by A.J. Wachtel
This growling guitarist’s sound is like a tidal wave. You hear the first notes, the anticipation grows and overwhelms. Then you get carried away by the passion in his playing and when the music’s over the memory of the experience stays with you forever. Taste the vortex:
Noise: You’ve been a popular guitarist in New England since the late ’70s playing blues, rock ’n’ roll, and R&B. What are some of the similarities and differences about gigging then and now?
Tom Guerra: We made more money then (laughs)! Sadly, I say that only half jokingly. I think back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, going to see live music was the PRINCIPLE form of entertainment for young people. It is just what folks of my generation and the one before me did, and that’s a big difference as to the options folks have today. As far as similarities, I think this type of music (blues based rock ’n’ roll) is best heard in a live environment, and people still come out, have a few drinks, dance a bit and make some noise.
Noise: You first gained fame after being featured in Guitar Player magazine in March, 1991. How did this happen and what did it do for your career?
Tom: Guitar Player magazine was a great mechanism for spotlighting new talent, and I met a guy from GP in a music store, who suggested I send in a demo, which I did. I totally forgot about it and about six months went by. One day, I got a call from the editor at the time, Jas Obrecht, asking me if I’d like to be featured. Of course I was over the moon, as I’d read some of Jas’ great writing, especially the Duane Allman retrospective. Looking back on it, I think the reason I was featured was because at the time, everybody was sending in “shredder” demos with crazy speed and technical prowess, while mine featured some original music and some Freddie King tunes, which was different. To this day, I consider myself more of a feel player than a true technician.
Noise: In 1999, you founded Mambo Sons named after a T. Rex song, right? Tell me a bit about your band for my readers.
Tom: Yup… After playing blues for most of the ’90s, I started writing rock ’n’ roll again with my old college buddy Scott Lawson Pomeroy. Scott and I each have our own influences, which converge at Humble Pie, The Faces, T. Rex, Mott, The Stones, Thin Lizzy, and Free, the stuff we grew up on. I wanted to do a guitar based rock ’n’ roll thing as there really weren’t a lot of bands doing this anymore. And so began Mambo Sons.
Noise: Your band’s debut album featured Rick Derringer. How did this happen and are you still friends with Rick today? How about a quick Rick Derringer story for my readers?
Tom: I was promoting a gig on Beef Stew’s Blues radio show, on WCCC, and the studio phone rang in between songs and it was Rick Derringer telling me he liked my guitar playing. I told him I was a big fan, got his number and hung up. I called him a few times to let him know what I was doing, and he expressed interest in playing on the first Mambo Sons albums which was just starting to take shape. He was amazing to work with, gave me key production insights and shared some great stories about his career. A cool story that Rick told us was the time he saw a totally drunken Jim Morrison steal Jimi Hendrix’ hat off the top of his head, at Steve Paul’s The Scene, where The McCoys were a house band. Morrison taunted Jimi, and refused to give his hat back. I do keep in touch with Rick and I consider him one of the greats, who seems to keep getting better with age.
Noise: Mambo Sons worked as a trio for 15 years around New England, then went on hiatus about three years ago, with each of you doing your own thing. What happened?
Tom: What happened was that over a 15 year period, we released four albums that got great reviews all over the world, but it got harder and harder to get new and better gigs in our own backyard, due to the fact that fewer and fewer clubs allowed original music. We were on a small label and the owner, a great man named Marko Van Der Werff, did so much to help get our music out across the world. Sadly, he passed away in 2011 and we all took this as sort of a sign that we needed to take a break. Scott, drummer Joe Lemieux and I remain close, but we all felt like we had taken the trio thing as far as we could. It was at that time that I decided to do the solo album.
Noise: All of the Above (reviewed in The Noise, issue #343, July 2014) is the name of your recent solo album, which has also been getting some great reviews, includingThe Huffington Post which called it “A very successful exercise in almost outrageous eclecticism.” It’s got hard rock, rock ’n’ roll, blues, and closes with a mellow dobro song about Sandy Hook. How did this record differ from your previous work?
Tom: The songwriting process was very similar, but this time I wrote for my voice. The first song I wrote for the album “Love Comes to Us” came to me a few days after the Sandy Hook tragedy, everything, music, lyrics, arrangement… it was like I had an antenna up. That started a very productive period for me, and I purposely tried to write a bunch of good three minute songs, with a lot of the lyrics about things I experienced as I was coming of age. In total, I came up with about 15 tunes and I used 11 of these songs on the album. Although All of the Above has a ton of different guitar sounds on it, I consider it a “song” album vs. a “guitar” album.
