It seems a little odd to be referring to someone in their early twenties as a veteran, but for blues guitarist David Jacobs-Strain, it’s a moniker that’s both deserved and humbly accepted. After picking up a guitar at a garage sale when he was only nine years old, Jacobs-Strain’s mother quickly insisted on him taking lessons, which in turn opened the youngster up to the wondrous world of American folk music. His musical immersion was further supplemented by listening to old country blues songs on the radio in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon. But the real turning point for Jacobs-Strain came a little further down the road, after witnessing Taj Mahal perform live.
While influencing the budding musician in his own right, perhaps the greatest contribution Taj Mahal made upon the young Jacobs-Strain was introducing him to the music of Walker T. Ryan. In Ryan he saw the complete package; a bluesman who was not just an accomplished vocalist and instrumentalist, but also a talented writer. The bar had been set, and Jacobs-Strain rose to the challenge. Over the years, the two men grew from close friends to teacher and student.
“He is such an amazing songwriter and finger picker and slide player,” said Jacobs-Strain of Ryan. “He plays with a real intensity and a raw passion, so that was how I first started in the blues. But older players who I never heard live also had an influence on me-people like Fred McDowell and Blind Willy Johnson. But Fred McDowell was the big one. For me, there is empathy to his music and he really blurred the line between gospel and blues in an almost psychedelic kind of way.”
While Jacobs-Strain embraces American blues traditions, much like McDowell, there is nothing conventional about the way he throws himself headfirst into his music. From the steamy Mississippi Delta to the dusty plains of the Midwest, Jacobs-Strain draws from a vast musical landscape-and one not simply restricted to American shores. Ask him about his influences and the names of Indian slide guitar players flow just as freely as American ones.
“I play blues and I play slide guitar, but I’m not a traditional act,” explained Jacobs-Strain. “I have been influenced by a lot of stuff that is not really part of the blues or the tradition that I am coming out of. I’m not really interested in reproducing old songs note for note, but finding my own way of playing. The cross pollination of different styles is certainly important to me. But it’s not like I’m not trying to take blues and combine it with something in particular. I’m just trying to find my own voice within the blues, and I think bringing in those textures and sounds can really open up the language of the genre.”
In drawing from such a wide musical palette, Jacob-Strain aims to offer up a vibrant glimpse into the diversity of blues music. He feels there is a perception that mainstream blues is stale and long past its used-by date, something he feels isn’t far from the truth, based solely on the myriad of people out there doing Stevie Ray Vaughan covers. But Jacobs-Strain is also aware of the musical balancing act that comes with being a bluesman. In attempting to breathe new life into a discipline that he embraces and loves, he must also remain respectful of the genre’s origins and traditions. “I think a lot of people think of blues as being people like Stevie Ray Vaughan,” said Jacobs-Strain. “But there is so much more to it. I recognize that ‘the blues’ is a marketing term more than anything else, and that there are so many forms of music that are part of the blues that don’t fit into the marketing category at all. For me, it’s just a way of emoting in a direct and raw kind of way : And when people get past that marketing hurdle, they will see just how broad it is.”
For an insight into exactly how broad the blues can get, one needs only to peruse Jacobs-Strain’s last recorded venture, Ocean or a Teardrop. On the album, he invites various friends from the road into the studio, resulting in an eclectic record that beautifully captures the moments it was created in. And with another album already recorded and pending release, Jacobs-Strain seemed more eager than ever to discuss the divergent route he took when it came time to record the newer material.
“This one is a little more rocking,” he enthused. “It was done with Joe Walsh’s old band-with Kenny Passarelli and Joe Vitale-and we cut it in Joe Vitale’s basement. My goal is to get a big acoustic guitar sound with a muscular sounding rhythm section. I just wanted to make the acoustic guitar rock! Ocean or a Teardrop had something like seven people playing on it, but on this one there are just three of us. And it was really good for me to make a record where we could see just how much we could get out of just three people.”
David Jacobs-Strain puts his musical mojo to work on Monday, January 21, at SOhO. Acclaimed guitarist Chris Ayer will open the show. Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for details.