Roomful of Blues – The Band and the Brand
The story of Roomful of Blues and the New England blues scene are inextricably intertwined. The venerable Rhode Island band brings its unique style of swinging, dance-friendly R&B to the Ascutney Mountain Resort on November 30.
Countless players came through their ranks on the way to other bands. Duke Robillard, who co-founded Roomful of Blues in 1967 with piano player Al Copley, went on to front his own successful band. Drummer Fran Christina joined the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Other past members include vocalists Curtis Salgado and Lou Ann Barton, horn players Greg Piccolo and Porky Cohen and keyboardist Ron Levy.
Some left successful bands to join Roomful of Blues. Keyboard player Travis Colby fronted Hipology before joining a few years ago, and also gigged with Ronnie Earl, the ex-Roomful guitarist who replaced Duke Robillard in 1981.
In recognition of long runs with Young Neil & the Vipers and the High Rollers, Downbeat Magazine called new lead singer Dave Howard “the de facto ruler of the little blues state” of Rhode Island. Howard joined up in early 2007, and worked on Roomful’s forthcoming CD, “Raisin’ a Ruckus.”
The new record, due in early 2008, includes eight original tunes and some covers. It maintains the feel of a Roomful of Blues live show, says Chris Vachon, the band’s lead guitarist and producer since 1990. “It’s a mix of blues styling – a little rock and roll and big band sounds, a danceable kind of thing.”
In the studio, they try to strike a balance of tight and spontaneous. “We rehearse for three or four days and just go in and record the tunes,” he says. “There’s not a whole of fixing up, so when we go out and play it, it sounds like the record.
After so many years and personnel changes – close to 50, but there’s no definitive list – Roomful of Blues is equal parts band and brand. But their essential qualities remain the same, Vachon says.
“The guys in the band like what they’re doing and the kind of music we do,” he says. “Things have changed a little bit with singers and stuff, but for the most part it’s close to where it started out.”
The current lineup, says Vachon, “has been pretty consistent for the past 3-4 years, with the exception of Dave, who just joined a little while ago.”
Vachon says he’s pleased with the group’s musical chemistry.
“We’ve had editions in the past that probably weren’t as good as we’d hoped for, for a lot of different reasons. But this particular group is really solid. Everyone does what they’re supposed to do. I’d have to say it’s one of the best lineups we’ve ever had.”
The band plays a “Jump blues” style, popularized in the 1940s by Louis Prima, Big Joe Turner and Wynonie Harris; in the 1980s, it received a modern boost from Brian Setzer and Joe Jackson. Jump blues is more disciplined, less free form music than other blues idioms, designed to get crowds up and dancing.
Over the course of a 40-year career, Roomful of Blues has worked with everyone from Count Basie to Stevie Ray Vaughn, recorded with songwriting legend Doc Pomus, and seeded a bevy of blues bands as well. Along the way, their horn section built a long resume of session credits.
When the band plays live, says Vachon, “most of our stuff is worked out as far as the arrangements and who’s going to solo.” They do occasionally loosen up and stretch things out, he says. ‘We have a few tunes, like the instrumentals, that are open. Whatever happens – we don’t say, ‘you’ve gotta take three [bars]’. If a guy’s really playing, he’ll take four, five or six.”
“It’s interesting to be able to play in a band like this where you don’t always have to be the main guy, or the main soloist, everybody kind of takes it for a little while,” he says.
Is it still fun?
“I gotta say, I still love it,” replies Vachon. “It’s a little tiring once in a while out on the road, and it’s tough to be away, but I still enjoy it.”
At one time, the band did as many as 200 shows a year, but they’ve trimmed their extensive performing schedule. “We used to be on the road a lot, constantly,” he says. “We’re cutting back to weekends now, and then we’ll go out on tour for a couple of weeks and come back.”
“I can see my wife a little more,” he says. “I’m on my second marriage, so it’s kind of more important to me to spend time and take care of my home.”
Apparently, absence makes the musical heart grow fonder. “If we haven’t played together in a while, we have a ball,” says Vachon. “It’s different than playing five nights a week.”