Featured Interview – Andrew Duncanson

Cover photo © 2023 Laura Carbone

imageIn the past 20 plus years, the Kilborn Alley Blues Band has carved out a nice career with six albums full of tough Chicago style blues interspersed with stirring original songs that delve into the span of emotions between love and heartbreak.

At the core of the band’s sound is the amazing voice of Andrew Duncanson. Since the beginning, his ability to move from a raw, gritty delivery to a soulfully expressive approach has made each of their records a joyous listening experience, as witnessed by the consistent critical acclaim and multiple award nominations.

Since the last Blues Blast interview with Duncanson in 2017, the band has gone through several changes, losing a devoted supporter in addition to the departure of an original band member. Now, instead of a dual guitar format, the band has added keyboards and saxophone to the mix. And their lead singer is in the process of raising his own profile outside of the group, with one project already making a mark.

For Duncanson, the last few years might be summed up in the lyrics to one of his new songs, “More Lows Than Highs.” Still, he is thankful for the opportunities that have come his way.

“I met Abraham Johnson in 2002, when he was part of a show with our band. He meant the world to me, forging a great friendship right from the start. He would roll with us wherever we went. We had so many good times with him, as Abraham was a person of joy. He did some vocals on our albums. When he passed away in 2018, I knew I had to write a song.

“When he started getting ill, we would be sitting around talking, and Abraham would say, man, we had a hell of a run! And we did – 15 years of fun and joy. So I wrote the song, “Hell Of A Run,” for him. It is not released yet, but it will come out at some point. It has a country tinge to it as I have a lot of influences, and that is the one that fit the chorus, “Like an outlaw and his teenage sons, we sure had a hell of a run. He was a guy who would read he Bible every day, then wake up at 4 am to drink an Icehouse beer. I went over to Abraham’s house with his family after he died. I opened the refrigerator and there was a 24 ounce Icehouse. He was himself to the very end.”

In 2017, Kilborn Alley released the album The Tolono Tapes, featuring nine original songs and three covers, featuring the band with special guest appearances by the great piano player Henry Gray, guitarist Monster Mike Welch, vocalist Jackie Scott, and harmonica master Bob Corritore. The collection garnered plenty of praise from the blues reviewers. Late in 2018, the band began recording for a new project.

“Our approach to Takin’ Time was different than our previous projects. We would get a few songs together, then every couple of months we’d go into the studio and record two songs a night. So the songs come from five different sessions with the full band and several nights to do overdubs. I think we made some beautiful music on that record, especially the title track. To me, it has one of the most beautiful intros, with Josh’s guitar and the gospel group Davision from Danville, Illinois. I am really proud of that album, which we released on Run It Back Records.”

Guitarist Josh Rasner-Stimmel left the band in 2021, breaking up the trio of high school friends who had spent many a night merrymaking when they weren’t playing music. Duncanson took over on lead guitar after years of filling the rhythm guitar role. The other high school friend, Chris Breen, is still laying down those thick bass lines that give the arrangements a solid foundation.

“Chris and I have been friends since we were five years old. I’ve spent damn near every weekend with him since we were 12 years old. That is another hell of a run! He is a rock, a blues-based player through and through, very steady. He is also a heck of mechanic, which comes in handy if our vehicle breaks down out on the road. He has been one of my best friends for a long, long time.

“Aaron “aTrain” Wilson joined us in 2014, filling in for our original drummer, Ed O’Hara. His talents really shine on Takin’ Time. He collaborated on the songwriting and was involved in the production of the album, in addition to being the heartbeat of the band. He also provides backing vocals.”

imageTo fill out the band’s sound, a decision was made to add organ to the mix.

“Jim Pryor plays organ on seven cuts on the album. He is originally from Champaign, IL but lived in New York City for 25 years. He is trained in jazz music, playing on the NYC jazz scene, doing his own groups and working as a sideman, touring Europe. He is a very accomplished jazz and gospel organist, currently serving as the Minister of Music at the Canaan Baptist Church in Urbana, IL. He adds a lot of flavor and coloring to our material.”

