Featured Interview – Breezy Rodio

Cover photo © 2023 Roman Sobus

imageAs any bluesman will tell you, once the music grabs you, there’s nothing you can do to break its spell. And that’s the case for Breezy Rodio, a gifted, guitarist who emigrated from Italy to Chicago, where he’s worked his way up through the ranks and established himself as one of the most distinctive and inventive artists in the city.

Now in his mid-40s and someone who’s spent more than half his life in the Windy City, Breezy had just returned from a whirlwind tour across South America and was relaxing at home on a bitterly cold, snow-blown afternoon when Blues Blast caught up with him recently.

“I’m staring out the window, and it’s coming down hot…but it is what it is!” said the man whose music can take the chill out of the most brutal of winter days. Born in Rome in 1980, he moved on his own to the States at age 16 and grew up and was educated in the city.

“I don’t come from a particularly musical family, but I was always sensitive and drawn to it as a child – especially hard rock. I always enjoyed the melody, catchy tunes and stuff,” observing that “some people are touched by music, and some people don’t care.”

Rodio picked up the six-string for the first time at age 12 and took classical guitar lessons. But his focus began to change through his burgeoning love of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and others – something, in hindsight, that might have laid the foundation for the path he walks today because most of those group started out playing in styles rooted in the blues.

Listen to Breezy play today, however, and it’s virtually impossible to detect any of that early influence because of an attack that’s chockful of crisp, original, single-note runs and fat tone that incorporates lump, swing, jump and funk elements gathered from the Windy City tradition. It’s an attack that he brands as “Chicago West Side modern blues.”

While most guitarists tinker with tone and sound for years before finding a comfort zone of their own, Rodio remains eternally grateful because he settled into his early in his studies, noting: “My passion for made a difference when I really started to dig in and learn how to play. I spent ten, 12 hours a day – maybe more – at it, something I did for years until I started gigging regularly.

“I was possessed by the guitar – and obsessed with practicing! And it really was an obsession…I need to practice, I need to learn…You feel the pressure of learning and improving, and you can’t stay away from it.”

When attending Concordia University in suburban River Forest, Breezy notes, he took part in a yearlong foreign-exchange program at a sister school, Roskilde University in a suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark, “and my roommates were all saying: ‘This dude is fucking insane!

“‘He takes his guitar to the bathroom!’”

At age 17, his love for rock began taking a backseat to the blues else hearing Stevie Ray Vaughan for the first time and falling in love with the way he played. “I got hooked!” he remembers. “If you asked me back then, I’d tell you I wanted to play like Stevie. I spent a couple of years idolizing him – and then I discovered Albert King. That was a life-changer!” – not surprising because Albert was Stevie’s biggest influence.

Rodio freely admits, however, that as much as he loved Stevie back then, his tastes have changed. Today, he prefers the stylings of Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie’s older brother.

In truth, however, Breezy’s no copycat. His chops on the six-string are his and his alone, something that’s even more distinctive because of the power he generates by picking with his thumb rather than a pick or other fingers.

imageIt’s a technique he polished during his formative years in city, when he had the good fortune to study with four of the most tasteful and stylish musicians Chicago has to offer: Billy Flynn, a Grammy winner for his playing in the movie Cadillac Records, Johnny Burgin, who cut his teeth on the West Side of the city with Tail Dragger as Rockin’ Johnny before launching a career of his own, Guy King, a transplant from Israel who’s a master at both blues and jazz, and Joel Patterson, whose skills bridge those artforms, Western swing, old-school country and more.

“I always wanted to get out of the pentatonic box (the old one-four-five),” Breezy says. “And they showed me how to jazz things up by throwing in bebop and jazz licks. They’re all special players with their own musical vocabulary. And I was always asking ‘em: ‘Hey, man, how do you do this?’…‘Show me how you play this…’”

He picked up even more through osmosis by watching other Windy City talents perform, especially Lurrie Bell, and he claims to be Lurrie’s No. 1 fan. He draws other, diverse influences from Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, guitarists from the golden age of Chicago blues in the ‘50s and ‘60s and early reggae artists, too, a list that includes Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Bob Andy and Desmond Dekker.

“I do know there are guys (guitarists) out there who can chop my head off in a minute,” Rodio admits. “But you know what? What I do…they can’t touch me because I do what I do — and I’m the best at it!

“For me, it’s being classy and powerful at the same time. I’d rather please people’s ears than wow them by being flashy and playing a lot of notes at one time. And I’m not a Wes Montgomery kind of guy, incorporating chords into the melody. To be honest, I don’t know if I’d be capable of doing that on a solo (chuckles). Maybe I’ll learn it some time.”

Breezy’s first work as a professional came while living in New York during a year away from college in the late ‘90s. He hooked up with Inventing Eve — a pop group that gigged in Queens and Manhattan – after an audition but became a fulltime member of the Chicago blues community in 2000, when he returned to the city and took a part-time job to help fund his studies.

