Ten seconds into any of the five Kilborn Alley CDs – especially the just released Tolono Tapes – you can tell these guys aren’t your average white blues band. In fact, in a blindfold test I’d be tempted to say they’d been tutored by Jim Dickenson and his sons Luther and Cody of the North Mississippi Allstars in Louisiana. Each of the original members is in his mid-30s, but they could be mistaken for being contemporaries of legacy acts like Little Milton, Bobby Rush, and Johnny Taylor.
As a matter of fact, their very first show was opening for Little Milton. “It was the first show we ever played, and we were terrible,” says guitarist Andy Duncanson. “We were 18. We were kids. The guy that had this little chitlin circuit club here in Urbana, Illinois, just really liked us and liked our attitude. So, he gave us some opportunities opening up for some of these acts that would come there.”
Made up of “three amigos” who formed a garage band in high school deep in the heartland, Kilborn Alley’s back story makes them seem to be the least likely to be mistaken for Little Milton protégés as you could imagine. Certainly there was no interpersonal connection at that show. “No, beside signing autographs and saying, ‘Good job, kids,’ that was about it, and then we fortunately got to play with him and see him a few more times before he died I believe in ’04, but it was a good thing for us definitely to experience Little Milton at a young age.”
So, where does Kilborn Alley’s edgy switch blade sound come from? “There are some really good blues band from around here and soul bands and show bands that we’ve been friends with and played with the whole time and a great people. Yeah, there’s some really good guitar players and singers down here.”
But Kilborn Alley left the local competition in the dust 11 years ago when they put out Put It In The Alley, their first Blue Bella CD nominated for a Blues Music Award. Just how did they rise above the hoard?
“Well, I’ve been trying to come up with this answer for years now, and I don’t have one. I don’t have a damn answer,” admits Andy. The son of a Catholic hospital chaplain in a town two hours from Chicago, these guys got their blues baptism at the above-mentioned Malibu Bay Lounge, a strip club six nights a week but featuring national blues acts every Sunday. Telling your chaplain mom, you’re playing in a strip club at 18 was, shall we say, a bit of a dicey challenge.
“My mother’s gonna read this, but (chuckle) this is how I’m gonna get out of this ’cause I had to. It was my duty. On Monday nights, one of the guys who sang with us for 15 years, Abraham Johnson, was the deejay. So, after I would get out of work, I would have to go pick up Abraham from the deejaying, so – you know – for a half hour or so I would see the things that would go on in the strip club on Monday nights, and that’s how I’m getting out of that. It was my duty. I had to go pick up Abraham.”
It was his duty and not about the booty.
“No, it was just a job I had to do. I had to go get Abraham and have a beer in the back of the bar. My mother’s a chaplain at the local Catholic hospital here in town, and she’s a wonderful person. I was 18 years old, and they called. ‘Hey, this is Carlos at the Malibu Bay Lounge looking for Andy.’ And everybody knows what that club is here. Yeah, that was her signal that the times had changed. I was no longer a kid anymore.”
Of course, the drinking age was 21. “We got lucky. Our little reputation we had. We could go in the bar whenever we wanted to. It was cool.” Then there were the shows by Bobby Rush who came through Urbana twice a year. In fact, Andy’s not sure, but he thinks Bobby hired one of his hoochy girls out of that club. If these young white boys originally were inspired by Little Milton’s guitar, it was Bobby Rush’s songwriting that turned their heads.
“That’s where I really fell in love with him, and of course we’ve been doing his song “Night Fishin,’ ever since it came out, and that’s inspired several of our songs.
“We didn’t quite know how to handle the Bobby Rush show when we first saw it. The records we were listening to were mostly Magic Sam and Otis Rush and stuff like that. That’s what we were big into. We’re like, ‘Ok, all right. I don’t quite get this,’ but over the years Bobby completely (got our) utmost appreciation.
“This man is entertaining. That was the main thing. This was a show. I had never experienced anything like that. Then you go back again and again. I must have seen him well over a dozen times in that little club. There was this local guy, Piggy, who would sit down front, and they over the years got this rapport together. Piggy became part of the act. They would just banter with the girls. It was just great. It was fun.”
So, some of Kilborn Alley’s secret sauce came from the strip club that let these guys hang out at 18. Another secret to their edginess may have come from an unusual influence. The other guitar player in the band, Josh Stimmel, came from a heavy metal background and loved Guns ‘n Roses, Panera and Slayer.
“I met Josh junior year of high school. Josh and me were probably on opposite sides of the high school spectrum there. He was a football player, and I was kind of the guy who stood around the smoker’s corner and listened to my headphones. I had a Jimi Hendrix shirt on, and he goes, ‘Hey, man, you play guitar?’ I had never met another kid who played guitar at 16, and I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s jam.’
“We would meet in the blues on middle ground. He started listening to blues. He used to tell us all the time, ‘Metal’s raw, man, but blues is the rawest,’ and so that’s where a lot of that edge in our band comes from, you know?”
Little Milton also played with Josh’s head. “Like I said, we got a chance to see Little Milton live in a little club. There was about 20 of us there, and he played guitar all night. We’d seen him on big stages, and it was mostly about the horn section and the songs and the show and that was great, but this time we got to see him play guitar all night long. So, that was a big thing.”
Andy’s been friends with bass player Chris Breen since elementary school, but their connection wasn’t like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards connecting after seeing old Chess Records under each other’s arm. “No, it was more like we both listened to the music of our time which was West Coast rap, Warren G, Snoop Dog – those were our guys – Too $hort. That was our thing. We were buddies throughout junior high.
“But I had this love of blues music, so I started playing guitar when I was 15, and then when we were like 16, Chris started dating this girl whose dad played bass. So, I said, ‘You need to play the bass.’ That’s how that happened.”
