BluesWax Sittin’ In With
By Dan D. Harrell
“I saw Michael Bloomfield and I lost my mind!”
What can I say about Chris Cain? Great guitar player? You bet. On last January’s Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise (LRBC), I pulled up a chair with Jimmy Johnson (one of Chicago’s premier blues guitarists in case you didn’t know).
“I’ve seen a lot of guitar players,” Johnson remarked, “but Chris is the real deal. A lot of players, especially the younger guys, can ‘act’ like they know how to play. Chris is no act; he can really play.”
No small endorsement. Cain is also extremely humble and a truly gentle, modest, and sweet man. On stage he hugs his guitar. Off it, he hugs his fans and exudes deep, genuine gratitude that people like his playing. When I told him about my conversation with Johnson, Cain was nearly overcome with emotion. Throughout our interview, he spent time thanking me, BluesWax, Johnson and, every person he could think of, from his father to Robben and Patrick Ford, with whom Cain has turned in some of his best work as a sideman.
On the LRBC, a boat filled with the top blues acts, Cain created a real buzz. Cain’s fine band turned in some of the best sets on the cruise. People chatted excitedly about Cain’s masterful guitar riffs or his authentic gut-bucket vocals. And once he and Johnson hooked up, they seemed inseparable for the rest of the cruise, on stage and off. Everybody wanted to hear them play together, and they got the chance on several occasions.
One of the best was the late-night jam with Kenny Neal, Debbie Davies, Johnson, and Cain trading licks. As I leaned on the stage watching, I thought this was as close to magic as I’ll ever get. And during Shemekia Copeland’s showroom performance, a guest appearance by Cain and Neal – with Cain delivering monster solos and Neal on harmonica – had folks talking for hours afterwards. So it goes on the Blues Cruise.
In many ways, Cain was raised on the blues, as well as other music. His father Walter, an African-American, and his mother Georgia, of Greek ancestry, were avid music fans, with a preference for blues, jazz, and Motown. Cain learned his first song on his dad’s guitar and at his knee when he was just eight. He notes proudly that his musical endeavors were always encouraged and supported by both parents, whom he obviously holds in deep reverence.
Despite critical acclaim – “When he plays guitar, his notes are strong, polished, and highly expressive,” said Blues Revue’s Tom Clarke about Cain’s last album, 2010’s So Many Miles – Cain hasn’t become a household word in the blues world.
It’s not like Cain, now 56, is an “unknown” entity. His first album in 1987, Late Night City Blues, got four Blues Music Award nominations, with Cain nominated as guitarist of the year. In the twenty-five years since then, however, Cain has produced just nine CDs – although he has managed to escape the coffin-building job he once had. (see below)
Both Cain’s playing and vocals are reminiscent of Albert and B.B. King, to whom he professes indebtedness. The guitar instrumentals are a little “jazzier” perhaps, but Cain delivers the same sincere, unhurried, and clean vocal style. One highlight of Cain’s current set list is a sonically magnificent cover of Willie Dixon’s/Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” with a slow, shuffling backbeat over which Cain lays high-powered riff after riff that both freshen and expand the tune. His live shows always feature the jumping, crowd-pleasing “Barefootin’” (Robert Parker) and a masterful rendition of B.B.’s “Sweet Sixteen.”
Those of us who have been watching Cain give knockout performances around the San Francisco Bay Area for the last 20-plus years certainly hope the Blues Cruise notoriety, a stellar new backup band, new management, and a promised new CD later this year will propel Cain to the kind of universal recognition we think he deserves.
Cain is also heading another group, The Ray Charles Project, including vocalist and eleven-time Grammy winner Tony Lindsay (Santana among many), vocalist Glenn Walters (The Hoodoo Rhythm Devils and The Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra), and keyboardist Dave Mathews (Tower of Power and many others). The band will be one of the headliners at the first annual Big Easy Music Festival on September 8 in San Jose, California.
I caught up with Cain at his home just outside San Jose a few days after watching him perform at a bar in Folsom. Following are excerpts of our relaxed, sixty-five-minute chat. The answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Dan D. Harrell for BluesWax: How are you doing, Chris?
Chris Cain: I’m great buddy. Thank you for even taking the time.
BW: Have you always lived in the San Jose area?
CC: Yeah, I’ve always been in the Bay Area. It just worked out that way.
BW: Have you always been able to get by with performing, or have you had to do other things to sustain yourself?
CC: Well, you know, I’ve tried. A couple situations came up where I had to try to do some other things, but I wasn’t that good at it. I was one of those guys who – I knew how to play guitar and every time I tried to do something else, it didn’t turn out that well. I had this job one time making coffins, but that didn’t last long.
