If it’s a bit hard to believe that my friend and colleague Ted Drozdowski is “only” celebrating the tenth anniversary of his lava-hot, molten blues trio, it may be because the veteran bandleader and award-winning music journalist has spent close to a lifetime listening to, and writing about, the very music he’s always treasured and revered. Playing it — with relish, gusto, and a fierce spirit of abandon on stages large and small around the country and across the globe — actually came a lot later. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
The first thing you need to know is that the band, newly renamed Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen after its ringleader, is hitting the road for a summer-fall tour behind a brand spankin’ new album titled “Love & Life,” which drops in both CD and digital download formats next Friday, July 31 — the same day TDS swings into these parts (Johnny D’s in Somerville) for an Album Release show with guest Peter Parcek opening. The next night, the band — which also includes bassist Sean Zywick and drummer Pete Pulkrabek — visits The Back Page in Lowell before working its way to New York City and beyond (for a full tour itinerary of dates, places, times, and more, go to scissormen.com).
Also dropping on July 31 is Drozdowski’s first Ebook in a series he’s calling, fittingly enough, “Obsessions of a Music Geek.” The first volume, entitled “Blues Guitar Giants,” is an expansion on key examples of Ted’s incisive, award-winning music journalism and features essays on multi-generational titans such as Otis Rush, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, and Michael Bloomfield. There are also interviews with Johnny Winter, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, speaking together from Auerbach’s Nashville studio.
Ten years of doing anything you love is a victory in and of itself — a triumph of focus, dedication, and longevity– and that milestone is certainly worth celebrating. That celebratory spirit shines — or, perhaps more accurately, blazes — through much of “Love & Life.” At heart, it’s a fun, bracing work that stings with the fervor of open-road adventure, while also being a summation and embrace of the accrued miles, destinations, and experiences of the past. At its soul, a palpable sense of restlessness and yearning threads through the material. The feeling you get, right from the muddy shoe’d strut of “Beggin’ Jesus,” the opening track and first single (see the cool video link below), is one of a quest to find meaning amid tumult, redemption amid temptation, and the state-of-grace rewards suggested by the title. The next two tracks, “Letter From Hell,” a big, boozy, Bo Diddley-beat inspired workout, and “The River,” a slow smolder of spooky-then-roiling majesty, capture the kind of approach their author has always placed at a premium: namely, standing at the crossroads of the blues and roots traditions of the past, and then driving the music forward to new, unchartered territories as brazen and wide open as tomorrow.
Amid all the revelations, reveries, and reflections to be found (“Black Lung Fever” is, for instance, an account of the illness that claimed both of Ted’s Pennsylvania coal-mining grandfathers before he was born), there are tributes too. A couple of them were born out of affectionate gestures of respect (“Watermelon Kid” is about blues renaissance man Watermelon Slim; “R.L. Burnside [Sleight Return]” is an homage to Drozdowski’s friend and mentor, the late Mississippi hill country blues patriarch R.L. Burnside). Another track, the Stax-spiked ballad, “Let’s Go To Memphis,” also began as a tribute, albeit a very different kind than Drozdowski had in mind. Now it’s an elegy; a final farewell from one of American music’s great, if under-heard soul and gospel singers, Mighty Sam McClain, “a dear friend” for more than 20 years, as Drozdowski describes him.
After asking the man who had first hit the R&B charts back in 1966 whether he might agree to sing a song on “Love & Life” (and receiving an enthusiastic reply in the affirmative), the songwriter presented the singer with “Let’s Go To Memphis.” McClain loved it and delivered what would be his last recorded vocal performance. Mighty Sam McClain, whose talent was matched only by his humility (I can attest to that, having interviewed McClain myself some years back for a profile), passed away earlier this summer after succumbing to cancer and a stroke. He was 71.
Ten years’ time, unfortunately, takes as much as it gives. All the more reason to celebrate anniversaries. To that end, here’s an early piece on Drozdowski and his band (one of the first profile features on the band to appear anywhere), published ten years ago this summer, in 2005, in The Boston Phoenix’s sister magazine, Stuff@Night. (I’ve also reprinted Ted’s original guide to building your blues listening library). The combo was just starting to slice a loud, wide swath on local stages as The Scissormen, with a spirited sound that would eventually take them to concerts and festival stages both national and international. The lineup was a little different then, but as you’ll read, with Ted at the helm, the love, life, and vitality of the blues was already in view, with much more in store, on the horizon.
WORKING ON THE RAILROAD: Writing And Riding Tracks With The Scissormen
Scissormen singer-guitarist Ted Drozdowski is a resourceful fellow. One balmy summer evening at the Paradise Lounge in Boston, Drozdowski was in the middle of a white-hot, mercilessly loud slide guitar solo when he strolled over to the bar – and picked up a patron’s dinner knife. He promptly applied it to his guitar, which understandably squealed in protest as he ran the utensil up the neck. Next came a salt shaker. Then the bottle of ketchup.
