Electrifying the Blues.
Growing up, while most of my friends forged out their favorite sports figures as heroes, I felt a lot like the odd kid who just didn’t fit in. Early on, my idea of heroes were always musicians- Namely guitar players. When I’d watch people like Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, and Glen Campbell play on T.V. and hear the crowds cheer for them, butterflies would brew inside of me almost to the point of tears. I was in awe of them. To me their accomplishment on that instrument was not unlike the awe and respect that most of my friends were attaching to “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaronor Wilt Chamberlain. Their dexterity and concentration were fascinating to me, and I remember the funny faces I’d get from other kids when attempting a comparison. I’d say, “Don’t you think Hank Marvin’s skillful agility on the guitar is like an athletic feat?” Then they’d mutter “whatever” and run out to throw their baseballs or footballs, I’d stay in my lonely little teenage room sweating air guitar moves along with Buck Owens or Link Wray.
A few years later, I found a well-worn copy of Roy Buchanan’s “Loading Zone” at the library. Up until then I had never heard anything quite like Roy’s piercing angst-drenched electric guitar with such a unique delivery. I was amazed by this middle-aged man who looked like my math teacher was able to sear the paint off my walls with his Telecaster. It wasn’t until many years later I was fortunate enough to hear one other person who’s playing was so far from the pack, and carried such a unique diversity and WOW aspect to me.
Fast forward to 1996. While attending the Rose Festival, I just happened upon a Curtis Salgado/Terry Robb live acoustic performance in support of their critically acclaimed release called “Hit It ‘n Quit It”. Up until that time Terry had been somewhat of an elusive performer to me. I certainly knew his name, had heard about his local and international success, and rumors of his legendary performances. Somehow I always seemed to have just missed him at some venue where he either played recently, or the night before. I remember a couple of television performances like the Conan O’Brien Show that TR had played with Salgado and Steve Miller that I had unfortunately missed, even though I watched most every night (snap!).
Attending the Festival show caused my electric guitar seeking adrenalin to seethe and surge. Never before had I seen an acoustic guitar showcase able to draw the calcium out of my bones that performance did. Backing up Salgado, one of the greatest soul-blues singers in the world, Terry was equally mustering up his own circuitous Voodoo cluster of magic- mojo. Solid rhythm, staccato chops, impossible note flurries, all with an impeccable timing, Robb’s performance was arresting. I was hooked. “No” I told my friends, “You don’t understand, THIS IS THE GUY. Forget what you’ve heard before.” Just listening to the last track on their CD, “Feeling good” would tell the story so completely the reader would need not to finish this article. That performance was merely acoustic, but It solidified my perception of what true passion in performance was all about. It was also there in the audience someone shouted, “See you at the Candlelight Terry”!
Throughout the mid to late 90’s, it was at the Candlelight Room where many feel a lot of TR’s legendary performances were forged. With the likes of Alan Hager, Carlton Jackson, and Albert Reda backing him, Terry would use the weekly slot to experiment in front of willing downtown after-work crowds who were open to his experimental moods which included a mix of traditional songs, progressive rock, acoustic ragtime or fusion– but always delivered with a solid blues foundation. It was here that packed audiences would shake off the day to TR’s interpretations of Muddy Waters, Son House andJohn Lee Hooker, to more complex covers of Jeff Beck, John Mclaughlin, and Eric Clapton– Along with electric slide work that would make Elmore James shudder. I have yet to hear any guitar player besides Steve Vai attempt, let alone come close to Zappa’s mind-blowing anthems like “Black Napkins”, or “Zoot Allures”. Many had been going for quite a while and could only humor my in-between wailings of ‘Look! Whoa! did you see that?’. All those huge concerts where I was squinting to catch an expensive binoculared view of my favorite rock guitar-gods were to be put on notice. Here was a LOCAL guy, matching or besting most of them, and he was right up the road. Needless to say, it was very difficult to sleep any night I saw him.
By that time Terry had already released an electric based solo effort called “Jelly Behind the Sun”with former Frank Zappa frontman Ike Willis, who previously hired Robb as a lead electric guitar player in his own solo band. Terry being Ike’s first pick attested solidly that his skill was appreciated above many others who could have been chosen. Ike spent many years of studio and touring time behind one of the greatest electric guitar players and musical geniuses of the 20th century. Yeah… he picked Terry Robb. Their duo performance of Terry’s beautifully penned”Say Yeah” is the stuff hits are made of, exhibiting his crafty song writing and melodic ability . Robb’s pristine leads were emotionally arresting.
