Blues Musicians Band Together : Traditionalists: Junior Watson and Lynwood Slim had a tough time picking a name for the group playing tonight.
A few weeks back bluesmen Junior Watson and Lynwood Slim were trying to decide what to call their new band.
According to singer/harmonica player Slim, “It was hard to figure because everybody had already used every cool car name that’s available, and we didn’t want to call ourselves the Pintos. So we thought we’d just call it the Junior Watson-Lynwood Slim Band and see what happens with that.”
What does happen should be pretty interesting. Many local blues aficionados consider Watson--a founding member of the Mighty Flyers and more recently an inductee in Canned Heat--to be the best blues guitarist on the West Coast. Both of the nation’s leading guitar mags, Guitar Player and Guitar World, have praised the stylistic mastery and the wild, derailed logic of his playing.
Watson refers to Slim as “an untapped source.” Though Lynwood Slim (born Richard Duran) took his name from the Southern California town of his birth, he is unknown to most local blues fans. When disco crushed the club scene here in the ‘70s, he packed up for Minneapolis, where he became a fixture of that city’s jumping club scene. For several years running, his harp playing took the honors in the televised Minnesota Music Awards. Before returning to California last year he also established a foothold in Europe, where Holland’s Black Magic Records approached him to record an album. He most recently has worked with the San Diego-based Paladins rockabilly trio, doing tour sound and adding his harp to their shows.
The style of blues the two and their band will most frequently be assaying in their show tonight at Long Beach’s Golden Sails Ballroom is known as jump or swing blues, a late ‘40s combination of blues with the rhythms and richer chordal structure of swing jazz. Both players have a long history of working with seminal blues performers.
Talking in Watson’s Stanton home on Monday, the pair said they regard themselves as fairly strict traditionalists, but they feel there is still ample room for expression and invention within those traditions.
“I think that the music is still wide open,” Watson said, “there are so many possibilities in it, so much feeling possible, that you’ll never hit bottom in it.”
The challenge, Slim said, is to play in an established form “and not sound like anybody but yourself.” Both are adamant about steering clear of overworked blues standards such as “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” and “Stormy Monday.”
“Oh man, I’ve heard those songs a 150 million times,” Slim exclaimed, “and they’ve been beaten to death. With so many of those songs, the original was so good, there’s no improving on them. It’s like how do you make a better steering wheel? I’ve tried doing those songs, and I’d cringe if I heard me do them now. . . .
“The great part is we don’t have to play anything we don’t want to, and you don’t know how many musicians in the world would like to do that. But they’re stuck in Top 40 bands or something.”
Having that freedom is particularly sweet to Watson, who felt constricted, though well-paid, in Canned Heat. Even when he joined the band a couple of years ago it wasn’t easy. At a show at Goodies in Fullerton, he was pestered by a burned-out hippie who kept calling him “Sunflower” (the nickname of the band’s original lead guitarist in the ‘60s) while requesting 22-year-old hits. Finally Watson stopped him: “Hey, man, I’m not the Sunflower.”
“Uh, who are you then?”
“I’m the Seaweed,” Watson declared with a straight face.
After Canned Heat’s original bassist, Larry Taylor, left the band last year, the group deteriorated into “a cornball parody,” according to Watson.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was this festival in Minnesota where we played a set and were about to play a second one 30 minutes later. I asked Fito (de la Parra, the band’s drummer and leader) where the set list was for the second one. He said, ‘You got it man--we’re gonna play the same damn set,’ and the audience had just seen the same show. I thought that was terrible, and he told me, ‘You don’t understand the concept of Canned Heat.’ That was the last gig I did with them.” Watson and Slim had crossed paths at various points over the years, most recently last year when both were touring in Australia. When Slim began recording his album for the Dutch label he called Watson to play on it, and the partnership grew from there.
The album, entitled “Lost in America,” was recorded at Newport Beach’s Lyons Recording Studio and produced by Larry Taylor.
“They can get a pretty authentic blues sound there,” Watson said, “They have a great engineer there, who will bend over backward to help you get the sound you want to get. And though it’s a modern multitrack studio, we pretty much recorded it on two-tracks live in the studio, the way it used to be done, so all the screw-ups and clams were there on the tape.”
“It’s kind of scary,” Slim maintained, “because you’ve really got to be on top of the game. You just record it and that’s it. There was no mixing it down or anything.”
That album--essentially a Lynwood Slim solo album with Watson as significant sideman--is presently only available on Dutch import, though Slim is shopping it to United States labels. The two are anxious to do a more collaborative album soon, with the Dutch label likely to again be the catalyst.
Slim has received some of his best notices in northern Europe, and Watson is practically a legend there, where appreciation for American roots music runs deep. Where some performers are uncomfortable going from foreign demigod status to the struggle of surviving in the local clubs, Watson is reconciled to the ups and downs.
“I just love the music. I started playing in bars, and I’ll probably finish in bars, and all the rest in between is like icing on the cake. It’s a pleasure to go to Europe and get that response, that genuine good feeling from everyone there, but you can get that here too. I’ve had many good nights at the (now-defunct) Sunset Pub, where the response was overwhelming and appreciative. You’re always playing for that moment of the audience going nuts and being really in tune with what you’re doing. And when you get that in some small place here, it’s just like being at a festival in Europe.”
Slim is of a similar mind. “I play the music for me because it makes me feel good. I love to sing and play. I don’t think there’s anything on planet Earth I love to do more. And it’s that much greater if the people dig it. I’ve played rooms where everybody hates you because they’re so used to what the media assaults them with that they’re ignorant to the blues. But if one person digs it, that makes me get off, and I’ll really enjoy playing for that one person. One or a thousand, it makes no difference.”
The Junior Watson-Lynwood Slim Band will appear at 9 p.m. on Friday at the Marina Bay Club in the Golden Sails Hotel, 6285 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Tickets: $6. Information: (213) 596-1631.
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