Noise: The Sons are getting back together for a gig March 6 in Hartford with Jack Sonni of Dire Straits on the bill. What’s up with this gig and didn’t your vocalist just have a tryout with The Voice too.
Tom: Yes, I spent some time last fall with Jack Sonni, and we decided it would be cool to do a gig together. I rounded up the Sons, who were up for the gig, and we invited Matt Zeiner along on keyboards. Matt is a killer Hammond player and contributed some nice studio work to both my solo album and several Mambo Sons’ CDs but has never appeared live with us.
Jack Sonni is going to join us for a set… he’s a great player who played on one of the biggest albums and tours of the 1980’s, promoting Brothers in Arms. This is going to be a lot of fun.
Regarding The Voice, Scott told me that it was a great experience, and everybody is so proud of him, myself included. Scott is the type of singer that SHOULD be featured on that show, as he’s got a great, soulful voice, and has great control of it. Most importantly, he sings from the heart, laying down what’s right for the song, and he never over sings. I consider myself lucky to have a history with him.
Noise: Your guitar playing style has been described as being influenced by Rory Gallagher, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Muddy, and Buddy Guy. Is this a fair statement and what qualities in your playing do you get from each artist?
Tom: I believe that rock ’n’ roll guitar playing has a lineage and that all great rock ’n’ roll players are keenly aware of the blues, the early rock ’n’ rollers like Chuck Berry, and then the subsequent generations. It’s a line you can draw, and with any of those guys you mentioned, you can hear where they get it from. I love hearing the influences of those players who have influenced me. I can honestly say that I’ve learned something from just about every guitarist I’ve ever seen live.
Noise: In 2009, at the request of Johnny Winter, you wrote the liner notes for his Vol. 4 The Bootleg Series. How did this happen and did you remain friends with Johnny afterwards? How about a short Johnny Winter story for me?
Tom: I first met Johnny in the ’90s through his (much maligned) former manager, the late Teddy Slatus, who I knew from the Derringer connection. I had just started writing for Vintage Guitar magazine and the first interview I did with Johnny was a tough one. He wasn’t well but I think he saw that I was sympathetic to that. I ended up interviewing him several more times over the past 15 years and it seemed like Paul Nelson really helped turn his career, playing and health, around. Johnny liked what I wrote about him so he asked if I’d write the liner notes for a couple of his live albums. I spent time with him a few months before his passing, and he was really in a good way. He enjoyed meeting my then 10-year-old son, and he seemed at peace with things. That night, he played with the fire of a 20 year old Johnny Winter, and a few months later, he was gone.
Noise: Also in 2009, Mambo Sons released a 20 song double album, Heavy Days where you do a live cover of Jimi’s “Stone Free.” Why did you pick this song?
Tom: Writing and recording the Heavy Days double album is a ton of work, and you can see why nobody does it anymore. The Sons were like two bands, a polished studio unit that indulged my propensity to use a lot of different guitars and tones on our songs, and a live power trio that just got it across with raw power. We had done an outdoor street fest gig in Willimantic, CT and much to our surprise, the soundman recorded the entire set, and it came out GREAT. We took the “Stone Free” from that two track digital and it went on Heavy Days.
Noise: Since 1998, you have written for Vintage Guitar and have endorsed several guitars, amps and effects… How’d you get into that, and what type of things do you write about in your Vintage Guitar articles?
Tom: In the late ’90s, my blues band was playing a lot of shows, including some opening slots for Ronnie Earl. I happened to be telling this to a writer from Vintage Guitarmagazine, and he suggested that I interview Ronnie. In some ways, it brings together many of my passions—music, gear, writing and asking the questions that I always was curious about. I found that I really enjoyed this gig… since then, I’ve interviewed many great guitarists and done reviews of guitars, amps and effects for the magazine. One of the biggest stories I ever did was the “coming out” article from Free bassist Andy Fraser, who chose me to help him tell the world his story, that he was a gay man living with AIDS.
Noise: Being around the area music scene for such a long time, you’ve played with and know many of New England’s finest… Can you tell me a few New England musicians my readers should be listening to?
Tom: Some of my favorite New England musicians include everyone in Ronnie Earl’s band, especially bassist Jim Mouradian, a great friend of mine and a talented guitar luthier as well. Jim Chapdelaine, who currently plays with Big Al Anderson, and just about everyone else, is a great guitarist, color man, and producer. Big Ed Bradley, currently with Mass Confusion, and Mark Nomad are great blues guitarists who I’ve been fortunate to play with many many times. Mark Easton, formerly of the Shaboo All Stars, and Dennis Fancher, a popular Connecticut guitarist, are also favorites of mine. There are so many talented musicians out there, I’m just glad there’s a space for me to be doing my own thing.