Robert Lucas: A Back-to-the-Basics Bluesman

Traditional blues is difficult to play convincingly, and it certainly isn't one of the more financially rewarding branches of music. It's not surprising, then, that most of the musicians who play the deep blues say they didn't take it up as a matter of choice.

Instead, some compulsion in the music pulled them in, ears first. Maybe it was the resonance of a quavering slide guitar, or the mystery in a drawled, incantatory vocal cry. In any case, something inside answers to the depths of history and culture and the wells of elemental emotion embedded in the blues, and it sets the listener on a lifetime course. Robert Lucas says that is how it happened with him.

At 27, a relative youngster on a local blues scene populated mostly by veterans in their 30s and 40s, Lucas has just released his first album, "Across the River." For his debut, the Huntington Beach resident recorded the most basic, traditional kind of blues there is--solo, acoustic performances steeped in the Delta style that came out of backwoods Mississippi in the 1920s and 1930s.

Lucas, who also fronts an electric blues band, Luke & the Locomotives, will play a solo show tonight at Cagney's in Huntington Beach, where he is the host of a regular "Open Mic Night" every Thursday.

Lucas is a big man with exceptionally thick fingers and a hulking build. Sitting at a front table in Cagney's long, rectangular barroom, he talked about the blues in a low, gravelly speaking voice that was a harbinger of the deep, full moan that comes out when he sings.

"I was lucky. . . . I got turned on to a Robert Johnson record when I was very young," he said. "Actually, (traditional blues) is all I ever wanted to play."

Lucas, who grew up in Long Beach, was in his mid-teens, listening to blues-based rockers like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix when he came across his first acoustic blues song, "Turtle Blues," on the Janis Joplin/Big Brother & the Holding Company "Cheap Thrills" album. The song struck him deeply enough to trigger a special trip to his local record shop.

Lucas told the shopkeeper that he wanted to find out more about the sound behind the Joplin song. "I asked the guy, 'What is this, and why does it sound like that? And where can I get more records like this?' " The clerk recommended albums by fundamental bluesmen Leroy Carr and Robert Johnson. It was Johnson's "King of the Delta Blues Singers," probably the greatest album in any pop category, that grabbed Lucas by the ear.

"I didn't know anything about blues. I put the record on with a totally blank mind, thinking, 'What is this?' The way (Johnson) phrased his words, I never heard music with so much feeling. I'd never felt music before, until I heard that stuff. There's a certain eeriness. I could actually see myself being there."

Lucas rejected all the other pop music of the day (which wasn't that big a sacrifice in 1976) and dove into collecting old blues records. "I was pretty snobby when I was in high school," he said. "I used to rant and rave about it." He took up the guitar for a while, then set it aside and switched to harmonica, which remains his primary instrument. At 19, his search for a guitar teacher who could show him Robert Johnson-style acoustic slide guitar techniques led him to Bernie Pearl, the Long Beach blues band leader and KLON disc jockey. Lucas got his lessons, plus a two-year hitch as a harmonica-playing sideman in Pearl's band.

Wanting to step out as a front man, Lucas joined the Confessors, a R&B; band whose repertoire included songs by such master soul singers as James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Wilson Pickett. "At the time I didn't like (R&B;)," Lucas said. "I just wanted to play blues, but it helped me get my vocal chops together because that stuff is hard to sing."

Early in 1986, he formed Luke & the Locomotives. After three years of busy gigging, the band mustered financing to make its first record. But last summer, just as it was on the verge of recording, Lucas decided that the music was all wrong, fired the entire band and started over from scratch.

"The band progressively had turned into a kind of Southern rock band," said Lucas, whose vision for Luke & the Locomotives had been a more traditional, Texas- and Chicago-blues sound. "No matter what I tried, it always ended up sounding like the Allman Brothers, and I didn't want to do that." Firing the band "was one of the hardest things I ever did. One of the guitar players (Robert Lieberman) had been my friend for 10 years, and we're not really friends now, as you can imagine. But the music is more important to me than all that buddy-buddy stuff."

During the next two months, Lucas put together a new band of Locomotives--guitarists Paul Bryant and Rick Gould, bassist Al (Bedrock) Bedrosian and drummer Bob Ebersol, who goes by the stage name Max Bangwell. All of them are at least 10 years older than Lucas. "When I got the new guys," Lucas said, "I got people playing just what I wanted them to, without me having to say anything to them. It's been the easiest, most stress-free six months of my life."

The changeover period, and a scaled-down performing schedule since then, gave Lucas more time to concentrate on solo acoustic performances--which led to "Across The River," a self-financed cassette album that he recorded on a $1,500 budget in one day, without overdubs.

"Just like Robert Johnson in the hotel room in San Antonio," Lucas said, referring to the ad-hoc circumstances behind the only surviving recording sessions of Johnson's career. Lucas' album includes remakes of two of Johnson's classics, "Terraplane Blues" and "Crossroads," as well as songs by John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell.

"It's not just me redoing it to see how much I can sound like (Howlin') Wolf or Robert Johnson," Lucas said. "This is my interpretation. It's sounding like myself and keeping the idiom alive with things that are fresh." The album's title track, one of three Lucas originals, is something fresh, a fine blues that, in the best tradition of the style, is drawn from real-life observation.

"A girl I knew in high school became addicted to cocaine, and she became a prostitute," Lucas said, explaining the song's background. "I'd see her working the streets in Compton. Seeing a girl you knew in high school out on Long Beach Boulevard flagging down cars to make 20 bucks, it's kind of a sad situation." Lucas invested the song with added emotional resonance by writing it from the tortured perspective of a man in love with the streetwalker. Like everything else on "Across the River," the title song comes across in a voice that sounds timeless and ancient--a throwback to Lucas' original inspirations.

Lucas sees the album as a modest first step on a long road toward his goal of recording for a high-profile blues specialty label and establishing his band as a touring act (Luke & the Locomotives are planning to record early in March). "It's part of the dues-paying process," Lucas said. "You've gotta put out a couple albums yourself to show 'em you're serious.

"I would like a major label to come in and say, 'You're going to be the next Robert Cray,' but I don't want to have any futile illusions. The whole key to doing this for a long time is keeping your attitude right. If you say, 'I'm going to be the next John Mayall,' you're setting yourself up for a fall."

Meanwhile, with some bill-paying help from his girlfriend, Lucas has been earning a living playing the blues since early 1987, when he quit his job as a municipal maintenance man for the city of Long Beach. That, he figures, is a pretty significant accomplishment in itself.

Robert Lucas plays solo tonight (and every Thursday) at 9:30 as host of Open Mic Night at Cagney's, 406 N. Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. Information: (714) 960-9318. Lucas also plays solo Tuesday nights from 8 to 11 at Taka-O, 425 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente. Information: (714) 498-7111. Luke & the Locomotives play this Saturday night at Taka-O, and every Sunday at Cagney's from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.

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