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Nashville Scene New Again

Veteran blues guitarist infuses fresh ideas into vintage American music

By Michael McCall

JUNE 14, 1999:  Duke Robillard's recent album, New Blues for Modern Man, is as ambitious as its title suggests. Featuring everything from down 'n' dirty blues to a long, sophisticated instrumental in the vein of Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus, New Blues does a fine job of encompassing the breadth of the guitarist's talents. Throughout, he repeatedly draws on blues and swing while injecting these traditional forms with novel, fresh ideas.

"I've finally come upon a sound that works for all the different kinds of writing I do," Robillard says, speaking from his home in Louisville. "I think this album allows me to stretch while still pleasing my fans who hear what I do as being within a blues context."

Indeed, at age 51, Robillard is creating the best music of his life. Ever since he helped launch Roomful of Blues in 1967, the guitarist has been among the few modern blues performers to emphasize swing and jump styles in his music. While most of his peers were concentrating on rocking blues or on the fierce Chicago style, Robillard instead extended the honking, more sophisticated form originally developed by T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown.

It's a sound that he continued to draw upon when he replaced his friend Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1990. But it's in his solo work that he's experimented more freely. He pushed deeper into jazz with 1986's Swing and 1992's After Hours Swing Session, both interesting but flawed albums. For a variety of reasons--better singing, stronger songwriting, a well-oiled and highly capable band--Robillard has never put together his talents as effectively as on New Blues for Modern Man.

He hits his stride quickly. The opener, "Jumpin' Rockin' Rhythm," ranks with the most electrifying songs he's ever recorded. The autobiographical tune tells of a 6-year-old boy whose future is determined when he first hears R&B music on the radio. Enamored by the sounds of Memphis and New Orleans, he learns to play guitar and begins absorbing anything and everything that has blues as its root form.

The song sounds like a long-lost Chuck Berry tune transformed by a swinging horn band, and the raucous, punchy chorus ("jumping, rocking rhythm, swinging and shuffling the blues") could serve as Robillard's mission statement--jump, rock, rhythm, swing, shuffles, and blues all form the foundation of his music.

"I was 6 when I really started noticing how powerful music was," he remembers. "When I was a kid, the first music I heard was Hank Williams and Bob Wills, because my uncle played in a country band. Then, in 1954, my brother started bringing home these rock 'n' roll records--'Rock Around the Clock' and stuff like that. It just drove me crazy. I still remember the first time I heard the piano intro to 'Blueberry Hill' and how it gave me goosebumps. So I got very interested in the ability of music to do that to you, to affect someone like that."

His first exposure to unadulterated blues came through the music of Chuck Berry, on tunes like "Wee Wee Hours" and "Deep, Deep Feeling." As much as he'd liked Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly, those Berry songs became his favorites. Then he heard Muddy Waters, and his world changed.

"I flipped over it," he says. "I don't know why. I didn't know it was the blues. I didn't think about classifying it or about it being black or white music. I just knew I really connected with it, and that I loved it."

As Robillard grew up, he shared a similar love for certain kinds of jazz, especially the horn work of Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, and Louis Armstrong. "To me, they're blues players too," he says. "As I got more perspective and learned more about music history and where it all comes from, the one constant I've found in the music I like is that there's blues running through it. They're all different perspectives on the blues."

The guitarist's love of Hodges and Webster may explain why he has often included horn players in his bands. His current quintet features a baritone saxophone and a tenor sax (the latter manned by Nashville resident Dennis Taylor, a recent Nashville Music Award nominee).

Because Robillard incorporates so much swing into his songs, it's surprising that young fans haven't yet flocked to his shows with the same fervor that they've fastened onto The Brian Setzer Orchestra or other current young swing-rock bands. This may be because Robillard is identified first and foremost as a blues player, or because his sets have too much variety to accommodate kids looking for nonstop swing dancing.

Robillard, who performs in town Sunday, is slightly bemused by this latest musical trend; he remembers one show in Florida where the club offered dance instruction prior to his set. "It was a little funny," he laughs. "The crowd seemed more concerned with looks and steps than with just enjoying themselves. But still, it's nice to see people socializing in that kind of way in 1999. It's the coolest form of dancing, and there's a real art to it. Plus, it's about a good time, and there's nothing wrong with that."

Still, he views the current swing revival as "more about hype than meat." But he certainly understands the music's appeal. In one way or another, he's been personalizing blues and swing since he first started playing professionally more than 33 years ago.

His tenacity has paid off. Now at the height of his abilities, he's also busier than ever. He's begun working as a producer, collaborating with Kansas City jazz veteran Jay McShann, veteran bluesman Eddie Clearwater, acoustic bluesman John Hammond Jr., and sax player Gordon Beadle. He played guitar on Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind. (New Blues for Modern Man includes Robillard's menacing, if less personal and less powerful take on Dylan's "Love Sick.") He's also played on recent records by Ruth Brown, Johnny Adams, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Kim Wilson, among others.

"I welcome the work," he says. "I'm not at the level of a pop musician, where I can take off for six months between tours and records. But I'm busier than I've ever been, and I feel like the work I'm doing gets better all the time. There's a lot of satisfaction in that."

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