After Trip to Philly, Blues-Rock Guitarist Figures He’s on the Right Road

Somewhere in the hearts of most ambitious people sits a desire to prove that you can go home again--the fantasy of returning to the old hometown and being recognized and respected for having gone out and made one’s mark in the world.

Walter Trout had a taste of that fantasy when he went back to Philadelphia two months ago as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Trout found himself on stage at a major blues festival, playing with Mayall, the famous blues-rock bandleader, in front of 30,000 people.

Later, he received congratulations from strangers who didn’t even know he was a hometown boy and from fans and musicians he had known years before when he was starting out in Philadelphia as a teen-age guitarist.

Trout savored the recollection as he sat recently in the living room of his house a few blocks from the shore in Huntington Beach. While the husky guitarist with the Captain Kangaroo mustache and the unruly, shoulder-length blond hair isn’t well-known beyond the circle of blues aficionados, he believes that his return to Philadelphia for a major concert was a step toward fulfilling a vow he made when he left 15 years ago to pursue his ambitions in Southern California.


“I said: ‘It might take me 50 years, but I’ll come back to Philly a known and respected musician.’ ”

At 37, Trout will soon have a chance to broaden his fame. For four years he has been playing with Mayall, a prime mover of the 1960s British blues movement, the bandleader whose ‘60s groups were a finishing school for some of the finest rock musicians in the world. (Eric Clapton, most of the original Fleetwood Mac and Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones are Bluesbreakers alumni.)

Later this month, Island Records will release “Chicago Line,” Mayall’s first major-label album in years. After playing on several small-label releases with Mayall and with an early ‘80s version of Canned Heat, Trout--or, at least his guitar work--will make a major-label debut on “Chicago Line.”

When he isn’t on tour with Mayall, playing about 120 dates a year in the United States, Europe and Australia, Trout has been fronting his own local blues-rock band, with an eye toward launching a recording career of his own.


His speedy, prolific guitar style and convincingly emotive singing will be on display Saturday night at Bogart’s in Long Beach in a new setting: an informal, just-for-fun band called Blue Thunder that features Trout, former Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, and Tim Bogert, who played bass with the Vanilla Fudge and with Jeff Beck.

Trout may be a legitimate contender now, but his path through the blues hasn’t been easy. The easiest part for the amiable, raspy-voiced guitarist was figuring out that the blues was his calling.

At 16, Trout began playing in bands and living the hand-to-mouth existence of the scuffling, apprentice blues musician. At 23, he moved to Costa Mesa, figuring that he would break into the Southern California blues scene. Instead, unable to find work playing the blues, Trout spent several years singing and playing guitar on the local country music saloon circuit.

In the late ‘70s, Trout finally broke into the scene: “I spent a year-and-a-half playing five nights a week in Watts, being the only white person in the club. I learned the blues real good.”

In 1980, Trout was recruited by Canned Heat, which by then included only one member from the original group. It was during his four years with that band, he said, that he fell into heavy drinking and drug abuse.

Trout graduated to Mayall’s band after leaving Canned Heat in 1984. But he feels that heavy drinking diminished his playing during his first few years with the Bluesbreakers.

Trout says his turning point was a three-day tour layover in East Berlin about a year and a half ago, when he met Carlos Santana, the star jazz-rock guitarist known for his spiritual bent.

“He said: ‘If you’re a serious musician you cannot go on stage all wasted, or you’re deluding yourself. You may think you’re playing well, but you’re not.’ ” Trout says that Santana gave him a book by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral. “I didn’t become born again, but I learned a lot from it” about positive thinking. Trout says he stopped drinking soon afterward.


When fronting his own band (the other members are Bluesbreakers drummer Joe Yuele, bassist Jim Trapp and organist Danny Abrams), Trout is something of a guitar wild man, blasting away with rapid, extended solos and exploring the Stratocaster’s potential for making rude sounds.

At times, his playing is too fast, too prolific, and when he first joined the Bluesbreakers, Trout said, Mayall “did say that he thought I should slow down a bit, play less notes. His phrase was: ‘Every once in a while, take your hands off the (guitar) neck.’ ”

But Trout says his playing style is spontaneous, not calculatedly flashy, and the purpose of his rambunctious approach is to try to move beyond the usual limits of blues guitar.

“Instead of playing something traditional, something that is within the realm of good taste, go overboard. Take a risk. Some people put blues on the shelf, so it sounds like a 1950s Chess record. I’m trying to push its boundaries a little.

“Sometimes I may take it a bit too far, but it’s done in the spirit of being creative, trying to play something new instead of the same cliches. To me, the term ‘flashy’ denotes that you don’t have any emotion or inspiration behind it. I’m not trying to do anything other than play what I’m feeling at the moment.”

Walter Trout plays with Bill Ward, Tim Bogert and Danny Abrams in Blue Thunder on Saturday at 9 p.m. at Bogart’s in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway in Long Beach. Tickets: $6. Information: (213) 594-8975. NOWHERE TORONTO: National People’s Gang has returned from its contest-winning gig at a big independent-music festival in Toronto, and despite playing to audiences used to a steady diet of mainstream pop, the Orange County quartet won a lot of new fans, band manager Sam Lanni said this week.

“We’ll definitely be able to play here again,” Lanni said. “The people were so friendly. They were very receptive. It was everything we thought it would be--and more.

“All they get (on the radio) is the Billboard Top 40. They don’t have a college alternative-music strength like we do in America. That’s what they are trying to nurture and grow (with this festival). The whole festival was pinpointed to that market. The information from seminars and the bands that played were all somewhat associated with a college-market type attitude.”


Although Toronto radio may leave much to be desired, Lanni said the city has a wealth of live music activity that was a welcome contrast to Orange County’s dearth of original music venues.

“Toronto has a lively music scene,” Lanni said. “There are more live music clubs for alternative music than in Los Angeles. On Saturday night we went clubbing. We went to eight different clubs, all within walking distance of each other. They all held 400 to 500 people, and all were packed. I didn’t expect that at all.”

National People’s Gang wasn’t competing against the nearly 100 other bands that trekked to Toronto as winners of regional talent contests sponsored by a Canadian beer company. But Lanni said the band will continue to benefit from contacts established with a host of record company talent scouts, managers, booking agents and other music industry personnel who attended the five-day event.

The group will perform Oct. 18 at Bogart’s in Long Beach and Oct. 19 at Cal State Fullerton for a daytime anti-apartheid rally and then embark on a concert tour that will take the band to the Midwest, the East Coast and back through several Southern states, Lanni said.

“The Hard Swing,” the band’s debut album on the Orange County-based Dr. Dream label, is scheduled to be released early next week, he said.