BluesWax Spotlight On
A Southern Traveling Wilburys
By Wade Tatangelo
There’s a new entity in the blues world, a diverse, powerful group with enormous potential. Blind Pig recording artist Damon Fowler has joined forces with fellow Florida guitarist/singer JP Soars and Memphis-based piano man/singer Victor Wainwright. Dubbed Southern Hospitality, the band of friends and like-minded musicians made its official debut opening for Buddy Guy on August 14 at the Heritage Music Blues Fest in Wheeling, West Virginia.
One BluesWax photojournalist has called Southern Hospitality’s performance “one of the highlights of a very talented lineup.” YouTube footage confirms this. A few days after Southern Hospitality elated the crowd of thousands, I sat down with Fowler at his home to discuss the project. Wainwright and Soars were contacted by phone. All three teemed with enthusiasm as they recalled the energy being exchanged between them and the audience at the Heritage Music Blues Fest. Talk of the future of Southern Hospitality brought equal excitement from the trio.
When Damon Fowler first had the idea for what became Southern Hospitality, the singer/songwriter and guitarist, who excels at slide, lap, and various other roots styles, called his pal J. P. Soars, a singer/songwriter and guitarist best known for his distinctive gypsy-swing jazz playing with plenty of rock potency. Like Fowler, Soars lives in Florida and traces his family roots back to Arkansas. “I thought it was great idea as soon as Damon called,” Soars said from his home in Boca Raton. “I had jammed with him a few times on stage and was totally excited because there was a natural chemistry that seems to happen whenever we play together.” Soars added, “I had played with Wainwright before, as well, and he has a lot of soul, and we just feed off each other.”
The two guitar-slingers with the singular singing voices immediately decided they wanted pianist-frontman Wainwright to round out their three-headed beast, along with Fowler’s forever bassist Chuck Riley and Soars’s drummer Chris Peet. “I play piano in between two great guitarists so I’m the guy in the middle,” Wainwright said before a gig in Hartford, Connecticut. “My contribution is mostly boogie-woogie, the piano is the anchor piece as far as traditional boogie-woogie goes, and adding that Memphis soul. But both JP and Damon already bring so much soul and high energy. We’re all doing the same thing just slightly different. I find myself just adding to the musical conversation that’s going on, especially when they’re singing. None of us want to step on the others’ toes. We want to help the other get his message across with fills and such so he can throw back and relax.”
On July 3, at the Boston’s on the Beach Red, White & Blues Festival in Delray Beach, Florida, the Damon Fowler Group, Victor Wainwright and the WildRoots, as well as JP Soars and the Red Hots, were all on the same lineup. Unknown to the audience at the time, during the encore, they witnessed the debut of Southern Hospitality. “We jammed together for the first time, on five or six tunes,” Fowler said. “And that night the South Florida Blues Society expressed interest in booking us for the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Pre-Cruise Party.”
That January 21, 2012, gig is now official. As are nine others in January and a Southern Hospitality appearance November 19 at the Southwest Florida Blues Festival with Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King, among others. Fowler’s booking agent, Piedmont Talent, started representing Southern Hospitality about a week after the Delray Beach jam. The same agency is home to Johnny Winter, Lonnie Brooks, James Cotton, Joanne Shaw Taylor, Mike Zito, and numerous other blues luminaries.
When Southern Hospitality made its official debut August 14 in West Virginia, Fowler, Wainwright, Soars, Riley, and Peet all arrived on zero hours of sleep thanks to gigs the night before. Due to hectic tour schedules, they hadn’t even seen each other since July 3. “We just wanted to make good music and make people happy while giving them a broad array of what is the blues,” Wainwright said. “That day was really special. No rehearsals, just straight blues that only with Damon and Chuck and JP and Chris is that possible; we have a perfect formula, and I feel real lucky and blessed to play with those guys.”
“Fowler hopes to do something like the Traveling Wilburys did…”
Each frontman sang a couple tunes and the band jammed ’em out. Fowler took lead vocals on a pair of self-penned originals. He played the party-starting title track off his 2009 Blind Pig debut Sugar Shack and the swampy kiss-off of “You Go Your Way” from Devil Got His Way. “It was really nice,” Fowler said. “It was cool to have two guitar and piano, it really added to the overall texture.”
Soars paid tribute to Muddy Waters with “Walking Through the Park” and a superbly emotive, slow-burning version of “Gypsy Woman” that clocked in at over thirteen minutes. By the time the performance ended the crowd exploded with cheers and applause. “We were all ecstatic about the reaction,” Soars said. “I knew it would be good but not that good. The response was overwhelming. Walking around, people kept coming up and telling us how great it was. It felt good.”
Southern Hospitality started its set with the chestnut “Buzz Me.” Written by Fleecy Moore and Dave Dexter; jump blues pioneer Louis Jordan had a hit with it in 1946. Wainwright learned it from the B.B. King version recorded in the 1960s and updated “Buzz Me” lyrically and musically when he brought his rendering to the Heritage Music Blues Fest. The outstanding, eight-minute performance is marvelous Memphis boogie-woogie fleshed out with sinewy guitar solos by Fowler and Soars. Wainwright also sang lead on his personalized take of “Everybody Wants Her,” which appears on Sean Costello’s 1996 debut album Call the Cops.
The piano man then brought the crowd back to Beale Street with ten beautifully simmering minutes of “Same Old Blues,” a ballad written by prominent Memphis soul and Stax Records figure Don Nix. “It was a super magical experience and excellent response right from the first number,” Wainwright said. “I was really impressed by the crowd. That was something I’ve only experienced a few times after many years of playing. The reaction was amazing.”
Southern Hospitality, which after a single gig has significant players in the blues world taking notice, is all about spreading the many musical traditions associated with the land of Dixie. Fowler, Wainwright and Soars share much love for the songs of the South. The hot jazz and funk of New Orleans, classic country, gospel, soul, and blues that became rock ’n’ roll in Memphis and went global by way of a trucker named Elvis.
Muscle Shoals and Macon play a big part in the mix, too, as does Sarasota and Bradenton, where the Allman Brothers Band was once loosely based. Dickey Betts and members of his Great Southern group still live here and occasionally share stages with Fowler, who can play slide and sing Southern soul with the best around.
The three co-leaders of Southern Hospitality are already discussing recording an album. Fowler hopes to do something like the Traveling Wilburys did, where each member brings his owns songs to the table, and then everybody works on them together. “I already have a song I wrote with Southern Hospitality in mind,” Fowler said with a grin. “It’s a slow one that I can definitely hear that dynamic of Southern Hospitality playing. It has a honky tonk feel that we could give a blues treatment to. Like George Jones, if he was doing a blues tune.” Fowler played the latter-day Jones classic “Choices.” “We are representing the South,” he said of his new music project. “We wanted to put together a package of where we’re from that represents the music we grew up listening to and that we’re making our own today.”
If the Southern Hospitality album happens it has the potential to be one of the hottest releases of 2012. Three authentic blues men with unique skill-sets and a warm bond on and off stage recording under the same roof. The blues tribe should be in for a special treat once this materializes, which could be much sooner than such a project usually takes to complete. “I’m looking forward to these upcoming gigs and then exploring the possibilities of Southern Hospitality,” Fowler said with an impish smile.
Wade Tatangelo co-wrote “Happy Hour,” the final track on Damon Fowler’s Devil Got His Way. He also hosts Damon Fowler’s Sugar Shack Mondays, is a features writer/columnist for the Bradenton Herald and syndicated music writer for the publication’s parent company, McClatchy Newspapers.
About the Author: