Bryan Lee is no Johnny-come-lately when it comes to laying down authentic blues.
Since landing on Bourbon Street in the early 1980s – where he quickly established himself as a fixture by playing five nights a week at the Old Absinthe House for 14 years – the Wisconsin native has been-there, done-that for so long that nothing can take the man by surprise. Well, make that almost nothing.
Because even this seasoned veteran of the blues was surely not ready for what happened just before Independence Day this year. As Lee tells it, him and his band was just finishing up their festival set in Rio das Ostras, playing to a sold-out crowd of over 40,000 blues-loving Brazilians.
And as anyone who has seen the “Braille Blues Daddy” do his thing knows, Lee favors to close out his sets with his own take on Little Milton’s version of “The Blues is Alright,” turning the classic tune into a full-blown audience participation bit by having the crowd shout out, ‘hey, hey! The blues is alright!’
“We get the crowd to sing that line a couple of times around and then the band will stop playing and see what happens,” said Lee. “On this night when we quit playing, the crowd kept chanting, ‘hey, hey! The blues is alright.’ So we played some more and quit, and they were chanting still. And then we played some more and they were chanting still. This went on for probably 45 minutes and I thought, ‘this is unbelievable.’ They just simply would not quit. That playing-and-quitting thing is kind of our little trick on the audience, but this crowd sure tricked us.”
If 40,000 people jammed into a stadium shouting, ‘hey, hey! The blues is alright,’ doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand straight up, nothing will.
“It was just this infectious, incredible thing going on. So we finally ended the song and they wouldn’t stop. They just would not stop,” Lee said. “So the promoter tells my wife (and manager Bethany Lee), that we were past curfew, it was like 3 a.m., but he wanted us to do another song because what was happening was just too incredible. So before we played what turned out to be our last song, I told the crowd, ‘as Jesus Christ is my savior, you are the greatest audience I have ever performed for in my life. This is just so overwhelming.’”
Relaying that story a little over two weeks since it took place, Lee still sounds as touched and awestruck as he probably felt standing in the hot Brazilian night, with a wave of love and affection from 40,000 strong washing over him.
But wait, there’s more.
The next night, during Tommy Castro’s set, the assembled masses were still feeling the buzz provided by Lee the previous evening and kept chanting, ‘hey, hey! The blues is alright!’ between songs in Castro’s set.
Not having witnessed what had happened the night before, Castro had no idea what was going on and thought the crowd was requesting him to do the Little Milton song.
“Tommy was asking the guys in his band – ‘do they want us to do this song? I don’t understand this.’ So that was kind of a funny thing on Tommy Castro,” Lee said. “And then on the Sunday of the festival, when we played the smaller stage that held 5,000, they were chanting, ‘hey, hey! The blues is alright’ when we got there. Totally unbelievable. Our T-shirts right now say “Are You Feelin’ It?” but my wife said, ‘when we got our new T-shirts done, we should put “Hey, Hey! The Blues is Alright!” on there. It was like a revival. You just can’t put that into words.”
So enraptured by the Brazilian spirit is he, that Lee has penciled in plans to record an album with native sons The Igor Prado Band in the near future.
“Those guys are so good and have become like my adopted sons,” he said. “And we’re talking about doing an album together next year. But I just gotta do something from down there because the rhythms are just so unique. I would love to take some of my original tunes, along with some traditional tunes and get that rhythm into them. I’d call the album, I Found My Blues in Brazil. I’ve got a tune called “Dear Lady Sunshine”that I wrote back in 1989 that I’m still sitting with. And finally now, with this Brazilian rhythm thing that I’m feeling, I’ll be able to do something with that song.”
That sense of elation in Brazil had to be light-years away from the feeling of desperation and despair that Lee and countless scores of other New Orleans residents had to wallow through in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005.
Lee lost his music studio, along with a ton of vintage equipment, when a near seven-foot high wave of hellbent water slammed into the space.
“It was amazing. And at first, I was really bummed out – for about 15 minutes,” said Lee. “And then I said, ‘wait a minute. Thank God that’s all I lost.’ Think about the people that don’t know where their loved ones are. So I got over (the loss of equipment) it in a New York second. I was fortunate and just started praying for everyone.”
Almost six long years later after the wrath of Katrina, New Orleans and the surrounding area is still trying to pick up the pieces and find some sense of normalcy. And while the end of those efforts may be a ways off, Lee says that things are moving in a positive direction.
