Somewhere on the Pacific Ocean
October 23, 2011
Reprinted with permission, copyright Blues Revue
By Stacy Jeffress
BluesWax sat down with Lionel Young immediately after his band’s rousing first performance aboard the Blues Cruise. The only artist to win both the solo/duo (2008) AND band (2011) divisions of the International Blues Challenge, Young expounds on the strategies he applied to prepare his band for the competition and how an encounter with the Memphis Police Department could have destroyed his efforts. He also reflects on the recent untimely death of his friend and fellow Colorado blues artist John-Alex Mason.
Stacy Jeffress for BluesWax: We’re on Day Two of the Blues Cruise, and you just did your first show. How do you think it went?
Lionel Young: I think it went well, enjoyed it.
BW: When you won IBC for solo/duo performer, you also then got to do a cruise as a result of that?
LY: Yes, in 2008 – the Pacific. The nice thing is being able to return with a full band. I came in 2008 by myself. I got a chance to sit in with Los Lobos – that was great!
BW: I’ve heard you talk informally about your strategy for going to the 2011 IBC, in picking your secret weapon that really won everybody over. Can you tell me a little bit about how you planned and prepared for IBC this year?
LY: This time we had a little more time as opposed to 2008 when I didn’t start getting serious about a week – well, no it seems like all my life I’d been preparing for it. It seems like all the gigs I played in the past – you know you bring all your experience to bear when you try to choose 25 minutes to play. After doing it the first time and being successful with it, I was able to figure out some strategy. We prepared 25 good good minutes, a variety of rhythms and you want to be geared toward the judging criteria – the blues content and the instrumental talent, vocal talent especially because they are heavily weighted.
Before we even played a note, we got together and figured out the songs we could do, songs we wrote to be good in originality. We had people come in and help us with our stage presentation. We had a blues dance instructor.
BW: How often do you think that happens?
LY: Not often. She was great. She helped us more with general things like how to project to an audience. “You guys are playing for each other; you have to project out.” We played for a few people – a guy named Sammy Mayfield – he’s the musical director for Solomon Burke. He made good suggestions. We practiced and rehearsed a lot and had all these gigs trying to feel out what we could do, so when we got to IBC, it wasn’t a big surprise. When you get there, it’s get up, get down. You don’t have time for “We could do this.” You don’t have time to wing it. It’s not a “wing” situation which you can do in gigs. If you want to win, you have to gear toward the criteria that will give you the most points. We were able to do it well enough to win and be able to be on this boat right now.
BW: That’s a pretty cool perk, huh?
LY: Yeah, it is.
BW: So tell me about the secret weapon.
LY: The secret weapon was the a cappella. We thought that was a little risky, because you put your instruments down. We were trying to score high in the vocal talent. We’re all good instrumentalists, but we put our instruments down, and everybody would sing. It would be a unique way to do a song in a way that shows off our vocal talents.
BW: I wondered as I watched you today if you had hired instrumentalists who could sing or singers who could play instruments.
LY: Mostly instrumentalists who could sing. Two or three of them hadn’t sung before. Nothing to hide behind. It’s nice to take a song like Sam Cooke’s, originally a Charles Brown song, and to use that blues content to really do something different.
BW: And your style of dress – red ties, black outfits. Y’all were sharp looking!
LY: We had good advice from people – hey you guys got to come in with a color-coded thing, be sure you are dressed up. It was mainly women that advised us. If it weren’t for the women, we’d be nowhere. “You don’t have to wear the same thing like a uniform; make sure you have a color scheme you go by.”
BW: Do you think that ought to matter in a blues competition?
LY: I think it should. The highest points are given to people who are ready to be onstage. You get 8, 9, and 10 if you are ready to be a headliner in a large festival or something like the blues cruise. If they’re only ready to be in a bar, then they give you less points. This last time was a real eye-opener for us, a real fun situation, because we were able to relax a little bit. We had done a lot of preparation before we got there which allowed us to relax and just play. Everything that was within our control, we took care of it before we came.
BW: You had something unpleasant happen which you talked to Bob Margolin about [recently in Blues Revue]. Which day was that you had an encounter with the Memphis police?
LY: That was Thursday, February 3rd.
BW: It would have been your second night of playing the preliminary rounds. Tell me about what happened for anybody who might not have heard.