BW: I know you did a little teaching [guitar]. Are you still doing that?
CC: I do still teach some. Just guys here at my house. I used to do it at different schools and stuff, but yeah, I still do it a little at home if somebody gets in contact with me. I love to do that. [More about that below.]
BW: What’s the very latest thing that’s happening in your career or in your life?
CC: Well, you know, since the cruise, I’m telling you, it has brought so much to me, including more dates. It was such a great thing for the band. Since the cruise, we’ve been playing more dates, and we’re planning on making a record here pretty quickly with the band. So that’s really been the big thing. The last months have been packed with a lot of good, nice things.
BW: After playing for forty years and traveling constantly, you created a big buzz as the “new guy” on the LRBC. Why do you think that happened and how did it make you feel?
CC: Oh, man! I don’t know why it happened, but I know that it was probably one of the really great things in my life, that I will never forget. I never had been in a situation where there was so much unbridled joy. Everybody was just having so much fun – all the time. Like, there was a little lady dancing with her husband at the pool deck, like all day long. Then, when I go see Latimore that night, there she is on the stage dancing. And I’m thinking, man, I couldn’t keep up with her. I got tears in my eyes a few times, because I just was watching and thinking that this was like nothing I’d ever seen! And I want to tell Roger [Nabor, head of the LRBC] what an amazing thing it is – I don’t suppose he needs any more kudos. I’ve never seen or experienced any kind of a situation that went on so long, and was so beautiful.
BW: Was this your first LRBC?
CC: I thought it was my first one, but [Roger] told me that I was also on the very first one that was like this riverboat trip that went from Kansas City [headquarters of the Blues Cruise] to somewhere [St. Louis?] with Little Hatch and these guys. But I thought this year’s cruise was one of the greatest things. To be there with the other musicians that maybe you haven’t met. Like, I sat and talked with Jimmy Johnson all the time, and I was just pinching myself. It is just great fun! All these guys, like Nick Moss, who I never had the chance to sit down and talk with before, I got to spend time with. It was really a highlight of my life. Some of the guys were telling me that these people [LRBC staff] must pump some kind of special oxygen into these cabins, because I don’t know how we’re making it to six o’clock every morning! You never would think that you can make it from 1:30 to 6:30, but it just flies by.
BW: You seemed to have formed a tight bond with Jimmy Johnson on the LRBC. He had some extremely complimentary things to say about you. How did that come about? Had you ever played together before?
CC: Well, you know when I would play at Buddy Guy’s [Legends in Chicago], they have this little area next to the stage and one night Jimmy and Lonnie Brooks and somebody else came and they were sitting right there. And I kept looking at them going, “You guys are making me nervous.” That was the first time I met [Jimmy] and he was just such a sweet person, so kind to me. So when I met him on the ship, it just bowled me over that he was so complimentary. He also reminds me a lot of my dad, when I’m talking with him – totally blows my mind. He’s such a great player, and I’m thinking, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here having a bowl of ice cream with Jimmy Johnson!” It was just great. I still pinch myself, because every day was some fun thing like that that happened. You know, when [we] got off the boat at St. Croix and everybody was walking along this one street and then everybody was on this one stoop, it was like that picture “A Great Day in Harlem” [Art Kane's 1958 photograph of 57 jazz musicians in New York City]. That’s how [even] the days were, just great.
BW: Two of my favorite performances of yours, as a guest, were the late-night jam hosted by Kenny Neal with you, Jimmy, Kenny, and Debbie Davies mesmerizing me at several points, and the show where you sat in with Shemekia Copeland, and Kenny was there, too. What are your memories of those shows, or other performance highlights?
CC: You know, Kenny is great, because he knows how to make that whole thing go and not bog down. I think that’s why his jam went so well. Sometimes, when there are so many great players available, my brain gets tied in a knot, but Kenny really knows how to do it. I was there thinking, “Oh my God, this is totally great!”
BW: Can you describe the feeling you get when you’re in the middle of a great jam with other great performers?
CC: To me it’s a special feeling and, when it’s happening, I know it’s happening. It’s almost like I don’t want to think about it, because I don’t want to jinx it. It’s like capturing lightning in a jar or something. It’s everybody paying attention and playing together, and the things that happen and the feeling, well, I’d put it right up there with some of the other great feelings, even love making. It’s amazing because, even if you don’t know the [other player], in the course of the five-or-seven-minute tune, you bond in a way that, like, you go very quickly to a place without a lot of pre-shadowing, and it’s almost like you have to get naked together to go to that place. You have to kind of surrender to it, and when everybody does that and open their hearts to the thing, beautiful things happen. It’s definitely a gift, being able do that nightly with cats. It was just beautiful.
