who stands on the stage lip with his Stratocaster and goes deep into that other place, beyond thought and technique—call it “the zone,” because the cliché works—and wrenches out heart-shredding emotional storms that call to mind (in pure, screaming, visceral impact) his hero Vaughan, who died in a helicopter crash in 1990.

But there’s also that other Albert Cummings: the way-down-to-earth character who punctuates his anecdotes with a hearty laugh and takes an attitude of utter wonderment toward his success, coming off like an amused spectator of his own career. For example: In recalling the drive down the Northway in the fall of 2000 when Double Trouble’s Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton told him they wanted to not only play on his next album (From the Heart), but produce it, the 36-year-old Cummings offers a deep, rich guffaw. It was right after the second show he had ever played with the duo, and he was taking them back to their hotel. (Their first gig had been the night before at RPI’s Houston Field House.) “I was so floored that I drove all the way down almost to Western Avenue. I missed all the exits to Troy!” he says, laughing.

From the Heart turned out to be the first time that Double Trouble had been the sole producers of an album. It was also the first time Layton, Shannon and keyboardist Reese Wynans had backed an artist for an entire LP since Vaughan. “I still don’t believe it happened,” Cummings says, once again cracking up at his good fortune.

This “other” Albert Cummings is just a friendly, easy-to-talk-to kind of guy; the kind of person you could blow the foam off some beers and have a laugh with after a long workday. He’s the fourth Albert of an old Williamstown, Mass., family—and the fourth Albert to run a successful family construction business. But he’s also got a spate of Midwestern shows to play in the coming weeks. And his new LP, True to Yourself—on blues label Blind Pig—is set to hit the streets at the end of August. And he’s got a lot of people (national booking agents, managers, label, fans and fellow musicians) expecting a whole lot from him.

The new album was recorded both in Austin and at Memphis’ famed Ardent studios, with Jim Gaines, a producer who has worked extensively with Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But Cummings wasn’t planning on working with Double Trouble this time around, because, as he points out, “You get people who say, ‘Aw, he’s [just] a Stevie Ray wannabe.’ I mean, I wish I could play like Stevie Ray.” But his plans to break away from the Vaughan legacy were thwarted when he mentioned to Tommy Shannon, who had become a great friend in the intervening years, that he was putting together a new album. “[Tommy] said, ‘I’m going to be on your album or I’m going to kick your ass,’” Cummings chuckles. “I was like, ‘OK, I guess I got my bass player.’”

Cummings says the new album, all originals, is “a lot more energetic—a little more driven” than its predecessor. “It has a real live feel to it because a lot of it was spontaneous.” That resulted from an increased comfort level in the studio this time around. “The first time I was in the studio [for From the Heart], Tommy Shannon joked that I had ‘red light fever’ because every time the recording button would go on, I would tense up.” In his defense, Cummings points out, “Could you imagine sitting in the studio and having Double Trouble lookin’ in on you? ‘Go ahead—perform. Entertain us.’” (The album title actually came from some coaching that Shannon gave Cummings in the studio: “Play from the heart.”)

Talk to Cummings about guitar playing, and one encounters two issues: one, he’s extremely (overly) modest about what he does, and two, he frequently talks about “the zone”—that is, getting into that space beyond technique and thought. (“He’s unconscious,” we used to say in high-school basketball when a player went there.) “There’s an old line: ‘If you’re thinkin’, you’re stinkin’,” Cummings notes by way of illustration. “I always try to get to that point—and sometimes you just can’t. But when you get there, it’s a fun place to be. . . . You just dial into that sixth sense.” Cummings says he’s heard certain live recordings of his own shows, and it’s like listening to another person. “I listen to it and I think, ‘Man, I’ve got to learn that.’”

Cummings says Shannon told him that “Stevie’d be on the road and he’d grab a guitar and he’d be in that zone instantly. He’d just go there, sitting in the corner of a hotel room on a chair.” Shannon would look over, and Vaughan’s eyes would have the sheen of someone who had simply checked out for a while.

Like many of Cummings’ stories, the tale of his initial guitar inspiration has to do with Vaughan, a sort of omnipresent guiding spirit. Cummings had grown up playing five-string banjo and cutting his teeth at impromptu jams at bluegrass fests. But in 1987, as a 19-year-old student at Wentworth College in Boston, he stumbled upon a Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble show at the Orpheum completely by chance. Walking by, he spotted two tour buses, one of them with a painting on the side of a crossed Strat and Les Paul, like some kind of blues-rocker coat of arms. Drawn in by the talisman, Cummings realized who it was. “It was one of those life-changing moments,” he says. At that instant, he said to himself, “I’ve got to play guitar.”

As life would have it, the last time he saw Vaughan & Double Trouble in concert was at RPI in the late ’80s. The next time he saw Double Trouble play, he says, he was walking on the same stage with them: “It was freaky.” The intervening years had seen Cummings working at his construction business and playing around the area with his band Swamp Yankee. He had also gotten a big boost from the Northeast Blues Society in the late ’90s and had become a Capital Region blues-guitar favorite. Then his and Double Trouble’s paths crossed.

RPI was planning a “Blues Day” and looking to match up a national headliner with the hottest local act. Absolutely joking, Cummings told the organizers, “Why don’t you have Double Trouble play with me?” A Cummings CD was sent to the duo and they agreed. Soon Cummings found himself onstage with Shannon and Layton and in the shoes of his idol. More live shows, an album, a friendship and a music alliance followed. Afterward, drummer Chris Layton was quoted as saying, “I dug Albert because I felt I hadn’t run into anyone with as much enthusiasm and excitement toward playing in a long time.”

That enthusiasm is palpable even in conversation. Cummings has enough notches on his belt to start getting a little “over it,” but it’s simply not happening. He talks about his new album with almost giddy excitement and can’t wait for folks to hear it. One senses that Cummings is making the most of every moment. For example, when opening for B.B. King over the course of 19 shows, Cummings would always wait until the end of the night, after the concert—after King had talked to sometimes a hundred people—for a chance to chat a little with the master.

One night, in New Jersey, King sent one of his people to fetch Cummings: “Mr. King wants to see you.”

“Oh my God. What did I do wrong? Did I say something onstage?” Cummings thought, because King runs a tight ship. Cummings remembers that B.B. simply said, “Sit down, Albert,” and then, “I just wanted to tell you that you were hot tonight.”

“It was so unreal,” Cummings says. King also said he wanted to take Cummings out on the road again in the future. With that possibility and so many more tours on the horizon, Cummings admits that it is sometimes a little difficult balancing the construction business with music, but he notes that his wife Christina helps manage things a lot, plus he has a great crew of guys.

But what do the guys think of all these musical escapades? “Aw, they all love it. They have their hobbies too . . . NASCAR or whatever the guys are into. My hobby is music. But I guess it’s becoming a heck of a lot more than a hobby.”

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