This ended up being much longer than I anticipated, so I’ll be splitting it into two parts. Tomorrow, April 9, marks the release of The Duke Robillard Band’s Independently Blue, on which I’m honored to be a featured guest and collaborator. Duke Robillard is a genuine hero of mine, and as I’ve said before, getting the call to make a record together was like being asked by Batman to join him on his crusade against crime. The coincident release of Independently Blue and Duke’s new gig with Bob Dylan made me want to share some thoughts about what Duke’s music means to me. Hope you enjoy it.
Here’s a confession for you: for years, I didn’t quite “get” Duke Robillard. Don’t get me wrong – I was a fan from the first time I heard him, and he profoundly influenced my playing. I just didn’t fully understand what he did. Although the word “encyclopedic” is thrown around a lot to describe Duke’s knowledge of roots guitar styles – and have no doubt, it’s accurate and deserved – I feel like the word does Duke’s greater talents a disservice. Duke’s knowledge and skill are consummate and worthy of the praise they receive, but there’s a lot more going on with Duke’s music, and I feel like it’s worth talking about.
My first awareness of Duke came very shortly after I started playing guitar, via a feature in the March 1989 issue of Guitar World magazine, in an article written by Dan Forte. I can remember the title as clear as day: “The Duke Who Was T-Bone.” (I had started playing guitar only a year and a half earlier, and I obsessively read and reread every guitar magazine I could find in the search for more knowledge.) It was a multiple page, information-packed overview of Duke’s career in the way that guitar magazines used to do, and it spent a good amount of its word count discussing Duke’s uncanny ability to channel his varied guitar influences, with an emphasis on his mastery of T-Bone Walker’s style during the years Duke fronted Roomful of Blues. Within a few years – crucially, the years in which I became obsessed with “the blues” as opposed to a general love of blues-based rock music – Duke had released an excellent guitar instructional video in which he broke down some of his favorite styles, appeared on Kim Wilson’s Tigerman, which lovingly recreated some of Kim’s favorite old blues records with Duke cast in the role of T-Bone Walker or Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and most importantly, released his own Duke’s Blues, which was a tribute to his blues influences in which he inhabited and expanded on the styles of blues guitarists as diverse as Walker, Guitar Slim, Albert Collins, and Magic Sam.
The upshot of all of this is that I respected Duke as an encyclopedia, and loved the music he made, but gave short shrift to his originality. As a well-meaning 17-year old idiot, I even said something to that effect in an interview with the aforementioned Dan Forte for Musician magazine. (If Duke’s knowledge of music is truly “encyclopedic,” then I submit that my own be described as “Wikipedic” – broad, but sometimes factually dubious and given to wild, unsupportable statements.)
Perhaps it’s important to note that Duke wasn’t living in New England when I came up. He’d moved to Louisville, and I never saw him play in that pre-YouTube time immemorial, so I only had his records to go by, with the freshest examples in my mind being the ones in which he paid the most literal tributes to his influences. Had I seen him in action, or kept my ears open to most of the other music he’d recorded in his career, my assumptions would have been blown wide open. As a contrast, I saw Ronnie Earl as often as I could, and if you’ve ever seen Ronnie, you know that his intentions and goals couldn’t be clearer – the guy has depths of emotion in his soul that he HAS to express to you come hell or high water. If I’d seen Duke as often, I would have had a much clearer perspective on what he does. As it was, it took until the very early 2000s, when Duke was back in Rhode Island and we played a couple of shows together as part of Sugar Ray’s Big Band, and I realized just how much I’d taken from Duke’s style – not the way he played Lowell Fulson or whatever, but Duke’s style with its slippery phrasing and totally unique sense of time – that it really clicked for me, and sent me back to Duke’s records with fresh ears.
Duke’s genius, for me, is twofold, lying not only in his brilliant guitar skills but also in the way he recontextualizes his influences into something new and unique. I’ll start with Duke the guitarist, and in part two, I’ll start digging into how he uses those influences to make his own music.
My God, that guy’s good.
Okay, okay, I’ll elaborate. It’s in his touch. Duke’s ability to bring tones out of the instrument is startling at times. It’s the reason why he’s so capable of emulating his influences, to be sure, but it also gives him a command of timbre that allows him to paint in any color he chooses, almost regardless of the instrument he’s playing. This is a guy who has made authentic early jazz records on a Squier Telecaster and gotten stingingly bright Magic Sam West Side tones on a Gibson L-5 with fat-sounding humbuckers. That’s not a question of amps or effects, either – in fact, he gets a lot out of fairly neutral sounding clean amplifiers up to and including the actual Peavey PA head he used with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I’ve heard him do it just as impressively with unplugged electric guitars. His palette of available tones is seemingly almost limitless before he even touches a pickup switch or volume control.
His phrasing is linked to his physical touch. Duke has talked in interviews about wanting to emulate the legato phrasing of horn players like Ben Webster and Lester Young, and he developed a slippery, slurred voice with lots of finger slides, hammers, pulls and chromatic movement which suggests horn phrasing without really copying it. It’s very vocal in nature; like a lot of great blues and jazz soloists on any instrument, it recalls the human voice. Duke is great at post-B.B. King blues and rock guitar in which the human voice is emulated with bent strings and finger vibrato, but his more horn-influenced slurred approach sings in a different, more unusual way that doesn’t sound like anyone but Duke Robillard. Listen to his tour-de-force “Blues A Rama,” in which he distills his blues encyclopedia into a shifting 16 minute tribute to eleven of his favorite blues guitarists in one take with the same guitar and amp. It’s breathtakingly audacious and impeccably performed, but listening to him work through so many tributes in a row, it’s clearly the work of one man, and Duke’s slips, slides and slurs come through as loud and clear as the tones and attacks of the players he’s paying homage to. Duke brings it home at the end by playing “a little Duke Robillard style,” and everything snaps into focus. The common ground between the tributes is a personal style as unique and idiosyncratic as most of Duke’s targets. Viewed in context, the grind of Guitar Slim and the sweetness of B.B. King aren’t all that much more than window dressing for Duke’s voice and vision. In a sense, Duke uses Johnny “Guitar” Watson or Gatemouth Brown in the same way the rest of us might use a distortion or wah wah pedal – it’s obvious color for the sound, but it’s not the point. Duke brilliantly uses his knowledge and technique to transcend knowledge and technique. Again: My God, that guy’s good.
Here’s a video of Duke doing “Blues A Rama” live in the studio – a different take from the record, but just as impressive.
To be continued
Photo of Duke and Mike by Ray Cooney