Wait a minute! Did he say west coast rap? “We’re from the ’90s, and I didn’t know anything about alternative music or grunge or anything. I listened to hip hop and soul and my dad had blues tapes. I’ve got an older sister. So, she’s the one that kinda got me into rap and R&B pretty much. I mean, why does gangsta rap appeal to white kids? They got books written on that shit. I mean it’s something edgy. It’s different, and some of our friends really were into hip-hop. Some of our friends were black, and that’s a thing you do.”
Maybe that’s where the edginess comes from. Maybe the personal angst isn’t missing, but is just secondhand. “There’s a love of music. Naw! I mean, everybody has pain, you know? But there’s no depressing back story. No. I haven’t been shot, nothing like that.”
Fast forward 17 years, 2200 shows, seven mini tours of Germany and five CDs. Kilborn Alley is still built around three schoolyard friends, now married. Even Andy’s chaplain mom has given him her blessing. “My mother from the beginning has clipped every single thing out of the paper and has every poster including all the posters from the Malibu Bay Lounge and everything like that. I don’t think she ever went to a show there just out of general principles of not wanting to be in a strip club. You know, strip clubs are a bad thing for women and that kind of thing, but anyway, mamma’s been about perfect from day one, supportive and everything.”
It hasn’t been perfect. “I was hoping not to talk money. Yeah, money’s not very good. We get paid what a good bar band gets paid. That’s about that. But that hasn’t been the tough thing. People have made it ok for us, you know. Nobody in our group is living in real bad poverty or anything like that. People have been supportive because we are good at what we do.”
Chicago blues artist Nick Moss produced, played on and released Kilborn Alley’s first four albums. “He was working the circuit. He came down here and played at one of our local barbeque joints. Actually, it was a Famous Dave’s, so that’s a chain. They were having bands. They’re around a lot of places in the Midwest, and so Nick was playing down there, and me and Josh were there. We had done a show at the same place. This was in probably ’02, and we just really liked Nick, and we bought his album. He was playing in ’02. Some guy asked him, ‘Hey, how do you do that?’ Nick just goes, ‘You know those Buddy Guy records from Chess, man? Just listen to that shit.’ That’s where Nick was at that time, you know, and that’s what we were listening to, so that was just right there.
“We’d always been booking shows. One of the first shows we had anyone from out of town come to was Nick. I found a number for him, called him and organized a couple of concerts in central Illinois where we opened up for him. We put together a couple of shows and booked him. So, that’s how we really met, yeah.
Kilborn Alley’s just released CD The Tolono Tapes is their first in five away from Blue Bella on their own Run It Back Records. Recorded live in the studio, it features a slew of special guests including legacy pianist Henry Grey, the ubiquitous harp player Bob Corritore, big-legged blues shouter Jackie Scott, and Delmark recording artist and 2017 BMA nominee Corey Dennison, among others.
“This project took place here in Champaign,” says Andy. “Some of the sessions were just to have because we had some special people in town. Hey, this person’s in town. Let’s go cut a couple tracks, you know? Spend a couple hundred bucks in the studio and see what comes out. So, that’s what this new album is.”
My favorite cut is “Night Creeper,” a Dr. John-like funk dry-rib run featuring Corey Dennison tellin’ tales and guesting Gerry Hundt on guitar. “Christmas in County” is a Magic Sam sounding West Side soul smoothie featuring Monster Mike Welch on guitar.
“We produced it ourselves. So, that right there is a big difference. And this is mostly all live, and we tried to do most everything live on the four albums we did with Nick. A lot of that was live and some of it wasn’t, but, yeah, this is mainly all live in the studio. Everybody’s in the same room, yeah. It’s three different sessions.”
Recording an album with this many guests, each with a unique personality and sound can be a tough balancing act where the host band gets lost in the styles of the musicians joining in. That does not happen here. Each guest pokes the creative juices out of Kilborn Alley and make this an early contender for alum of the year.
“This is just a totally different project. See, it’s the new Kilborn album, but it’s sort of not ’cause it’s really guest heavy, and it’s from several different sessions all apart,” explains Andy. “The thing that ties it together is that room there in Tolono at the studio. All the other albums were like Ok, we got a batch of songs, rehearse ’em. Let’s go see what Nick thinks, and let’s knock ’em out in three days. So, the albums from one song to the next kinda had a similar vibe because they were recorded right there together, but this one, they were spread out and with different guests on ’em. So, it’s different project, and there will be a new studio album coming soon, and we’ve got a bunch of material ready to go do another thing similar to the other projects, if that makes sense.”
So, what is Kilborn Alley’s secret sauce? It’s not about pain. Some of it comes from seeing acts like Little Milton, Bobby Rush and Percy Struthers at a strip club. Put in a pinch of West Coast rap and Josh’s childhood love of grunge rock. Add a tight relationship between childhood friends. But it boils down to the idea that these guys love what they do.
“Well, here’s one thing I’ve been trying to word correctly,” says Andy after an hour and a half on the phone. “I picked up the guitar to sing the blues. You know what I’m saying? And I don’t think a lot of people do that when they pick up the guitar. I wanted to sing the blues, and my vehicle was gonna be that guitar, and I wanted to play good blues guitar, but I think that’s kinda different than how a lot of people came to it.”
“Well, yeah, I always wanted to be one of those guys that can sound like Robert Lockwood Jr. and Muddy Waters slide guitar and all that shit. I just can’t do it. I do what I do. That’s the whole thing.”
“Pretty much, man, we’re just normal guys, the three of us who’ve been in the band forever. We started when we were 18 and just kept doing it.”
Visit Kilborn Alley’s website at: www.kilbornalley.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.