Blues violinist Lionel Young returns to Aztec
One-time classical musician turned to blues in late 1980s and became an immediate success
FARMINGTON — Blues violinist Lionel Young is an accomplished musician, but he’s also a world traveler, having done some impressive globetrotting over the last 30 years or so while performing for varied audiences.
So he understands a thing or two about how people relate to music and how it can make a difference in how they relate to each other.
“Music bridges a lot of gaps,” he said. “If you can play the fiddle, you can get along with most rednecks. In fact, if you can play good music, you can get along with most people.”
Young, who performs with his band this weekend in Aztec, spent his younger days as a classical musician, bouncing around from New York to Pittsburgh to London while playing in orchestras. He even took part in a tour of the Pacific Rim in 1988, performing in an orchestra that played Japan, Taiwan and Seoul, South Korea, for the Olympic Summer Games.
Even though he decided to turn his attention to blues music after that trip, Young didn’t exactly turn his back on the road. He achieved almost immediate success as a traveling bluesman, carving out a sterling reputation for himself while sharing the stage at various times with such luminaries as Count Basie, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Linda Ronstadt, Living Color and others.
Young’s popularity shows no signs of waning. Over the past 14 months, since his last local appearance, he and his band have done tours of Canada, China and Brazil. And an extensive tour of Europe that was scheduled to begin in Paris was cancelled only because of the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist bombings that killed 130 people and left much of the country in a virtual lockdown.
For most folks, that’s a lifetime of travel in a little more than a year. For Young, it’s just the lifestyle that goes along with being a success.
“There’s a reason people settled down and became less nomadic,” he said, laughing, during a telephone interview last week from his home in the Denver area, where he was enjoying a rare idle weekend. “I see that now. But I accept whatever circumstances are dealt me. I’m not going to complain. This has been a good life. It’s been an adventure.”
But those adventures don’t hold as much appeal for Young as they probably once did. Even with a new album in the works, his first since 2012, Young talks wistfully of reaching a point when he can get off the road and experience the same kind of everyday pleasures many of his listeners take for granted.
“I’m looking forward to the day when I can have two dogs, a big garden and one or two fishing poles and just fish every day,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to be able to play the music I play, but I feel blessed sometimes and other times cursed. It’s hard to have relationships when you’re not there all the time — and I mean personal relationships, not pet relationships. You have to have a resilient girlfriend, and I’m lucky that I do. That helps keep me sane. But this (lifestyle) is not something for the weak minded or the weak hearted.”
If it sounds like there’s a blues song or two in there, no doubt there is. Young had planned on releasing a CD of new material in 2016, but his demanding tour schedule pushed that back.
“I’m closer to having a CD done than I am far from it,” he said.
The new album, “Healing Sound,” was recorded over the course of 2016 at Colin Bricker’s Mighty Fine Productions studio in Denver, a new experience for Young. He said he had been pleased with his old studio, but after performing at a blues festival in Greeley, Colo., that was run by Bricker’s parents and hearing good things about the studio from his fellow musicians, Young decided to give it a try.
It turned out to be a good choice, he said.
“It’s a unique place, and I can relax there,” Young said. “He gets really good results. I love the way it feels in there.”
The new album will feature approximately a dozen songs, a mix of originals and covers of older songs in the public domain that have drawn a strong reaction from the audience when Young has performed them in concert.
Two of the tunes penned by Young — “Jimmy Dean” and “I Can’t See You with Another Man” — tackle the issue of sexual possessiveness. Young describes the former as a warning song that features the line, “You better leave my woman alone,” while the latter tells you everything you need to know in the title.
The title track is much different.
“It’s a commentary on a lot of different kinds of good music,” he said of “Healing Sound.” “It’s a spiritual song, I guess. Sometimes, when you listen to music and you need healing, it can do that. It’s healed me, and I’m sure it’s healed you, too.”
Young said the tune was not inspired by any particular incident in his life.
“It was more like a gift that comes to you every once in a while,” he said. “It’s a very simple song. It’s really a commentary on what I believe is music in its greatest role — healing people.”
Young means that both figuratively and literally, pointing to his use of frequency treatment for his own ailments. He uses an apparatus that creates a high C pitch at 528 vibrations per second and said it has done wonders for the pain in his aching knee.
“They affect people different ways,” Young said of vibrations. “People have tried to discount that, but I know for a fact they do — certainly from a good effect or a bad effect.”
The new album will include songs written by two of Young’s band members — saxophone, harmonica and clarinet player Dexter Payne and drummer Jay Forrest — as well as blues veteran John Long, a major influence on Young’s work who once was described by Muddy Waters as the greatest country blues player in the world.
