Roomful of Blues – The Band and the Brand

roomful.jpgThe 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.”

“Brainwashed” Shana Morrison’s Family Tradition

shana-morrison-small.jpgShana Morrison tried to chart her own path from youth to adulthood; her aspirations – business school and a career in finance – would seemingly delight most parents. But Shana’s wasn’t an ordinary household.

Her father responded to her plans with a terse question. “Why do you want to do business? Business people are a**holes.”

Later, Dad tried a more sanguine approach to coax Shana into the family trade. At graduation, he suggested she try a few months in his profession before looking for work in hers.

Thus, she joined Van Morrison for a brief tour in late 1993. 13 years later, Shana Morrison is still carrying on the family tradition.

Van Morrison’s ‘Blues and Soul Review’ tour, said Shana during a phone interview Saturday, “was a three hour show with a bunch of different musicians. I only did two songs, so it wasn’t like people had to hear his daughter squawk all night.”

After the tour, Shana joined Claddagh (leader Kevin Brennan had also worked with Van), and later formed her own band, Caledonia. “Then fans started asking for a CD,” she says, “so we thought we’ll release something as a snapshot in time. It wasn’t something that was planned. “

Shana, who performs tomorrow night at the Ascutney Mountain Resort, shares her father’s penchant for exploring many musical directions. 2002’s “Seven Wishes” was produced by studio heavyweight Steve Buckingham and has a country-pop feel. It was, says Morrison, “a really beautiful, pristine-sounding record.”

Her latest, however, churns with the raw power reminiscent of artists like Susan Tesdeschi and Bonnie Raitt. This begs the question: is the album’s title, “That’s Who I Am,” a declaration of sorts?

“Yeah, definitely,” says Morrison. “I’d never been able to record anything that was really bluesy or really R&B-oriented. That’s what the goal was for this record, to choose a group of songs that would work for that kind of approach.”

Morrison produced most of “That’s Who I Am” herself, with help from longtime guitarist Chris Collins. Listening to it, one is struck by how much fun the band seems to be having, quoting the Sugarhill Gang’s hip-hop classic “Rapper’s Delight” in “Drive,” and turning the traditional standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” into a high-speed rave-up. The album’s highlight is “Simple,” an epic blues number that showcases Collins and “Mighty” Mike Schermer trading off bristling guitar solos.

Unlike “Seven Wishes,” she released the new record independently. “It’s easier to record an 11 minute song without an label executive looking over your shoulder,” she says.

Morrison stuck with blues rock for the new disc. “Each time you do a record, you need to focus it a bit,” she says. Onstage, she’s less encumbered, more adventurous.

“My music can be really…” Shana pauses to explain, though anyone familiar with the many twists and turns in her father’s body of work certainly understands that the Morrison muse is nothing if not diverse. “If you come to see my show, people can get really confused. We’ll start the night with some Irish songs, then we’ll do some pop and some blues.” She’ll also put her own touch on “Van the Man” favorites like “Into the Mystic” and “St. Dominic’s Preview.”

Things will be even more interesting for this short East coast tour. Worcester chamber-pop trio The Curtain Society, augmented by Huck’s Scott Ricciuti on guitar, serve as her backup band for Friday’s performance.

Economic necessity dictates the move. “Gas prices,” she sighs. Travel costs in general make mounting a tour with a band difficult. She’s considered a solo or a duo act, “but when you’re in the bar and nightclub settings you want to do something a little more raucous,” she says.

She’s worked with the Curtain Society before. “I did some shows with them last year when I was on my way back from Europe,” she says. “They can play some really interesting things that we’ve never come up with before with my band. It may not be something an audience would notice, but it perks me up.”

Her life today is a far cry from the one she imagined in college. She once told financial writer Lee Silber that, as a child, she “envied other kids whose parents had normal jobs,” recalling how they would “live in a mansion and buy a new car and stereo system one year and have to sell it all” the next.

She is, says Morrison, “aware that most people go at this a long time and never make any money. “

“I guess I was brainwashed,” she laughs.

When she decided to become a full-time performer, “my parents were ecstatic and proud,” says Shana Morrison.

“Because what else is there better than being a musician?”