LY: The first night was pretty good. We had a situation with our keyboard player. He got there two minutes beforehand and walked up on stage. He’d been driving as fast as he could from St Louis. There were some problems.
BW: The weather was awful.
LY: The weather was pretty awful with ice everywhere.
BW: They’d shut down roads in Missouri.
LY: That’s right. So the next day we’re rehearsing; it was a little tense, a little out of whack. We were trying to get ourselves ready for the next night. I decided maybe I’ll go for a walk or a run to turn this energy around. When you exercise sometimes it takes negative energy and converts it. That’s what blues is about. You take something that’s bugging you, and you turn it in to something to celebrate with music. Somehow the music transforms your feelings and how you feel about life and what’s going on with you. I went for that run, and I got stopped by the Memphis P.D. They handcuffed me. They told me there were alarms that went off in the neighborhood and they were checking to see if I wasn’t the one. “Where you going? What you running from?”
BW: What were you wearing during your run?
LY: I was wearing sweats – sweat shirt, sweat pants.
BW: Were you carrying anything?
LY: I wasn’t carrying anything – keys.
BW: No burglary tools.
LY: I was getting back a little late. We were supposed to check in and I was trying to get back in time for us to leave, so I was sprinting the rest of the way. They stopped me. “Where are your hands? Put your hands on the car! Where are you running from?” I said I was running to. I got to meet my band and go downtown. They said, “No, you’re not. You might be lying. I don’t know you.” I said, “I don’t know you, either.” A little snappy comeback that I guess they didn’t really appreciate. They said, “We’re handcuffing you for your protection and our protection.” I’m sitting there, and my keyboard player came out and said, “What’s going on here? This guy is in the International Blues Challenge, and we’re here..” They said, “Listen, this doesn’t concern you. Go away.” He said, “I’m not going away. This does concern me. We have to show up and check in.” They said, “You’re obstructing a police investigation.”
Stacy Jeffress for BluesWax: Were you in front of the house where you were staying?
Lionel Young: It was in front of the house, like a half block away.
BW: So the police stopped you in front of the very house where you were staying.
LY: Right. They said, “Where’s your ID? Where’d you get these keys?” I said, “I got them in Denver when I rented the van.” I guess they checked that out and found out I actually rented the van and what I was saying was true and listening to the keyboard player, they let me go. According to a lawyer there, I was about this close to missing everything. I probably would have been taken in if my keyboard player didn’t come out. Because I wasn’t from that neighborhood, I probably would have been taken in until they could find out who I was. They wouldn’t let me go get my ID and prove to them I was actually who I was. When they drove off, I just shook my head like this at them as they were going by.
It affected me. I didn’t want it to affect me. It really affected me in a negative way. It doesn’t seem like the land of the free, the home of the brave. It seemed sort of like a police state. I’m sitting there in handcuffs – I didn’t do anything. It just disappointed me that stuff like that still happens. You could be stopped, questioned, detained, maybe arrested, handcuffed through just running. I know Bob [Margolin] wrote the article “Running While Black.” [In Blues Revue #130]
A little later when we had to play, I was trying to get past it, but the frustration was tough. We were all wearing purple. There were a lot of people who came; I remember seeing Bruce Iglauer there, Janiva Magness, Kate Moss. It was pretty packed, and I was distracted. I was forgetting lyrics.
BW: What was the time frame between that encounter with the police and you being onstage?
LY: About two hours. It put a damper on the way we played. I think we played our worst that night, and it was nice to find out we made it to the semifinals.
BW: Did you see your score sheets, and did they differentiate between Wednesday and Thursday?
BW: Could you tell a difference in the scores?
BW: So that means you’re a pro.
LY: We got through it. We were so frustrated because we felt we could do much better. The next day we spent a lot of time together. We played a little bit; we went to Stax. Just the act of doing that brought us together. The best night may have been the semifinal. We were fighting back. We didn’t just play well, we played very well. We made sure we put our best foot forward. We were able to do that the next two nights.
BW: The finals were dazzling.
LY: At the finals we felt very good. We didn’t play the full twenty minutes – they didn’t have a chance to raise the two-minute sign. It was a good set. The semifinals was thirty minutes. They want to see if you can present yourself well in a short amount of time.
BW: It doesn’t seem to hurt when the contestant goes out into the audience. It seems to go over big with the judges.
