Thursday, February 18, 2010

Roots Guitar Capital: Washington D.C. 1977-80

In the summer of 1977, a good friend and I trekked to Washington D.C. so that he could accompany the legendary St. Louis bluesman Henry Townsend at the Wolf Trap Folk Festival. My friend Lenny did a superb job of backing up Henry and we enjoyed many of the wide ranging styles of roots music that were on display that weekend. One unforgettable player that we particularly enjoyed was the relatively unknown blues recording artist Jerry "Boogie" McCain, whose unique harp style and flamboyance really caught on at Wolf Trap that year. Check Jerry out doing "Courtin in a Cadillac" from the 1950's. I distinctly remember him tearing it up with his famous "She's Tough," a tune later covered successfully by the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

One facet of the 1977-1979 D.C. music scene that totally escaped our attention was the incredible constellation of roots based electric guitarists who were working in the greater capital city area at that time. Having done a bit of research on these players, it seems clear that no other city in the U.S. or anywhere else could boast of such an astonishing array of guitar talent, most of which was roots based and very active in the club scene at the time. Venues such as the Cellar Door, Crazy Horse, Blues Alley, Child Harolde and the Psyche Delly provided the outlet for the flourishing blues/jazz and roots scene, which the music critic Mark Winter dubbed "the Blue Wave" in 1978. Also contributing to the D.C. roots music phenomena was the original WHFS, which gave local musicians plenty of airtime which in turn aided local record sales. In this post I would like to pay homage to some of the outstanding guitar players that contributed to the richness of the roots scene in the Washington/Baltimore area during those years. It truly was the "Roots Guitar Capital" of the world at that time. More recently, new players like Melanie Mason and Sammy Blair are carrying on this rich guitar tradition in the capital city.

1) Danny Gatton: Roots musician Billy Hancock resurrects the Aladdin label by helping to put together the 1975 recording Danny and the Fat Boys. This recording energized the roots movement in the D.C. area while showcasing the prodigious talents of telecaster wizard Gatton. His artistry is on full display on the Horace Silver tune Opus de Funk. A few years later, in 1978, Gatton records the very highly regarded "Redneck Jazz" which sold well in the D.C. area but remained relatively unknown elsewhere. From this period comes this medley with steel guitarist Buddy Emmons.

2) Roy Buchanan: Buchanan, originally from Arkansas, settled in the D.C. area and was very active during these years. Roy is remembered as a blues guitar icon for his innovative use of telecaster tone which is on display here on this remarkable version of Sweet Dreams from 1976.

3) Tom Principato: Tom's 1970's blues based band and record label Powerhouse achieved a considerable following and helped to define the roots music approach to the D.C. area 70's scene. Since that time he has recorded extensively with his blues based group Powerhouse. He has won numerous WAMMY awards and I sure wish I could see him live ! This rendition of "Red House" displays Tom's masterful guitar work from what looks to be the 1970's. Outstanding.

4) The Nighthawks: Led by Jimmy Thackery and Mark Wenner, this D.C based blues group had a steady gig at the Far End during the mid 1970's and went on to gain national attention during the 1980s and beyond. Thackery is a gifted blues guitarist who teamed up with Principato to form the Assassins. I'm not sure when this video was made, (probably 1980's) but it captures the feel of what the Nighthawks were up to in the D.C. area back in the 1970's. This 2008 video showcases Thackery's talents up close.

5) Pete Kennedy: Pete's association with the D.C. scene is rooted in the Falls Church, Virginia back in the early 1970's. Kennedy and Principato teamed up as the opening act for Danny Gatton's Redneck Jazz Explosion. From that live show in 1978 comes "Fingers on Fire," a remarkable recording which displays the versatility of both players. In this video Pete's speaks of his formative days in D.C., and the influence of Gatton and Buchanan, then offers up this very nice homage to the scene. Superb.

6) Evan Johns: Johns hooks up with Danny Gatton in the late 1970's in the D.C. area and contributes vocals on Gatton's 1978 Redneck Jazz L.P. Also plays with Gatton in the short lived group the "Benders" in the D.C. area. Johns is essentially a rockabilly based player who has had success in Austin, where he has played with the Leroi Brothers. This recording is more recent, with his group The H Bombs with another D.C. guitarist, Mark Korpi.

7) Dave Chappell - Dave was also directly connected to the 1970's D.C. guitar scene who credits Gatton as a major influence. He is currently active in the D.C. area. Great player.

8) Joe Kogok: Joe grew up listening and playing around many of the players already mentioned above. He performed with Danny Gatton on several recording during the period.

9) Mark Korpi: Played gigs with Gatton in the early 1980's. Mark is still active today, playing here in the D.C. area. Here is Mark showing off his chops live.