Lionel Young Band performs in Aztec
FARMINGTON — Don’t try to tell Lionel Young that the violin isn’t the quintessential blues instrument. He’s having none of that.
“I’ve found that a lot. But I’ll tell you the truth — the violin has been part of the blues since the blues were the blues,” he said emphatically.
The classically trained, Rochester, N.Y.-born bluesman has heard plenty of such remarks in his lifetime. He still recalls overhearing the grumbling at the annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis when he carted home the championship in the solo-duo category at the 2008 competition.
“The only reason he won is because he’s playing a novelty instrument,” some self-styled blues “purists” carped.
Young, who performs with his band this weekend in Aztec, didn’t care for that argument. In fact, he said, “That pissed me off.”
Pointing to the legacy of such players as Henry “Son” Sims and Claude “Fiddler” Williams, Young said anyone who believes that only the guitar and harmonica are able to provide an “authentic” blues sound is no serious student of the genre. Sims played with Charlie Patton, widely regarded as “The Father of the Delta Blues,” and the legendary Muddy Waters, while Williams was longtime member of Count Basie’s Orchestra and the Nat “King” Cole Trio.
Offended at being labeled a mere novelty act, Young decided to vent his anger by showing those no-nothings a thing or two.
“I decided, ‘I’m going to go back — and I’m going to win it again. I’m going to show those people,’” he said.
Young did exactly that, winning a second IBC competition in 2011 in the band category.
It’s a safe bet nobody in educated blues circles tries to insinuate Young is anything less than the real deal now. He said the only reason some blues fans cop that dismissive attitude about the fiddle in the first place is that it was phased out in favor of the guitar and horn sections in the days before anybody figured out how to amplify it.
Once the fiddle could be mixed in at the same volume as those louder instruments, its viability as a blues lead instrument was re-established, Young said, though he hastened to add volume is often an overestimated quality.
Back in his days as a classical musician, when he was a student in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, Young said he had the good fortune to study under the esteemed Josef Gingold, then in his mid-seventies. Gingold had an enormous influence on Young, even though he stayed at Indiana only for a year and a half.
“To this day, I feel like I’m getting ready to play for this guy,” Young said last week by phone from his suburban Denver home, having just returned from a weeklong swing through the Midwest with his band. “He could play so quiet, it would make you hold your breath. Up until that point, I was one of those ‘louder and faster’ types. He used to say, ‘When you play quietly, people listen harder.’ That makes sense, even though it’s a little counterintuitive.
“I use that in the music I play now,” he said. “My band really learned how to play quietly. We can be quiet as well as loud. And if you listen to people like Buddy Guy and B.B. King, they all could play very beautifully and quietly. I think that’s the difference that real Chicago blues bands have — those dynamics.”
Young likely developed an ear for subtleties during his younger years, when he bounced around from New York to Pittsburgh to London, studying classical music and playing in orchestras. It wasn’t until he returned from a National Repertory Orchestra tour of the Pacific Rim in 1988 — where he played Japan, Taiwan and Seoul, South Korea for the Olympic Summer Games — that he decided to leave his classical background behind and cast his lot as a bluesman.
Young downplayed the momentous nature of that move, explaining that life as a classical player was very demanding, with hours-long rehearsals and performances most days, as well as a great deal of travel. Even so, he said he had often made a habit of sitting in with blues and rock bands at night when his classical performances were over — “I didn’t sleep a whole lot,” he said — and realized that was where he wanted to focus his attention.
“I took the road less traveled,” he said simply.
Still, Young realized he was taking a sizable gamble, and he wonders to this day if he would have stuck with that gambit if success in the blues world hadn’t come his way almost immediately.
He spent a lot of time playing and performing in Colorado during his classical days, and it was there that he chose to build a foundation for himself. Young recruited a friend and fellow musician from Pittsburgh named Dan Kaplan, scouted out some good local players from the Denver scene, and the Lionel Young Band was off and running.
The group went into the studio, recorded six songs, put a tape in the mail to the music critic at Westword, Denver’s alternative newsweekly and source of the best music coverage in that market, and waited to see what would happen. Young didn’t have to wait long, as his new group was named Best Blues Band in Westword’s annual “Best of Denver” issue, an honor it would claim repeatedly over the next several years.
That initial taste of notoriety sent the band on an upward trajectory, and it never had to struggle the way so many other aspiring blues bands do, Young said. That was fortunate in many ways, he said.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” he said flatly. “Most everything is taken care of (for you) in the orchestra world. You don’t have to find gigs to play. It was a whole different world for me, but it was very exciting.”
More success would follow, including the two IBC wins, and gigs where Young shared the stage with the likes of Count Basie, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Linda Ronstadt, Living Color and other stars.
And as it had at other points in his career, good fortune came Young’s way again when he established a relationship with the late blues legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, best known for his work on the guitar, but also a wonderful player on the fiddle and various other instruments. Young played a gig with Brown in Denver, then wound up driving him to the airport. The two built a friendship that lasted until Brown’s death in 2005, even though Brown was known for being somewhat prickly.
“I’ve seen him be real ornery to people,” Young said, laughing. “He was kind of prejudiced – if you could play a little bit, he was nice to you. If not, he had no time for you. He didn’t mince words.”
Brown must have liked the way he played, Young said, but that didn’t stop him from showing his irritation when Young didn’t measure up to Brown’s lofty standards.
“He’d say, ‘No, not like that, like this,’ and he’d grab it out of my hands,” Young said, laughing.
Young spent a lot of time at Brown’s home on the shore of Louisiana’s Lake Ponchartrain when he was the veteran bluesman’s guest for the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and he said Brown always made a habit of providing fresh-caught fish for their meals.
“He’d go out and cast his line from a pier, and these big fish would come biting,” Young said. “He’d say, ‘We’ve got lunch.’ He loved doing that.”
But Young got more than a free lunch from his mentor, recalling how Brown seemingly could conjure up magic from any instrument — guitar, fiddle, piano, bass, even squeeze box.
“He sort of had that same musical sensibility no matter what he played,” Brown said. “He had great rhythm. He made it swing.”
Young cites the influences of Brown, Gingold and other masters he has crossed paths with over the years and said he still considers himself a student, though he left the academic environment behind long ago.
He continues to measure himself against those artists and he hopes the depth and breadth of his experience has paid dividends in regard to his own sound. He’s excited about the release of his group’s new disc later this fall. Young said the album will be titled “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ ” or “Healin’ Sound” and will feature 12 to 13 cuts.
More than a quarter century after putting one form of music aside and seriously pursuing another, Young acknowledged he still has a lot to learn. But he thinks his sound is rooted in both camps.
“I was able to bridge the two worlds,” he said. “Eventually, it all became one world to me.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Concert by the Lionel Young Band
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7
Where: Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec
Tickets: Available at crashmusicaztec.com or by calling 505-427-6748
For more information: Visit lionelyoung.net