Ryan McGarvey - hot dog from Albuquerque
Time was when the blues was considered old hat. We’d had the 1960s British blues boom and musicians persisting with the traditional blues format thereafter were being accused of playing tired old twelve bars.
Try telling that to the thriving army of bands in Scotland who are queuing up to be included in the Jock’s Juke Joint series of compilation CDs of contemporary blues that currently sits at Volume 3. Or to the young guitar slingers who are tearing up the circuit of clubs and bars in the U.S. where the blues remains a staple soundtrack to having a good time.
Two of their number appear next week on separate nights for the recently formed Edinburgh Blues Club, which has identified an appetite for the personal communication between musicians and audience that the blues long ago perfected.
Ryan McGarvey and Hamilton Loomis come from New Mexico and Texas respectively but their routes into the blues were similar – it was their parents’ influence. McGarvey’s folks’ Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Cream albums pointed the then early teenager towards the origins of their music and when he discovered that much of it was derived from old blues songs, the singer-guitarist concedes that he became a bit of a purist.
“For a while I considered pure blues the only real music,” he says. “I didn’t stay that way for long because along came Kenny Wayne Shepherd when I was just starting high school and he seemed to inspire a whole movement of blue-eyed blues singer-guitarists. He was really exciting and he showed that it was okay to go out and play your own take on the blues, make it personal as long as you kept the essence of the music.”
McGarvey gigged around his home town, Albuquerque, from the age of fourteen, sitting in with local bands at first before forming his own band and gradually reaching further and further out of New Mexico. Support slots with various high profile artists, including Joe Bonamassa, whom he now counts as a friend, helped spread the word, as did his first album, Forward in Reverse, released when he was barely out of his teens in 2007.
Three years later he was personally selected by Eric Clapton to appear at the prestigious Crossroads Festival in Chicago, a life-changing experience that’s done his date-sheet no harm whatsoever. When the Herald caught up with him he was in Holland, half-way through the first of two three-month European tours that he’ll complete this year.
“We’re working a lot,” he says. “But that’s what we want because as a musician you want to be playing to people. It’s funny because fans come up to me after shows and tell me that such and such a song means so much to them and when they explain why, it’ll be a completely different interpretation to the original idea. I love that. I try not to be specific in songs, don’t mention anyone’s names, so it’s cool that they relate to what I’m doing in whatever way.”
Connecting with an audience is the main reason why Galveston-born Hamilton Loomis chose guitar over the many other instruments that were around when he was growing up with parents who had him singing in the family band at the earliest opportunity.
“We used to sing three-part harmonies and I loved what we were doing,” he says. “But around the age of fourteen I got into my own music, and they encouraged me. There was a blues jam every Tuesday in a seedy part of Houston, where we were living by then, and I’d go down there and play with Joe Guitar Hughes, a great musician but only really known locally. We’d be the only white faces in the club but as soon as the music started, any barriers there might have been disappeared and there was a great vibe.”
Loomis was small for his age and he thinks this might have played a part in getting him so close to one of the real rock-blues pioneers, Bo Diddley. Diddley was so taken with this little kid (Loomis was sixteen but looked twelve) playing his music backstage while he signed autographs that he invited Loomis onstage for the second set, and the two became friends. They co-wrote a song, You Got to Wait, on Loomis’ 2007 album, Ain’t Just Temporary, and when Loomis’ son was born a few months ago he named him Bo.
Blues greats Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins also schooled Loomis and he regards himself as fortunate not just to have spent time with his heroes but to be working in a different era.
“Bo used to tell me stories about all the rip-offs he experienced and about how he couldn’t afford guitar strings,” says Loomis, who became the proud owner of Diddley’s famous red guitar after Diddley died. “He never trimmed his strings so if one snapped, he could tie a knot in it and carry on playing. These days I have a string endorsement and a broken string’s nothing. But I keep his advice with me still: innovate don’t imitate and while it means I’m away from home a lot, I’m proud to be in the same business as him of going out onstage and communicating with people directly.”
Hamilton Loomis plays Edinburgh Blues Club on Tuesday June 17; Ryan McGarvey on Thursday 19.
From The Herald, June 11, 2014.