The band has plans to hit the road for the summer, including a tour centered on the Bucks County Blues Festival in July. They have been working on some cool new original songs, getting great responses from the audiences at their live shows, especially the tunes “All In This Together” and “The Highest Hill,” both very inspirational. Plans are coming together to get into the studio to capture that magic for future release.

Some might wonder why the band has been rooted in central Illinois, not exactly a hot spot of musical activity. The answer is simple. They feel at home in a community that has nurtured and supported the band since their beginning.

“We get a lot of love. The band means a lot to the greater Champaign area. We play to full houses all of the time. That means a great deal to the band. We really appreciate that. We hope to add some more tour dates so we can spread the love”

Another frequent contributor over the years, the beloved saxophonist Dave Fauble, passed away last year, dealing the band yet another loss.

“Now, this guy Kenny Odom has come into our lives, a wonderful sax player who sounds a bit like Dave, but does his own thing. He is a fine player, and all-around nice guy. He has been doing some local traveling with us. We hope he will be able to do the tours with us later in the year. Jim Pryor will also be hitting the road with us.”

After more than 20 years of fronting Kilborn Alley, Duncanson remains committed to the band and it’s future. At the same time, he has been busy exploring other avenues that allow him greater freedom in pursuit of his personal musical expression.

Last year saw the release of the debut album by The Dig 3, a band comprised of Duncanson on guitar and lead vocals, along with Ronnie Shellist on harmonica and multi-instrumentalist Gerry Hundt on bass, percussion, guitar and mandolin. Their stripped down sound revives the almost forgotten style of the early electric Muddy Waters records with Jimmy Rogers on second guitar and the master, Little Walter, on harp. The album was recorded live in the studio, a stripped down sound with no tricks.

“I started jamming with Ronnie Shellist back in 2015. We became very good friends, and he started doing some touring with Kilborn Alley. He decided to move to Champaign in March of 2020, just as Covid hit, so there suddenly were no gigs for any of us. So Ronnie and I began doing live shows on YouTube and on Facebook, as Ronnie has a strong fan base from years of teaching harmonica on -line. So we did that for most of 2020. At one point, Gerry came down to join us with his one-man band outfit. We had an electrified blues band going in Ronnie’s backyard. All three of us thought the sound was very cool.

image“In those times, we were itching to do things. Money didn’t really matter. The decision was made to do a recording safely in a larger studio. In the early winter of 2021, we went into Earth Analog Studio in Tolono, IL to lay down takes on songs I had written that all of us were excited about. That is the studio Kilborn Alley used for our last two recordings. I don’t think we had a name for the band yet. Everybody played their ass off, and we ended up with a fine sounding batch of songs. Our name is a play on the Willie Dixon band, The Big Three Trio. Gerry came up with the idea.”

“I have known Gerry since his days as part of Nick Moss and the Flip Tops. He engineered three Kilborn albums and played on all four records that we did on Nick’s label, Blue Bella Records. He has always been a kindred spirit with his love of Chicago blues and roots music. He can play anything. Ronnie is a powerhouse Chicago blues harmonica player. If you throw him into a soul bag or some funky stuff, he can handle it.”

The Dig 3 debut album was on the Living Blues Magazine Blues chart for four straight months. It also made a number of “Best of the Year” lists, including a spot at #3 on the Top Ten Blues Albums of 2022 in Mojo Magazine, a British publication. A second album is in the works, with ten tracks already recorded. Fans can expect it later this year. Touring plans are also in the works, and Duncanson is hoping to get some slots on blues festivals, which would help the logistics of getting the group together, with Shellist living in Colorado again and Hundt doing his thing in Chicago. Their busy individual schedules mean that you should not pass on any rare opportunity to catch The Dig 3 live.

When it comes to songwriting, Duncanson is proud of the fact that over 100 of his original songs have been recorded. And readers can rest easy in the knowledge that the well of inspiration as not yet run dry.