LY: It goes over big anywhere. The number one thing I think is connecting. You have to connect with people. So many people get shy and you stay within yourself – it doesn’t serve you to play small. People want to feel connected. They want to feel something from you. If you’re just up there whittling away and you think it’s so inconsequential that you don’t have to invest yourself – simply look up and connect, and it’s a big thing. That’s what this lady who helped us said, “I want to feel like you want to make love to me. You, Lionel, you’re looking around at the band.”
One of the things that we also did is, we recorded a CD before we went to Memphis. It was ready a few days before we left. It prepared us musically. You don’t have to worry about the music as much when you’ve been in the studio. There’s nothing more critical than listening to yourself back. If it’s not cool, you’re going to hear it. There are many times the horn players record many takes to good it right, so you work out horn parts. Seeing how we can all fit together.
Another thing at IBC, people play really loud. It’s a pressure situation – you’re being judged. It’s not fun being judged. Feels like you’re going to court. In a pressure situation what most people do is they talk loud and talk fast or they play loud and play fast. It’s counterintuitive.
“People want to feel connected.
They want to feel something from you.”
BW: Fight or flight.
LY: Yeah, you get that flight or fight thing going on. To be able to play quiet in that situation; to be able to play a slow blues is a very big advantage, because not a lot of people are going to do that. We worked out trying to play vey dynamically, trying to get good quiet textures. Any top-notch band has good dynamics. You don’t always have to hit people over the head with a sledgehammer. There’s only a certain amount of loudness that your ear and your brain can take before you start shutting down. Little kids shy away from loud noises. We were looking for things that other bands wouldn’t do.
BW: Do you have a new recording in the works now?
LY: Yes, at the end of November. We go to Paris after this cruise, and when we come back we go into the studio and record a lot of the new stuff we’ve been doing onstage. We’ve been writing tunes and really looking to do different stuff. Some of the stuff we’ve been writing about has been more socially conscious.
BW: I heard one today I wanted to ask you about – “Brave New World” – is that a more recent one?
LY: That’s actually off of a Roosevelt Sykes tune. “Whole country’s in an uproar; we’re all standing at a crossroads; don’t know which way to go.” We’re standing at the crossroads of this civilization, I think. 2012 is supposed to be a big year. I feel as musicians we’re in a unique spot. If you have any kind of audience, people listen to you. You can talk about stuff like that through the music. One thing music does is bring people together. You end up dancing with somebody you don’t even know. In 2012, we’re going to need to all be together. I think we stand a better chance of surviving as people if we work together to survive and ignore the things that keep us separate.
I did this project for [Tab Benoit’s] Voice of the Wetlands. I got a chance to write a song about the BP oil spill that ended up being on the album. It’s time to get off the oil dependence thing so we become independent of oil.
It’s wonderful to be here on the cruise; everyone’s here together with one purpose. There’s really not a whole lot of ill will. It’s a big picture of how people can celebrate together. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of; it’s an honor in some ways. We hope to be worthy of the honors we have. We hope we can make a difference somehow. We’ve been given an opportunity to be on stages and speak to people; we don’t take that lightly.
A friend of mine died last week, John-Alex Mason.
BW: I didn’t know him, but I was so sorry to hear that. What a bad turn of events. There’s a video on YouTube of you and John-Alex playing.
LY: That was just this past April at the Juke Joint Fest in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I went down there with him. He just came out with this beautiful album called Juke Joint Thunderclap, which is fantastic. It was recorded well with really good songs. He was in such a great mood, such a happy gentle guy.
BW: He and his wife were expecting their second child?
LY: They’re expecting a child now. She was 8 ½ months pregnant when this happened. A tough situation. Doesn’t seem fair, but somehow I’ve got to believe in the way things end up being. I have faith that they’re that way for a reason. I guess maybe he was ready to move on. I just miss him so much. We dedicate our efforts to his memory. I met him in the finals at the 2008 IBC. The funny thing about meeting him – as soon as I met him – the way he smiled, there was something about his nature. I thought to myself – I know this guy – this guy is going to be a friend of mine for the rest of mine or his life. We’re going to be friends as long as we’re alive. I didn’t know that it would come so quick. He was just a real good dude.
Stacy Jeffress is a contributing editor at BluesWax.