By the time someone offered up a pickle, Drozdowski was already out the door with his guitar, looking for props on the street. Meanwhile, drummer Rob Hulsman (thoroughly familiar with his partner’s blues shenanigans) kept the beat – and Ted – rolling onward.
“I’ve used a hard pack of cigarettes before, lipstick cases – which are really easy – combs, brushes,” says Drozdowski after the set, recalling various weapons of employ. “Charge cards will work but are a little more challenging.”
As a blues guitarist and music journalist who writes frequently about the subject, the word ‘challenging’ comes up often. Unlike many modern blues musicians content to rehash the past, Drozdowski hungers for – and frets about – the music’s future. “There’s a Zen koan about being able to see the universe in a blade of grass and I feel that everything you need to know about music and life you can pull out of blues,” he says. “There’s stories about love and sex and death and liquor and magic and religion. And the music can be hypnotic or hard or driving or crying – it has every emotional range. It’s a drag that the music isn’t as popular as it was in the ‘80’s. What’s necessary is somebody like a Stevie Ray Vaughan to bring it back to the mainstream.”
On the Scissormen’s new Jinx Breakers EP (released by Cambridge’s Hi-N-Dry label), the duo delves deep into a fiercely raw and marvelously stripped-to-the-bone brand of blues that harks back to hypnotic hill country masters like R.L. Burnside (with whom he’s performed) and Junior Kimbrough, with a slide-guitar side of Elmore James and Hound Dog Taylor tossed into the stew. An argument can certainly be made that the music of those artists shouldn’t be relegated as dusty artifacts to the past because of their sheer musical substance and timeless emotional content. But Drozdowski believes that if blues is to continue to live and breathe, to survive, it must be brought forward.
To that end, he’s begun combining his two obsessions – blues and railroads – to introduce new audiences to a novel way of looking at the music. This summer, the Scissormen will ride the rails and play – amplifiers in tow – as part of their second annual “Blues Train” pilgrimages set to begin, respectively, at the Lake Winnipesauke Scenic Railroad in Meredith, New Hampshire and the Wilton Scenic Railroad.
The Scissormen’s blues train junkets stem from an all-but-extinct tradition first popularized during the 1930’s, when musicians wandered up and down the aisles playing blues for captive audiences traveling through America’s major cities. A storyteller at heart, Drozdowski talks about trains with the same kind of high-spirited ardor and reverence that he discusses blues. In a sense, both subjects can be seen as metaphors for a vanishing America of another age.
“I’ve always been fascinated by trains because of their size and speed and elegance,” he says. “I grew up on the line that ran between New Haven (Connecticut) and Springfield (Massachusetts) and the trains, with those beautiful red, white, orange and black colors, were amazing. They’d go hurtling by at 70, 80 miles an hour where I used to go fishing with my family. My father and I did not get along at all, but one of the few things we bonded over was that we both really liked trains. We never completely made peace before he died, either, so that’s a lingering thing.”
Just as it took Drozdowski 25 years to re-connect with his childhood love of railroads, as a musician he was slow to embrace the blues he loved:
“Although I didn’t know it, this was the music I was always supposed to play.” But, he explains, “I so deeply loved the music that I didn’t want to mess it up and dishonor the tradition. It’s music that comes from terrible hardship and I think that has to be respected. There are a lot of terrible white blues guitar players who play too many notes and play all the clichés, and I didn’t want to be one of them.”
It was only after the great Mississippi bluesman R.L Burnside invited Drozdowki to join him on stage at a concert (“I was scared shitless“) and he screwed up his courage to do it that the die was cast.
“It was amazing, one of the musical highlights of my life and I got away with it,” he says of the experience. “When I got off the stage, my knees were shaking and I almost fell down. And I thought, maybe I can do this.”
A Few Of Ted’s Favorite Things (A Beginner’s Guide To Building Your Blues Collection):
1. Muddy Waters, Folk Singer (Classic Records, DVD-Audio)
2. Son House, Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Son House (Shout! Factory)
3. R.L. Burnside, Too Bad Jim/Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down (both Fat Possum)
4. Junior Kimbrough & the Soul Blues Boys, All Night Long (Fat Possum)
5. Sonny Boy Williamson, The Best of Sonny Boy Williamson (Universal/Spectrum)
6. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Couldn’t Stand The Weather (Sony/Epic)
Full album stream:
Everything you ever wanted to know about Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands, er, make that Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen here: http://www.scissormen.com/#listen