“My process happens daily, weekly, and monthly. I try to free write at least a couple times a week. That could mean working on word ladders, where you match up verbs and nouns, matching them up to try to get inspired by words on a page. I go through books, not really reading it but highlighting interesting words and phrases. These are my songwriting prompts. It can be hard to be super inspired by something in your life, or that you see out in the world. I try to instigate things by getting words on paper.

“I try to think creatively. Usually I will write a song almost every week. But let me be clear, that doesn’t mean that all of those songs are good. I am looking to keep 10-12 songs per year. The truly inspired ones will show themselves. The heart of the creative artistic process is going back to edit and rewrite. I might do it a couple times to get to the point where I have something that I want to record. Now it is nice to have some options as to who to record it with, which group will make the song sound it’s best.”

After working many many hours in a pizza place, Duncanson bought a Fender Stratocaster guitar off the wall in 2000, an American-made model. He also has a BP Rose guitar that belonged to Michael Ledbetter, which is on loan form Michael’s family. For amplification, he uses a mid-1980s Peavey Bandit 75 amp.

One might think that being a key member of two respected blues bands would be plenty for anyone to handle. But Duncanson uncovered another opportunity to share his music with a wider audience.

“In 2019, I went on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. Michael Ledbetter had tragically passed away, so I was asked to join guitarist Mike Welch and the Connection for the week. I ran into a guy originally from Champaign, Michael Peloquin, a great arranger and sax player. We were kidding around, and Michael kept saying he needed to get me out to California to make a record. About six months after I got home from the cruise, I texted Michael, asking when are you going to bring me out there to make a record.

image“I usually don’t do things like that. It isn’t my thing. But I kept thinking about how cool it would be, because I knew Michael had connections with Kid Andersen and his Greaseland Studio, a place known to make fantastic records. So over 18 months, I kept bugging him a bit, hey, when are we going to make that record? Finally, last year he invited me to come out. We were just going to record a few tracks, but ended up doing seven in two days. I went back two other times to finish it off. There is a long list of prominent artists from the Blues and R&B worlds that appear on the record. It has nine new originals of mine plus several cool covers and a song that Michael Peloquin wrote. We hope to release it very soon.

“The first session had myself, Kid Andersen, Derrick “D’MAR” Martin on drums, and Baxter Robertson on keyboards. That little band knocked out the seven songs in two days. It was a whirlwind. The next session had Kid, D’MAR, Jerry Jemmott on bass and Jim Pugh on keyboards. Both main sessions, we went to work. I flew in, and we spent all day in the studio. Michael put together a big horn section, and we had Tia Carroll, Lara Price, and Lisa Leuschner Andersen, Kid’s wife, on backing vocals. The tracks have a big sound.

“Honestly, when we first went into it, we were going to redo a couple of my older songs, and cut a couple new ones. We didn’t really have a whole plan. Michael liked my song, “Better Off Now,” the title cut for one of Kilborn Alley’s albums. I like the way it came out. It is a lot different than the original. It is more laid back, and has the full horn section.”

Another Peloquin suggestion was to cover the song, “This Land Is Your Land,” inspired by the stunning version done some years ago by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Kid Andersen lays down a killer funky bass line on the track. Another stellar cut is “Relearning To Climb,” with Jerry Jemmott’s walking bass line and some cool guitar licks from Andersen.

“When you are at Greaseland, you are in Kid’s world. You might think you are in charge. I say that lovingly. If you are recording at Greaseland, you should trust Kid 100% on most everything. He is a very wise person in the studio. He knows what sounds great. And he is not going to allow you to do something stupid. I’ve grown very fond of him as a person, producer, and his instrumental talents. He is really brilliant, which we all know!”

Duncanson is justifiably proud of his vocals on the Greaseland sessions, and is looking forward to sharing the music with the world. The search for a label that shares his enthusiasm continues. When the time is right, he hopes to get together with Peloquin to play the music for live audiences.

“This is another opportunity. It has been keeping me busy. Those sessions were in and out. I flew in, got some sleep, woke up, boom, full days in the studio, and then I flew back home. Those were some of my favorite musical moments in my life, playing with those guys. Everybody was pushing each other. We are just happy to bring these songs to people.”

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