And what a job it was! He became the doorman at Blue Chicago, a Near North nightspot that’s booked blues acts seven nights a week since 1985. It was there that he captured the interest of Linsey Alexander, a real-deal bluesman and Delmark who’s been a fan favorite since relocating from Mississippi in the ‘50s.

Rodio credits Linsey — who bills himself as “The Hoochie Man” and remains a top draw across town at age 80 – with instilling in him the deep sense of rhythm that infuses his play today.

“He’s a character, a natural-born entertainer,” Breezy says. “People are mesmerized by his look, his facial expressions and stuff. For a good year, I was at the door when Linsey was working…every Tuesday and every other weekend…just watching him day after day. I absorbed his repertoire – which is huge. He knows a gazillion songs – soul, R&B and blues!”

Apparently, the other doorman, Lorenzo, told Alexander that Rodio played. But he was unable to bring him to the bandstand because of a house rule that barred employees from the stage.

image“Then one day, I bumped into him at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted,” Breezy remembers, “and he called me up. He was really happy with the way I sounded.

“A couple of days later, he phoned me and said: ‘Hey, man, I’m going through some changes, and I’d like to hire you to play guitar for me – but I need you to learn my material first.’ It took a few months, during which I sat in, before I gave my notice.

“And three years later, I became his bandleader.”

Their partnership endured for almost a decade, during which they played as many as 300 nights a year, traveled extensively across the U.S., Europe and South America and recorded four CDs: the self-produced If You Ain’t Got It and with three Delmark releases that followed, Been There Done That, Come Back Baby and Two Cats.

But their professional relationship did get off to a rocky start.

“There’s a saying: ‘You learn the hard way, you learn the right way,’” Breezy says. “And with Linsey, it was definitely the hard way!

“He was very funny on- and off-stage, cracking jokes. But onstage, he turned into a scary bandleader, fucking with the musicians all the time, especially the guitar player. The music had to be perfect…no mistakes, no hesitation, and you had to have a really good ear, and I’d get yelled at all the time.

“The first two years were rough, and then things changed. In 2013, we had a fantastic tour all over Europe with Nellie ‘Tiger’ Travis and Harmonica Hinds…40 cities in 35 days – or something like that. And he made me his bandleader.”

Rodio’s early struggles were self-defeating – so much so, in fact, that he considered quitting music altogether even after he’d formed his first band and started hustling his own gigs. He became so distracted that Linsey suggested they take a break for a while, wished him well and sent him out on his own.

Fortunately, however, he his struggles caught the attention of his friend and drummer, Kevin Patrick, who borrowed a line from a Bob Marley song and told him: “Breezy, your train is bound to glory. You just have to stay on it!”

Rodio took the words to heart.

“Being a fulltime musician is not easy,” he insists. “Being a fulltime blues musician is even harder. You see all your friends getting good jobs, getting married, buying a house – and you can’t do all those things unless you’re a superstar, which I’m not. So it’s real easy to give up.”

It took a few words from another friend, Gerry Hundt, the multi-instrumentalist who spent years as a member of Nick Moss & the Flip Tops, to convince him to continue on the path he walks today.

“Gerry Hundt and I were at the Green Mill (a legendary jazz club in Uptown) one night watching Joel Patterson play, and he told me: ‘You just have to keep doing what you’re doing, Breezy. Eventually, there’s gonna be emptiness — a lot of space — around you because people give up.

“’All you have to do is outlast them all.’

image“That idea stuck with me. I wrote song about it…‘Gerry Told Me.’ It’s cut No. 10 on my latest album, Underground Blues.”

Taking Patrick and Hundt’s words to heart, Breezy recorded his first album, Playing My Game Too, in 2011 with backing from several of his personal favorites, including Linsey, Lurrie, Rockin’ Johnny, Guy King, bassist Bob Stroger and guitarist Dave Herrero, too, an all-star offering that was graced by appearances from Spanish harp player Quique Gomez, keyboard player Marty Sammon and a full horn section, too.

A second self-produced disc, So Close to It, followed in 2015, reaching as high as the No. 2 spot on Roots Music Report’s Chicago chart and featured top Windy City blues talent: Lurrie, harp player Billy Branch, keyboard players Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi and jazzmen Chris Foreman (organ), Art Davis and Bill Overton (horns). It proved so successful that it enabled Rodio to launch multiple tours across Europe and South America along with appearances in Canada and Mexico, too.

The Chicago music community is a special place, he says gratefully. “When you get to know guys and they see you’re passionate, that you have potential and you’re a nice person, they’ll be on your CD to support you…they’ll keep it real and help you.

“Coming from out of town, all those guys were legends to me. Now, they’re friends. It’s more than a family…it’s blood. We’re bound together by music.”

The same year, working as Breezy Rodio and the Coolers, he released Strange Situation, an all-original reggae effort. But he eventually came to realize that some fans wouldn’t understand mixing reggae and blues on the bandstand and he made the decision to stick to blues fulltime.

