Big Boy Bloater
Interview by Rick Webb, Photos by Andy Hall. Sept 2008
A legend on the Rockin' Scene, Bloater's 6 piece R&B band - The Southside Stompers - are among the most credible swingin' blues-jumpin' sax honkin' boogie-piano pumpin' bands around. He also fronts 'The City Shakers', focusing on a more stripped down Chicago style blues. He's got a giant voice that brings to mind the early R&B greats, a powerful-but-tasteful dynamic guitar style, and charismatic stage presence. We met up with for a pre-gig pint and chat...
RW: When was the first time you met the blues?
BBB: I have no idea, I think it has been a gradual process. As a kid my parents (who are big music fans) took me to lots of blues shows. I was very lucky to see the likes of Slim Gaillard, Jimmy Nelson, Big Joe Duskin, Little Willie Littlefield etc at quite a young age so I guess that had a positive effect on me!
RW: Who were/are your main musical inspirations?
BBB: Ike Turner has been a massive influence on my guitar playing, I really love that whammy bar stuff - so much so I wrote a track on my new album called 'Whammy!'. My other big guitar heros are Mickey Baker and Johnny Guitar Watson - I love all that 50's stuff. For me the 50's was the golden age of blues. Vocal wise I would love to be able to sing like Little Willie John or Jackie Wilson but I'm more of a gruff blues shouter!
RW: The Bloater Band and the City Shakers have quite different vibes... How did it come about that you had these two bands?
BBB: The material I do with my 6-piece band has tight arrangements and a huge sound, I think The City Shakers stuff is much looser and sometimes the same song can change dramatically from gig to gig. It's really great to work in two such different ways - the 6-piece stuff is tight like a well oiled machine and it gives me a lot of confidence having a band like that behind me. The City Shakers' way of working is a lot more spontaneous and on the edge. The two bands differ instrument wise, The City Shakers is quite stripped down with harp, guitar, double bass and drums while the stuff I do with the bigger band has a much fuller sound with two saxes and piano. For me the 6-piece stuff is very comfortable and I can lay back a lot and let the band do a lot of the work whereas with The City Shakers I have to work a lot harder switching between filling out the rhythm section and playing lead and singing as well.
RW: What are the ideas behind each of them?
BBB: The 6 piece band started off as quite a different band playing material from the late 40's but over the years it's kind of moved on quite naturally influence wise and now we're more late 50's maybe even early 60's. There's covers of New Orleans, West Coast & Texas R & B tunes and a lot of the material is self penned. It's very much a guitar led band these days but we still feature the saxes and piano plenty. The City Shakers is more Chicago influenced and of course features the very talented Laurie Garman on the harp a lot!
RW: What do you think is the state of Blues music right now?
BBB: There's a lot of great bands out there at the moment, I'm a big fan of performers like Wes Weston, Big Joe Louis and Mike Sanchez, but I think for me the blues genre has been stretched a little too far in terms of style. I've gone along to blues clubs to see bands and been very disappointed to find what I would call a rock band playing! However I guess it's all down to perception and taste - there are probably some fans of 20's & 30's blues who might say the music I play has stretched the blues too much.
RW: You seem to be very busy and playing all over... What sort of places do you play at?
BBB: Yes, I am very lucky that I always seem to be quite busy, especially since having the two bands. I often get asked what sort of venues I play and to be honest there is no one type, I have played festivals to thousands and the next night played at a club/pub to 30/40 people, and I am sure this is the experience of most gigging musicians today. I enjoy all the different types of gigs and venues for different reasons! As long as the audience are up for it it doesn't matter who they are or how many of them there are! In the last few months I have played at some big blues festivals, some rock'n'roll festivals and some mainstream music festivals as well as great small venues like Croydon Blues Club and the Bottleneck Blues Club and I've had a ball at them all!
RW: So how's business?
BBB: Yeah, very good thanks (touch wood!). I really enjoy what I do, I have never wanted to do any more than play the music I want to and have it appreciated and I am lucky that it seems to be that way for me, as well as enjoying a certain amount of success. Long may it continue! As you know I just had a simultaneous CD release from both bands and although it was a lot of work it was well worth it and has brought attention to both bands from each others audiences.
RW: How does the situation now compare with your past experience?
BBB: I think things change quite slowly and you don't always realise you are busier or playing better gigs, I dunno! The only thing I have noticed is that I used to be booked up over a year in advance and now it seems to be 4-6 months in advance, which I suppose means people are more cautious, however I am aware this is the same for a lot of bands. I'm as busy, if not busier, than ever which I am very thankful for.
RW: Do you notice a difference between different parts of the UK? Abroad?
BBB: The beer is cheaper up north - and usually free abroad!! Seriously though, I think audiences can be fantastic anywhere, and they can be bad anywhere. I have to agree with the old moan about being treated better abroad, but I fully understand the pressures the UK promoters are under and can't blame them. We're certainly not treated badly in the UK, but a lot of European gigs are better funded sometimes, because of aid from local councils and sponsorships.
RW: What about gear - what guitars/amps etc do you like?
BBB: I've never been a guitar collector as such. At the moment I am experimenting a bit with different guitars in the two bands but generally I have always believed it is how you play the guitar, not the guitar itself. I used to be loyal to a vintage Gretsch but I decided to retire it as it was so old and precious and now I mainly use a Fender Strat which I had shipped in from Japan, a Danelectro U2 which I bought cheaply from a mate and a rather fetching silver sparkle Gretsch Syncromatic Sparklejet which I use for slide coz it plays like a dog! I tend to use a 90's re-issue of a '63 Fender Vibroverb amp. As you can tell, I am not a snob! I've always been slightly suspicious of musicians that have to have half a dozen instruments on stage....!
RW: What is the most important lesson the Blues has taught you?
BBB: You don't have to work 9-5!
RW: Do you have a favourite lyric, line or quote from the Blues?
BBB: Indeed I do. In fact several, but a couple off the top of my head would be -
'You say you can't go on living if you can't be by my side, I'm gonna send you a bottle of poison, please commit suicide' - 'Bad Intentions', Bobby Bland
'A brick baby - that's what I'm gonna whoop upside your head' - 'Brick' Johnny Morrisette
RW: If you could pick one guest musician - living or dead - to play on your next album, who would it be?
BBB: Without any shadow of doubt it would be legendary double bass player Willie Dixon. He just wrote and played on so much material that I love and obviously was so iconic, it would just be amazing to work with him and watch him work with those big shovel hands! He also might be one of the few people that could make me look slim!
RW: Ok, the house is on fire and you've only time to grab five albums, which ones are they gonna be?
BBB: This is a difficult one coz like most people now I just have it all on my computer and ipod! Artists I couldn't live without listening to would currently be Ike Turner (in his late 50's/early 60's period), Johnny Guitar Watson from the 50's/60's (Space Guitar being a particular fave and I have to hear it at least once a week!), Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Howling Wolf, Little Walter - I guess you're getting the picture!
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