ON THE ROAD AGAIN
After dinner, you are tuned into WBZ Channel 4 watching Jeopardy as Alex intones to the final jeopardy contestants: “What do Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, John Hammond, the late Jimmy Witherspoon, Dr. John, Maria Muldaur, and Roomful of Blues all have in common?” You find yourself screaming “Duke Robillard! Duke Robillard! Duke Robillard!” to the TV screen and you curse the stupidity of the blank-eyed threesome. You even know Duke won Blues Music Awards (formerly W.C. Handy Awards) for best blues guitarist four out of five years starting in 2000. Check out what this guitarist, bandleader, songwriter, singer, producer and session musician has to say.
Noise: You have a lot going on right now. You just released Independently Blue with another local legend, Monster Mike Welch, right?
Duke Robillard: Yes, my new album has been out about six weeks and has just hit #2 on the Living Blues Radio chart. I had been talking with Monster Mike about doing something together for a few years. I really admire his playing a lot and we are similar but different in many aspects, and I knew that we would make a good team. Adding Mike to my current line-up was a good move because besides bringing great blues energy and solos, he was great at finding really good parts on the spot. Not to mention his two songs, which are great showcases for both of us. I am really happy with this album and the results we got on the spot with no preparation. I tend to have some ideas and let them grow into songs in the studio. Some tunes were finished but other just sketches when we went in.
Noise: How did your giving guitar lessons online on Sonic Junction come about?
Duke: I met Mike Caren, the owner of Sonic Junction several years ago now. He had started an online guitar lessons company and had heard my Blues-A-Rama track on a plane en route to Europe and was impressed. He contacted me and we did a few videos and it eventually turned into what it is now. It’s a very popular thing now and we have several hundred students in 22 countries and six continents! And it’s growing fast. To check it out Google Sonic Junction. go to www.sonic-junction.com.
Noise: What is the story on your new record label Blue Duchess?
Duke: Blue Duchess is a label I started with Blues Radio International host Jesse Finkelstein. It is a label for my jazz recordings and other artists. We now have CDs by tenor sax giant Scott Hamilton, jazz vocalist Mickey Freeman, and the Duke Robillard Jazz Trio. We also have a blues and roots sister label called Shining Stone. We have David Maxwell’s Blues in Other Colors on our label, Sunny Crownover’s Right Here, Right Now and we just released Paul Gabriel’s What’s the ChanceCD. We have a Brazilian blues-rock artist named Nuno Mindelis also whose album we mix next week and that will be released this summer. I am also finishing up production on a great blues-jazz-R&B singer named Robin Banks from Canada. That could possibly end up on Shining Stone also. So we have our hands full you see!
Noise: Weren’t you just mentioned in Scott Yanow’s new book Great Jazz Guitarists?
Duke: Yes, I have a profile in Scott Yanow’s new book Great Jazz Guitarists; and I’m honored to be included.
Noise: You also joined Bob Dylan’s band and are currently on tour with him. How much improv are you allowed in his band or do you have to play note for note what the audience expects on his classic catalog?
Duke: Yes, I have joined Bob’s band and his touring schedule also allows for me to have quite a bit of time to tour with the Duke Robillard Band. I am enjoying working with Bob Dylan tremendously. It is a very special band and Bob’s concept of bringing the volume down and making it a lighter, cleaner sound has really opened it up for more improvisation. The interplay between everyone is really great and it’s fun playing with Bob and watching him re-interpret his songs.
Noise: Stu Kimball (from Boston’s Face to Face) is the other guitarist in Dylan’s band. What’s it like playing with another guitarist and did you know Stu from both of your days on the Boston circuit?
Duke: Before joining Bob’s band I heard Stu on record but had never met him. He is great to work with and is a very in-depth guitarist with great knowledge of chord voicings, and he really knows Bob’s repertoire. I am enjoying working with him and all the guys in the band. I didn’t know how well I would fit in until we started touring. It does seem to be a great combination of players and I’m loving it.
Noise: B.B. King has called you “one of the great players.” What is your relationship with B.B. and what would you call him?
Duke: I met B.B. King in the early ’70s when I opened for him with Roomful of Blues. We have had the chance to play together several times over the years and it’s always a honor. B.B. is a true gentleman and master. We all have learned from him.
Noise: You founded Roomful of Blues in Rhode Island in 1967. Would it be harder or easier to form a large jump blues band locally today?
Duke: It would be easy to form a great jump blues band today in New England. There are so many great players here. But the big problem is the economics. Not enough club work to sustain it. Not to mention that clubs’ pay for most blues musicians hasn’t elevated with the times. In many cases it was better in the ’80s, and I’m talking about for established artists that have been recording for decades!
Noise: You stayed with Roomful for 12 years and then played with rockabilly king Robert Gordon. Jon Paris has said that Robert’s voice WAS rock ’n’ roll. What are your recollections of gigging with him?
Duke: I played with Robert Gordon for a short time after leaving Roomful. Robert offered me the lead guitar chair, which enabled me to start my solo career as I was working with him. Yes, Robert does have an amazing voice. I did several shows with Danny Gatton while playing with Robert, which was amazing
Noise: In 1990 you replaced Jimmy Vaughn in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Care to share a cool story about your time there?
Duke: I worked in the Thunderbirds for about two and a half years with Kid Bangham and I trading off lead guitar chores. It was a fun gig and we got to make a great record (Walk That Walk, Talk That Talk) while I was there. It wasn’t a hit but I feel it was one of the best Fab T-Birds records they made. I am a friend of Jimmy’s so when he was leaving he said call Duke. At that time the rhythm section were Rhode Islanders who both played with me in Roomful at different times, so when I joined, three of the members of the big Texas band were from little ol’ Rhode Island!
Noise: What is your advice to young artists trying to get their music heard in these hard times?
Duke: It’s hard for me to give general advice about the music business. I came up in a completely different environment than today’s young musicians. I didn’t have any of the tools available today and it was all hard work, dedication, word of mouth, and grass roots advertising. So I won’t start preaching about “the old days.” I’ll save that for my book.