Blues guitarist Eli Cook to play Crash Music
FARMINGTON – Blessed with a deep, resonant baritone voice that always made him sound much older than he was, even when he started performing music in his teens, Eli Cook figured out pretty quickly where his wheelhouse was.
“I tried my hand at some Dwight Yoakam and Hank Williams, but it just didn’t jibe,” he said. “It was the blues for me.”
Cook — who performs this weekend at Crash Music in Aztec — has not one, but two powerful musical gifts at his disposal. In addition to his rich, commanding voice, he’s a wizard on the guitar, gliding effortlessly between rootsy, acoustic blues and buzzsaw electric alt-rock. The two have combined to make the Virginia native one of the more highly regarded young bluesmen in the country.
Cook credits little-brother syndrome with getting him hooked on music in the first place. He was in his early teens when his older brother started a garage band, and the younger Cook never missed a practice session, watching his brother and his friends tear off Rage Against the Machine licks or warble their way through “Pinball Wizard.” It didn’t take long before he resolved to give the music business a try himself.
“I thought, ‘Cool, I could do that,’” he said last week while driving from his Virginia home to a gig that night in North Carolina as he kicked off a two-week run that will bring him to the Four Corners this weekend.
Cook never really bothered with lessons and had no musical mentor to speak of.
“Nobody living or in person,” he said. “Just a lot of old vinyl.”
But he proved to be an attentive student all the same, quickly developing an arresting, aggressive guitar style that borrowed from a variety of camps but defied categorization. By the age of 15, he had honed an old school blues sound that made him a regular as a solo acoustic act at church-based social events in the Blue Ridge foothills. But he also could more than hold his own while shredding on an electric guitar in front of a full band, gradually developing a sound that was equal parts John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Soundgarden and Clutch.
“I definitely enjoyed playing with bands and playing edgier, rocked-out material,” he said.
Though still firmly entrenched in adolescence and just a few years removed from his introduction to playing music, Cook already had learned some lessons about the value of being versatile and the importance of learning how to engage with an audience.
“On occasion, I’ve helped out friends with projects or played backing parts with other bands,” he said. “And I enjoy taking on other roles in that capacity. But for the most part, I’ve always been a front guy. Even now, 75 percent of my gigs are the solo acoustic kind.
“For me, it’s very easy, because I’ve been doing it for so long. I have a different set of guitars and different material (for each type of gig). They’re Strat based and roots based with a lot more slide and fingerstyle (picking). I like the variation of having a pretty wide range of sonic textures to work with.”
Those styles are showcased on the five discs Cook has released to date – 2005’s “Miss Blues’es Child” (acoustic roots blues), 2007’s “ElectricHolyFireWater” (heavy blues-rock), 2008’s "Static in the Blood” (modern R&B/rock), 2011’s “Ace, Jack & King,” (roots blues/alt-rock) and 2014’s “Primitive Son” (hard-rocking blues) – even though he only recently turned 30.
Cook describes his guitar style as far more of a journey than a destination.
“I’m still arriving,” he said. “I never really thought about it. As a necessity, I’ve always had to play solo shows to make money at it, but the band’s fully electric. Out of necessity, I started to meld styles … If anything, the right- and left-hand techniques are a Nashville school of thought, the way the fingerstyle is melded with the electric. I’m always here to learn.”
Cook’s most recent album, “Primitive Son,” was released on the Los Angeles-based Cleopatra label, a deal that provided him with a marketing network he’d never had access to before. It also brought him associations with such artists as drummer Artimus Pyle (Lynyrd Skynyrd), guitarist Sonny Landreth (Clifton Chenier, John Hiatt, John Mayall), blues harp player Rod Piazza (Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers), rock guitarist Pat Travers (the Pat Travers Band) and veteran bluesman Tinsley Ellis, all of whom wound up playing on the disc.
Cook said juggling the recording schedules of that many guest performers meant it took a long time to get “Primitive Son” out, but he was pleased with the experience and believes it gave his career a boost.
Cook laughed when asked if he’s following a road map to success.
“No, and I don’t think anyone else does, either, especially with the rapid pace of technological development in entertainment,” he said. “With the current state of the industry, it’s pretty impossible to make a plan. Everything takes money, so if you are starting with a big enough bank account, you’ve got a head start. But I’m going the old school way – going out and playing. The bright side is, I’ve been able to sustain myself by doing that.”
Cook acknowledged that those technological changes have allowed some artists to break through simply by sitting in their basement, creating music and finding an audience over the Internet, but he said that approach was never for him.
“There’s nothing like practice and rehearsal and constantly learning new material,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about learning new skills, because playing music is essentially a learning experience. When you get on stage, you don’t want to have to think about what you’re doing – you need to worry about your stage presence and staying up to speed with what’s going on with musical equipment and trends and venues.”
Cook plans on changing artistic directions again on his next release, an acoustic roots disc he’ll release independently this summer. He’ll perform most of the songs solo, although there will be some percussion and upright bass accompaniment.
The rationale behind that, he said, is that most of the people who see him perform live will experience that kind of musical arrangement, and Cook wanted to be able to offer his fans an album that is indicative of his live shows.
Opening Cook’s show in Aztec will be Farmington native Eric Campbell, a singer-songwriter best known as the host of the open mic sessions at Clancy’s Irish Cantina and 302 Espresso. A 2009 Piedra Vista graduate, Campbell describes his style as a mix of blues, hip hop and R&B, and says he favors primarily original material.
Though he’s only been playing live gigs for a couple of years, Campbell already has enjoyed a fair amount of success, winning a pair of online songwriting contests and performing at the House of Blues in Los Angeles in late 2014.
He compared his style to that of such artists as Jack Johnson, Amos Lee, John Legend and Gary Clark Jr.
“Almost all my songs are super honest and rely on my life experience,” he said, adding that the themes he has covered include his relationship with his high school sweetheart, his job in a local coffeehouse, schoolboy crushes and summertime.
“There’s a lot of feel-good music — or the blues,” he said.
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Eli Cook concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 30
Where: Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec
Tickets: $15 at crashmusicaztec.com
For more information: Call 505-427-6748