“I just wanted to get him on my CD,” Young said. “I love his music so much.”
With just a handful of parts left to overdub, Young plans on releasing the new CD in February. He was dealing with some of those details last week, but he also took a day off to hit the slopes for some skiing as the Front Range caught a dump of fresh snow.
Unfortunately for Young, it also witnessed a corresponding plunge in temperatures, and on the day he chose to head out, the mercury was still hovering around zero at mid-day. That caused him to abandon his day of skiing after a single run.
“You go skiing, and you need a vacation from your vacation sometimes,” he said. “It was so cold, I didn’t have any fun at all.”
It’s important to let your body recuperate during those breaks from road, Young said, emphasizing the need to get plenty of rest. But that doesn’t mean putting music aside completely, even for a few days.
“Every day I pick up my ax and play it for at least a couple of hours, if not all day,” he said. “If I can’t sit down and play it in the morning, then I do it in the afternoon. It’s never foreign to me.”
Young said having physical stamina is an underrated aspect of being a successful musician, as the ability to play three or four hours without a break is a must.
“You’ve got to be able to play when you’re not feeling well, when you’re hurt,” he said. “It’s very much like being on a sports team. Nobody cares if you’ve got a cold. They just want to be entertained.”
Young tries to remember that when he thinks about the example set by two of his greatest influences, one an icon of modern popular music (Jimi Hendrix) and the other a product of the late 18th century and early 19th century in Europe (Niccolo Paganini).
“A lot of blues purists don’t like Hendrix,” Young said. “That’s OK. He tried to break down barriers. He did it in his music.”
More than anyone else, the legendary guitarist is who Young takes his musical cues from, he said.
“I always got inspiration from him,” Young said. “‘What’s that sound? How’s he making that music?’ I think he was a great blues player. He’s not somebody to be copied all the time, but he had the soul of an old bluesman in the body of a young man. So, he played a little faster — so what?”
Paganini was a trailblazer himself. In fact, Young goes so far as to characterize the bad-boy violinist as the world’s first rock star. The Genoa native toured throughout the continent, dazzling audiences with his technical ability and eventually becoming almost as well known for his audacity, charm and womanizing as he was for his music.
“He was somebody who wasn’t beholden to a king or a church,” Young said. “He made his own way. And he didn’t play different notes, he just played them different or faster. He went the extra mile. And if people complained about his ticket prices, he’d raise them, and he always sold out. He didn’t let anybody tell him what do. He ushered in a whole new musical movement. … I think Hendrix’s spirit was like that.”
Young’s lifestyle is very much that of a modern-day troubadour, but if he has a gift for something besides playing music, it’s for avoiding chaotic scenes when he goes on the road. In addition to barely missing the aforementioned Paris bombings, he played a blues festival four weeks ago in Brazil, the host country for last summer’s Olympics. Previously, he had just missed a 2011 tornado that flattened much of Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and injuring more than 1,000. He’s also narrowly avoided a couple of hurricanes in Florida and a typhoon in Taiwan.
Young has adopted a fatalistic approach to those situations, knowing that as much as he travels, his luck is likely to turn eventually.
“We usually miss most bad, bad weather,” he said. “Someday it will catch up to us.”
Young dodged another wild scene, albeit a happier one, in October when he played blues legend Buddy Guy’s club in Chicago the day after the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. The gig also took place a day before the team’s celebration parade, which drew an estimated 5 million revelers to the parade route and Grant Park.
Young saw enough during his day in Chicago to appreciate how much the victory meant to that city’s residents.
“It was great,” he said. “You can’t artificially generate an atmosphere like that. Everybody seemed to be very happy.”
If Young has any regrets about his travels, it’s that he didn’t spend enough time learning to speak many of the languages he has encountered. As you might expect from someone with a finely tuned ear, one of his favorite things to do when traveling abroad is simply to tune into the cadence and idiosyncrasies of whatever language is spoken locally.
“Italian is a really beautiful language to listen to,” he said. “Japanese is more guttural and, like German, it’s quirky. Italian and Chinese, especially Mandarin, have got their own rhythms, and I love to listen to people speak both those languages.”
The mysteries of other tongues aside, Young increasingly appreciates the advantages of staying in one place, even if his career doesn’t permit much of that.
“I’m a homebody and a momma’s boy,” he said, laughing. “I like to stay at home most of the time, but I don’t get the chance to.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Lionel Young Band concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14
Where: Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave.
Tickets: $15 at crashmusicaztec.com or 505-427-6748
For more information: Visit lionelyoung.net.