Rock, blues artist Bobby Messano performs in Aztec
FARMINGTON — As a sideman for Steve Winwood and Lou Gramm, and as a member of such bands as Starz and Franke and the Knockouts, Bobby Messano experienced the music business during the 1970s and 1980s from a heightened vantage point unknown to all but a few performers.
And, make no mistake, it was great, the New Jersey native said, especially his time with Winwood during the platinum-selling “Arc of a Diver” tour.
But there’s still nothing like being recognized for playing your own songs in front of an appreciative crowd, no matter how small, Messano said during a phone interview last week from Wichita as he was making his way west to a show this weekend in Aztec.
“This is so much more personal,” Messano said of his more modest career now, which has taken him in a blues direction. “And to a degree, it’s so much more gratifying.”
Messano knows what it’s like to be part of a band playing a hit song in front of an arena filled with 15,000 fans. But he insists he gets just as much, if not more, satisfaction from reaching a handful of fans in a small club with a tune he wrote himself.
“If you can play a song no one’s ever heard before and they love it, you did your job,” he said. “You did what you’re supposed to do.”
As a guitarist in a touring band backing such major artists as Gramm, best known for his work with Foreigner, Messano often found himself duplicating leads that another guitarist had come up with in the studio. But that wasn’t always the case, Messano said, citing his experience with Winwood as an exception.
“One of the things I learned with him is it doesn’t have to be the same every night, and that’s what makes it true music,” Messano said.
That understanding existed from the first time the two spoke, Messano said, explaining that when Winwood called him to ask him to join the tour, the two had a quick, to-the point discussion about how much leeway Messano would have to come up with his own guitar parts.
“I asked him, ‘What do you want me to play?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, what do you want to play?’” Messano said, laughing. “I said, ‘But it’s your music.’ And he said, ‘But you’re the guitar player. I’ll let you know if I don’t like it.’ And he never did.”
Messano treasures moments like that, often peppering his live shows — which have been known to last anywhere from two to four hours — with such anecdotes.
“I’m telling my life through songs and words,” he said.
Despite his early success as a rock guitarist, Messano always had a strong interest in the blues, and that genre influenced his style even when he was shredding for the 1980s bands Starz or Franke and the Knockouts or doing studio work for various artists, including Clarence Clemons, the late E Street Band saxophonist.
“When I was doing a lot of session work, I had a producer tell me one time, ‘That’s too bluesy,’” Messano said. “I said, ‘But that’s the way I play.’”
Messano’s decision to focus on the blues in the early 1990s undoubtedly was viewed by some observers as a poor career choice.
“Everybody says, ‘If you want to go broke, play the blues,’” he said.
But for a guy who had grown up listening to funk, R&B and blues, it was a natural move, he said, and not one that required any shift in his creative identity.
“That’s where my heart was,” Messano said. “We were just musicians. It wasn’t necessarily that I played this or played that.”
After getting off the road at the end of 1991, Messano knew he was ready for something different. At that point, he said, he was merely a guitar player playing blues music. But after concentrating on that style for the last quarter century, he said, he’s become something more.
“I have turned into a blues artist,” he said.
That distinction may not mean much to the average listener, he acknowledged, but artists who have devoted their life to a particular genre likely recognize and appreciate the difference.
Messano also prides himself on the progress he has made as a vocalist. He said that during his rock and pop days in the 1970s and 1980s, he spent a lot of time serving as a background singer, occasionally filling a lead role on nights when the star was feeling under the weather – something he did for Winwood on more than one occasion.
But it wasn’t until he started putting out blues albums and was singing his own material that Messano began to feel he had really arrived as a vocalist.
“My comfort level is doing this kind of music,” he said.
It certainly seems to agree with him. Last year, Messano put out the most successful album of his blues career, “Love and Money,” which wound up at No. 1 on the Billboard blues charts. Almost all the material for the disc was written in a two-day period during one of the darker periods in Messano’s life, and the songs certainly reflect that angst. But there’s also a fair amount of humor reflected in the work, and Messano said making the recording was a cathartic experience, allowing him to jettison a lot of negativity that had dogged him for years.
The experience seems to have energized Messano, leading him to explain he’d like to get back to playing 125 to 170 shows a year as he was a couple of years ago before his touring began to taper off.
“It’s really a miracle for me to still be doing this,” Messano said. “I’ve played for over 6 million people for 40 years … I’ve got a lot of (fellow musicians) who have become excruciatingly rich, and the only time they’ll play a show is if they can jump on a plane and do it.
“But I promise you, there’s nothing like walking on that stage, even if it’s just five people, and hearing that applause at the end of the night.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Bobby Messano concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8
Where: Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec
Tickets: $15 online at crashmusicaztec.com or by phone at 505-427-6748.
For more information: Visit bobbymessano.com