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Nashville Scene Deep Blues

Local blues outfit stays true to the music

By Michael McCall

JANUARY 19, 1999:  Don't expect local bluesman Mike Henderson to make references to cell phones, presidential blunders, or daytime talk shows in his songs. Unlike most modern blues bands, Henderson and his top-notch group, The Bluebloods, don't invoke current trends to update the same old lyrical patterns and classic chord progressions. "I want it to be something that could have been done 30 years ago--or 30 years from now," the guitarist says of his songwriting.

Indeed, one thing that separates The Bluebloods from many current blues bands is how they strive for timelessness rather than trendiness. Maybe that's why it's easier to describe the band by specifying what they aren't rather than what they are.

Most modern blues bands, for instance, feature showboating performances replete with extravagant soloing and outrageous stage antics. The Bluebloods, on the other hand, keep their arrangements terse and focused. Other bands sweeten the blues with pop influences or rock rhythms, but The Bluebloods draw on a wide spectrum of traditional sounds, from rolling shuffles to brutally hard riffs to second-line rhythms to rockabilly rave-ups. Yet there's no question that they're playing anything but unadulterated blues. No hyphens necessary, thank you very much.

But even when it comes to blues purists, most young bands tend to recycle the same riffs and to cover the same classic tunes. The Bluebloods avoid these pitfalls by repeatedly coming up with fresh ideas, original material, and unusual, deep-catalog covers.

On the band's excellent second album, Thicker Than Water, its choice of older material illustrates both its direction and its knowledge of the blues. When covering Howlin' Wolf, Henderson and friends choose "My Country Sugar Mama" rather than "Spoonful" or "Little Red Rooster." When covering Sonny Boy Williamson, they choose "Mister Downchild" instead of "Don't Start Me Talkin' " or "Nine Below Zero."

Moreover, covers like "I Need Me a Car" and "Scared of That Child" tap into universal themes that underscore Henderson's desire for timelessness in his music: Lack of transportation, for instance, affects opportunities for love and financial advancement as much now as it did three decades ago--and it likely will for generations to come. A fierce version of Eddie "The Chief" Clearwater's "Wouldn't Lay My Guitar Down," meanwhile, serves as a personal statement obviously dear to Henderson's heart.

But what really makes a blues band stand out is how well the players merge into a singular ensemble. And in this regard, The Bluebloods are one of the premier blues units in the world right now. If they were a basketball team, they'd be the 1998 Chicago Bulls: Not only does each player stand as one of the best in America today, but together they've developed a level of interplay that can be achieved only through years of regular gigging.

"A lot of the best moments come when something happens that nobody catches but us," Henderson says. "Over a night, there will be times when one of us does something that's way out of the realm of what makes sense, but it works. When that happens, we all react. It's like, 'What in the hell was that?' We love doing that to each other and then seeing how the others react and where it takes a song.

"It's sort of turning a mistake into an asset, I guess, but it's something we thrive on. One of the most consistent comments we get is that it looks like we're having a great time. And they're right: We are."

Apart from his work with The Bluebloods, each band member is a highly in-demand studio session player. Bassist Glen Worf, one of the two or three first-call bassists on Music Row, recently toured with Dire Straits and has backed such stars as Aaron Neville, Bryan Adams, and Larry Carlton. Pianist John Jarvis, who holds a similar stature among Music Row pros, has recorded acclaimed solo albums of his own, has written award-winning country hits for Vince Gill and The Judds, and has performed behind Rod Stewart, Ringo Starr, Diana Ross, John Mellencamp, and dozens of country stars. Drummer John Gardner, the band's secret weapon, is a remarkable rhythm player who has backed Johnny Cash and Al Kooper.

As for Henderson, there's not another guitarist working on Music Row who attracts the same kind of awe that he does. Esteemed rock critic Dave Marsh, author of the renowned Rolling Stone Record Guide, recently opened a review of The Bluebloods' Thicker Than Water in his Rock 'n' Rap Confidential newsletter by stating, "Henderson is as good a blues guitar player as exists right now. He sings well, writes good songs, tackles classics, and runs a tight, fierce band."

Of course, all this acclaim raises an important question: If The Bluebloods are so highly regarded, why do they bother playing small clubs around Nashville and recording for a modestly funded independent label? The answer is in the grooves of Thicker Than Water: Whatever else they do, these players aren't likely to make music that gives them the same kind of joy this does.

Being a humble sort, Henderson simply says it's fun to get together with his bandmates and play what they want rather than what someone instructs them to do. "We've always looked at the band as our weekly poker game," he says. "Instead of anyone losing $50, we make $25 and have fun. We enjoy each other's company a lot, and we get to be ourselves. That makes it worthwhile."

Besides, the members of the quartet joke, the band is sort of a long-term investment. "We figure that once the kids are raised and nobody else wants to hire us anymore, we can still go out as The Bluebloods and do this," Henderson laughs. "We look at it as our retirement plan."

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