It proved to be a good choice because, thanks to a helping hand from Alexander, he signed with Delmark a year later. Without knowing it at the time, he was the last artist signed to the label by Bob Koester — who’d founded it in 1953 – prior to turning it over to its current owners, Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari.

He made his debut with Sometimes the Blues Got Me in 2018, which hit the street just prior to the management change. It was recorded in less than eight hours – a feat Rodio credits to producer Steve Wagner, a superstar in the control room for Delmark from the ‘60s until his retirement a few years ago.

“Steve’s one of those guys who feels the blues,” says Breezy – who earned a Blues Blast Music Awards rising star nomination after its release, noting that Wagner – who was in the studio for three Rodio CDs — possesses uncanny vision when it comes to recognizing that a first or second take is so good that it’s unnecessary to try for a “more perfect” new one because more attempts often produce less feel.

“I’ve come to understand that what I call a ‘mistake’ really isn’t. It’s just something that I feel I could do better. But Steve’s able to just close his eyes, listen to the groove and know instinctively if all the right ingredients are there. When he says ‘trust me, let’s move on,’ I know he’s right.”

Rodio’s follow-up, If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It – which was supervised by Miller and Barilari, featured contributions from guitarists Kid Andersen and Monster Mike Welch and earned a spot on Living Blues magazine’s list of the Top 50 albums of 2019. He was planning a third Delmark release when the world ground to a halt during the pandemic.

“COVID changed a lot of things,” he says, “I had the material ready. Unfortunately, with all the delays and stuff, we couldn’t get together. I love the guys at Delmark, but they had other artists scheduled ahead of me and wanted me to wait.

“But I’m sure we’ll be able to collaborate together again.”

imageInstead, Breezy teamed with Anson Funderburgh and traveled to Wire Recording in Austin, where the Lone Star State legend produced and made a guest appearance on Rodio’s Underground Blues. Engineered by Stuart Sullivan and released last August, it walks the tightrope between traditional and contemporary blues.

It opens with the slow-burning “Half Way in the Devil’s Gate” before a rock-steady shuffle, “C.H.I.C.A.G.O.,” which uses the letters to spell out all the positive attributes Rodio finds in the city. Other pleasers include “Underground Blues” — a complaint about being in lockdown, “Playing My Game Too,” “That Damn Cocaine” – a bittersweet memory about trying to set an addicted friend straight, “The Asymptomatics” – an instrumental workout, “Let Me Go,” a 12/8 blues that bemoans the closing of B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted, and the autobiographical “Gerry Told Me” and “Bluesoned.”

Most recently, he also partnered with vocalist and keyboard player Joe Barr, a larger-than-life figure in the Chicago R&B scene, for Soul for the Heart, which was released on the French imprint, DixieFrog, last September.

“I’m just humbled and appreciative of all the people who like what I do,” says Breezy, who’s a very, very busy man. “I’m going to the U.K. in October to record my new album. It’s going to be all-original but not going to have any shuffles or slow blues. It’s going to be soul-blues, and I hope the old-school blues lovers won’t be disappointed.”

If you’re looking for the sound of Little Walter and Muddy Waters, you won’t find it, he advises. But if you’re a fan of the horn-drenched sounds emanating from blues bands on the city’s South Side since the ‘60s, you’ll find a lot to love. It’ll be produced by Marco Cinelli of the Cinelli Brothers, a five-time U.K. Blues Awards band-of-the-year nominee and the runner-up in the recent International Blues Challenge, and it will be released to coincide with Rodio’s already-booked 2024 European tour.

“2023 is already packed,” he says proudly. “The only month that’s still open is November. I’m about to do 20 shows non-stop in the city and then the Winter Blues Festival in Iowa on Feb. 11. Then I’ll be going to Spain on March 1 for a tour to Spain, Switzerland, Germany, France and Belgium. I’ll be in Chicago from June through September, before leaving for my fourth tour of Japan. And I’ll also be doing a little tour with Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia, too.

“I hope to see all my fans somewhere in my travels.”

Rodio also asks one small favor of all blues fans: “The music scene has changed a lot in recent years, especially in the generation of Netflix and other streaming that give you everything you want without leaving home,” he says. “People are less inclined to go out and see live music.

“But there’s one thing that people could do to help us. It may sound cheesy, but it makes a huge difference nowadays…support your favorite artists on social media. Following someone on Instagram, Facebook or YouTube doesn’t cost you anything and takes only five seconds of your time, but it makes a big difference.

“When you’re trying to book a festival, the first thing the booker will do is look at the artist’s Instagram page to see how many followers he has and then check out how many clicks he has on YouTube.”

If you’re trying to bring one of your favorite blues groups to town, this simple trick will help make it possible, he insists. Give Breezy a few clicks, too – and check out his music and where he’ll be next by visiting his website: www.breezyrodio.com.

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