BW: Even though you’ve been at it all these years, I’ve seen you referred to as a “youngster” in the blues. Someone said that they are counting on you to carry the music forward. How do you feel about that?
CC: Well, I love the part where they call me a youngster. I’d never put that on myself, but I do have a total reverence for the people and for the music. I know that when I was young and heard this music and I saw people play that my father took me to, that it’s now etched in me. Once I heard it and was around those types of players, that vibe and that feeling, I knew that there was nothing else that I would be trying to do – it just wouldn’t leave me alone. So I’m thrilled that I have an opportunity to play for anybody who wants to listen to it. I love to do it and I’m so blessed that it went beyond just me playing in my room. I’ve met a lot of beautiful people and been to places that I know I wouldn’t have ever been. It’s just been beautiful. I look forward to playing as long as anybody wants to listen to it, believe me.
BW: I know you’ve got new management and some tunes lined up for a new album. What can you tell us about those things?
CC: I’ve been working on a couple different records. There’s this one that I’m going to release that’s more of a 1950′s Guitar Slim-meets-Ray Charles vibe, something that I’ve never recorded before but a sound I’ve always really dug. So I’m going to release those at some point here pretty quick. But I’m thrilled with the band I have now. It takes a long time to find guys who can really play together and seem to enjoy playing – and aren’t looking at their watch or worrying about what the deli platter is; they just want to play the gig.
Cain’s current band features a lineup of musicians who have played with a Who’s Who of stars: On bass is Steve Evans (Elvin Bishop, Roy Rogers, Coco Montoya, Etta James, Bo Diddley, and many more), on drums is Mick Mestek (Tower of Power, Etta James, Tracy Nelson, Buddy Miles, Charlie Musselwhite and many others), and on the keyboards is Greg Rahn (Tower of Power, Ray Obiedo, Pete Escovedo, Ronnie Montrose and many others). Cain is a multi-instrumentalist, proficient at piano, which he plays in concert, as well as clarinet, saxophone, and bass.
CC: So we’re going to record an album of the kind of things we play live – some funky blues and that kind of stuff. That will probably be the next record. I’ve been working on some demos and things, but I think the first chance we get, we’ll try to put that together.
BW: When do you think the new album will be out?
CC: I’m not sure, but I would hope before the summer is over. If it was up to me, I’d have it out tomorrow. I don’t have a title yet, but it will probably be one of the tunes on there. I’m still trying to figure out how to get in the studio to do these babies, but I’m really looking forward to it. We’re going to start playing the songs live though, because I really feel good about this particular group of tunes. They really show off the band and the things they do; it’ll be first time that I’ve made a record with the actual band that I play with. I’ve made records with great musicians, but never with the actual band that I play live with.
BW: How would you describe your style to your fans?
CC: Well, I think it’s a result of loving Albert King and B.B. King and a lot of guys I hear and it all kind of went into a blender. You definitely know where it all came from, but it’s a mish-mash. It’s a mix of all the guys that I love. I hope that someday – it’s my own humble, little dream – that sometime before I’m through, I will have a style of my own.
BW: How would you describe your personal approach to writing songs and playing? What’s your typical way of creating a lyric or a melody?
CC: Well, you know, in the beginning, and over the first, maybe three records that I made, I would always make the song form first, just the background music. Then I would listen to those tapes, and eventually come up with words that went over those. In the years since, I’ve done it different ways, like sometimes I just wrote words without any idea what the music was, just because they had a cadence or something to them. I used to have more of a system, but lately it’s been more like writing rhythmic cadences and little verses without having a set musical thing behind it.
BW: Do you do any certain thing, physically or mentally, before writing and composing?
CC: Well, you know, up to this point in my life I’ve kind of been leaving it to a sort of organic thing. I didn’t pre-plan a lot of stuff, because I didn’t want to kill any of the excitement. But what I have been doing lately is that, when I’m getting ready to write some tunes in a certain vein, I might go [hear] this thing, say a Ray Charles tune, that has a certain kind of “smell” to it. Then I’ll make a version of that, just to see where everything is in [that tune]. And then go ahead and record mine, and try to get some of those smells and tastes that I dug into my tune. When I don’t think I’m coming up with something, but I’d like to write a tune, I can’t force it, but if I listen to something I love, I’ll get that tune and record a version of it, and while I’m doing that, it will kind of wet my appetite or something. Then after that it sets me in the mood that produces a tune. It’s a trigger or jump-start that gets me going sometimes.
To be continued…
Dan D. Harrell is contributing writer for BluesWax and president of The Write Answer in San Jose, CA, specializing in writing, public relations, and marketing consulting. Contact him by commenting below or at email@example.com.
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