Recently, I sat down at Terry’s kitchen table surrounded by numerous framed photos of him playing with the likes of Canned Heat, Los Lobos, Ramblin’ Rex and Francis Clay.” The reason I decided to play the blues was because its the least neurotic music. Even when its exaggerated there’s still a purity to it”. Terry states his references to those who carried special influence to him very simply and matter of fact, “Hendrix was a big influence to my direction of blues, jazz and funk. As a kid I really liked him. Once I got older and revisited Jimi, his Band of Gypsys had a real impact upon my playing. Muddy Waters had a lasting effect upon me because he could make an incredibly strong statement with a single note. To my surprise, after a long pause he said, “But really, Henry Vestine was my guy because he could play passionate blues with a real abandonment.” Others have said the John Fahey influence has become the strongest glue completing the fabric of Terry’s prodigious delivery. TR’s adoration and extensive collaboration with the eclectic-acoustic master put 12 years of imprint upon his chord-voicing, unusual finger stylings and over-all composition. It was priceless direction from one of the very best. “Fahey gave me the affirmation to try, or include anything– which was a revelation to me as far as my finger picking style and delivery.”
These days, Robb’s live sets have been running the gamut of these stylized criss-crossings. From Muddy to John Mclaughlin to Eric Clapton to Zappa. Terry’s adaptability to playing styles are more than numerous. “People like Albert Collins, Hubert Sumlin, BB King and John Lee Hooker were real important to my electric approach, and I have been fortunate to have learned from playing with Buddy Guy, Johnny Shines and Junior Wells”. From all these influences it has forged one of the blues most invigorating players with an outstanding capacity for the original. The guidance from these essential players coupled with Robb’s famous acoustic abilities honed tirelessly since childhood only add to the narrative. His attack is quite similar to Zappa’s complex note flurries, but with Buchanan -like bends and “pinch” harmonics. Single note cries can be guttural, and syncopated with emotional wails of flaming vibrato which he often subterfuges with volume-swells and staccato mutings. His sustaining patterns have the Jeff Beck “dodge and burn” pattern with just the right whine and timbre to twist your brain into the cosmologic abyss. Billy Gibbons once exclaimed, “I sure like the way Terry Robb plays that electric slide”. ‘Nuff said.
Terry Robb and Robbie Laws
“I first saw Terry play with Ramblin’ Rex. Terry was playing these incredible leads with such a force”, bluesman and master harpist Bill Rhoads remembers. “Terry really had a knack for stretching out, and he wasn’t afraid to tip the boundary. He really is like no other, but electrically, his explosive style is akin to Buddy Guy”. Indeed, TR is his own man, uniquely interpreting and forging orthodox styles into something new entirely. At times there are elements of jazz to his playing because of striking dissonances in his electric soloing. Within those realms he easily touches down on note arrangements that might call to mind Ornette Coleman or Sonny Rollins. Whether its blues, ragtime or progressive rock, toeing in territory that might be hectic to some electric players is an easy shoe for TR to put on.
Music Millennium Owner and Impresario, Terry Currier remembers his first encounter hearing Robb play electric from a performance in the 80’s. Having worked very closely with Robb over the years, Currier just shakes his head and looks up at the ceiling with continued amazement recalling what he witnessed. “The absolute word around town was that you HAVE to see this guy. It was like the 2nd coming of Hendrix.” Currier continued. “ His playing was so powerful. He was fast and very flamboyant. But the great part was that you could succinctly hear every single controlled note.”
Not surprisingly, most of what is available from Terry Robb has been acoustic efforts. This is Robb’s admitted forte. “I cut my teeth on a lot of these Delta blues guys, and always incorporated that into my electric playing and visa-versa. The only difference with electric is that I get to play with amp feedback”. As well as a seasoned top Producer, blues Historian and sought after session musician. He is also a veritable go-to-guy in the industry. He and Adam Scramstad are beginning work on both a CD and DVD project with players from his electric band of which Adam plays guitar, Dave Kahl on bass, and Jeff Minnick on drums. The DVD is expected to be played live in the studio with an audience. Together, Terry and Adam have launched Psychedelta Records and are finalizing Linda Hornbuckle and Janis Scroggins new release called “Sistas”. They have signed John Callahan among others and are excited about the projects to come.
There are many who’ve been waiting a long time to experience the electric TR– Well, the wait is over. In the last couple of months, the Terry Robb Electric Band has been showcasing in a few select places, priming for some larger dates that are planned. Some of us recently followed him to a show in Zig Zag at Skyways Bar and Grill where an audience of both commuters, and locals had their jaws dropped. The band kicked out fresh material, traditional blues, and some new self-styled blues- powered numbers. Terry’s extended solos were exemplified with his usual one-of-a-kind delivery in mesmerizing detail and prowess. The Band has been knocking audiences out show after show.
You can catch the Terry Robb Electric Band on July 4th at the Waterfront Blues Festival. August 9th at the White Eagle, and September 12th at Mt. Tabor Theater– All in Portland, OR. You can also see his incredible acoustic talents every Thursday at Halibuts on N.E. Alberta.
Hey! There’s nothing like the real thing baby, but you can check out many examples of his playing on Youtube, just to get your tongue wet! Enjoy.
© 2011 Buko Magazine