Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Almost Wrecked the Telephone

Greetings and salutations.

There’s nothing like an unexpected detour in your schedule to put you in a fantastic mood. Shipped out of state with so little as a day’s notice, I return to find the unthinkable. It seems you’ve missed me. There was record number of responses regarding my last column, and already enough follow-up questions to do another Q&A section. If this keeps up, the Roanoke Times might have to interview me. Fortunately, I don’t think they’ve lost their minds yet, so we don’t have to worry. Besides, there are still several uninformed people with strong opinions on the “stadium crisis” that we haven’t heard from yet. Priorities.

And so speaking of priorities, let me get to mine. This week, I turn my attention to local blues man Kevin Selfe and his backing band, the Tornadoes. Or, at least, formerly local blues man. Selfe has recently relocated to Richmond, but he still plays in town, and doesn’t seem to mind the traveling. Having honed much of his craft here in town, and considering that I can rationalize practically anything, I tend to consider him a local act anyway. It was in my own traveling that I took occasion to spin his debut disc “Selfe-Contained” in my cd player, using the time in the air to reflect and make some notes. It was a better alternative than strangling the screaming toddler in the row behind me, and people seem to like it when I write my thoughts down.

Despite being a fan of the blues, I’ve always found it difficult to write about the genre’s live aspects at any length, and Kevin’s act is no exception. In various other styles, the debate between “feel” and “skill” is always raging, so you can weigh people’s performances on one scale or the other and usually talk in enough circles to fill an article (a talent I’ve practically elevated to an art form in the last few months). In the case of the blues, however, skill and feel are more closely related because of the direct emphasis on conveying emotion. To that end, no amount of cartwheels or guitar stunts can cover up for a player without soul. You either get it, or you don’t.

Judging how much Kevin does or doesn’t “get it,” required that I pay closer attention to the music, hence the time spent combing the album, letting the notes soak in at 47,000 feet. From a playing perspective, he’s everything you would expect a blues guitarist to be. His attack is well timed, and he’s comfortable behind the beat, ahead of it, or locked in tightly with the groove. I catch the occasional presence of country in his technique, and the Chicago-meets-Texas flavor observation in his biography is spot on. He understands how and when to put the snarl into things, and his string bends are as chewy as they come. What’s more, I find his delivery to be shockingly more subdued than you would expect from someone who’s fronting their own trio. Invalidating the dozen or more really clever “Selfe-Absorbed” jokes that I thought I’d get to use, this approach is simultaneously the disc’s greatest strength and biggest weakness.

Despite his attempt to decry the notion that he’s just another SRV impersonator, the influence and similarities are pretty obvious, sometimes good and sometimes not. Unfortunately, for all the things that “Selfe-Contained” gets right, it is Kevin’s personal battle to avoid that cliché that gets him hung up in places. As I listened, I could almost feel him pulling back, trying to suppress his instinct to play something he thought a listener might inevitably compare to Vaughn. He succeeds in places, sometimes mining gold from the unexpected and managing to second-guess himself into sounding fresh. Other times, the suppression is so obvious that the loudest emotion seems to be his own frustration. Not that frustration, if sincere, isn’t as valid a thing to convey as say, passion or sorrow, but it tends to feel awkward in contrast to what the Tornadoes are laying down on a given tune.

Off course, subdued can also mean subtle, which is hardly detrimental. The disc’s attention to detail is a big plus, rather it’s a unique chord voicing from Selfe, a complimentary harmony, or any number of contributions from the Tornadoes. Too often, backing bands just equal backing noise, existing mostly for the glorification of one pompous soloist, but not here. Or at least, not all the time. The music on “Selfe-Contained” is very much a group vibe, with the Tornadoes doing their fair share of the work while Kevin picks through his miniature identity crisis.

In the end, Kevin and the Tornadoes have assembled a great collection of songs that, if nothing else, made for a very enjoyable flight despite my less-than-desirable circumstances. Hardly as unoriginal as he fears he might be, the songs are honest and real, and Kevin’s reputation as a formidable blues man is at least as secure as it was before I set down to write this. It's normal and necessary for true artists to struggle with how they interpret their influences, and very rarely is there a clear understanding to go by or pass judgement on. The fact that he's actively trying to break new ground keeps Selfe ahead of the curve, especially in the blues, where things move at an entirely different pace than in other genres. He certainly has the mind for innovation, and time will tell how far he and the Tornadoes push it. Maybe they’ll have it worked out by the next time I have to spend a few hours in the air.

That’s all out of me for this week. Thanks to everyone for the feedback (good, bad, and other) and for all the up-to-date info on what’s been happening in the scene lately. There’s plenty of news to talk about, and I intend to get to it all. I’ve got band news, show news, radio news, venue news, and more, and my inbox seems to indicate that people want me to talk about it. Who'd have thought?

Plus I’ve gotten some hilarious feedback on my “Battle of the Bands” idea, and am still encouraging people to nominate their band, or their favorite band, to let everyone decide who would actually win in a street fight. Important topics such as these, and more, all brought to you by the one and only - me. You can thank me later. Until next we meet…

- The Phantom