“I think overall, that the recovery process has gone well. The city has a decent mayor now and the people on the city council now seem to be people that care,” he said. “Our mayor now is coming at things with a positive point of view, where our last mayor was just so negative. But things are coming together now.”
The Katrina recovery process hit a bit of a speed-bump last year when the massive BP oil spill caused more havoc to the good people and places of the Gulf Coast.
But disasters be damned – man-made or otherwise, Lee says the people in his adopted hometown refuse to let anything stand in their way.
“I tell you what; we’re a tough group of people. We just had so much against us and really didn’t get the federal help we needed,” he said. “We’ve got one of the greatest places in the whole, wide world to come to and have fun and if people just give us a chance, they’ll find that New Orleans is still a great place to visit. I don’t think there’s too many cities that could have done what we’ve done in the six years since Katrina. The city was just decimated. It was like a war-torn city.”
A champion of all things New Orleans, Lee has played an amazing 26 Jazz Fests, just missing making it 27 in a row when a scheduling conflict with a European tour this past spring caused him to miss playing the fabled annual event.
In 2007 he managed to perfectly capture the feeling of anguish and helplessness that the hurricane dealt New Orleans on the haunting title track from Katrina Was Her Name (Justin Time Records). That album earned Lee a nomination for Contemporary Blues Album of the Year at the 29th annual Blues Music Awards in 2008.
“That song (“Katrina Was Her Name”) took me a year to write. And when I went into the studio, I still wasn’t sure how I was going to do it,” Lee said. “And then Duke (Robillard) and Brent (Emory Johnson) helped me on it and we ended up doing it the way we did. I had the words and Brent started playing that slide and Duke started throwing those big chords around and I said, ‘that’s it. There it is.’ To get help from your friends is a beautiful thing.”
Another highly-personal track, although one of a completely different nature than “Katrina,” is the title cut off Lee’s latest disc, My Lady Don’t Love My Lady.
“That song’s basically about my wife and my guitar,” he said.
Residual effects from a 1993 accident when Lee fell headfirst down three flights of stairs – and out a window – reared its ugly head 15 years later, forcing him back to the hospital in grave condition, with almost all of his oxygen leaking out of him.
“I had more carbon dioxide in me than oxygen. And when that happens, you’re going to die,” he said. “So the doctors had oxygen on me 24-7 there for awhile.”
However, after a lengthy stay in the hospital, a depleted and exhausted Lee, along with his wife, finally made their way back home to convalesce.
“My first night back at home, sleeping in my own bed again, I woke up a couple of hours after I went to bed. And I got up and quietly went into my music room and picked up one of my guitars. It was like I had to get back in touch with myself. I needed to play it,” said Lee. “I was just playing it lightly and not making any noise. And then my wife woke up and caught me. And she started crying. She said, ‘Bryan, my God, you almost died. Do you realize what I’ve been going through? And there you are, your first night home from the hospital, and you get up and play your guitar in the middle of the night? What is wrong with you? This so hurts me.’ And I tried to tell her it was not meant to hurt her or insult her; it was just something I needed to do. And at one point I just said, ‘you know, my lady just don’t love my lady,’ meaning my wife doesn’t like my guitar. And she said, ‘and you’ll probably write a song about it.’ And I did. But if you listen to the song, the words are good and the words are true. My wife comes first, but I love my guitar, too. She understands better, since she’s my manager now. I just can’t say enough good things about her. She’s done amazing things for my career. She’s really good.”
Although he’s now a free agent, leaving Justin Time Records after recording for the label for almost two decades, Lee’s last pair of releases on the label has been some of the most solid and well-received work of his career.
And both feature stellar guest appearances from stars like Buddy Guy, David Maxwell and a young man who burst upon the scene like a supernova back in 1995 – Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Lee and Shepherd are more than just casual acquaintances, with their relationship dating back to when Kenny Wayne was a mere 13-years-old.
And of all things, it was a hair metal band that helped bring the two bluesmen together.
“Cinderella had just recorded an album at Studio in the Country was doing a record release party on the riverboat Natchez, which was docked in New Orleans. And they hired my band to play the party,” Lee said. “They sent out invitations to all the rock DJs in the area. Well, Kenny’s dad, “Shotgun” Ken Shepherd was a big DJ out of Shreveport. And Big Ken and his son Kenny came to the album release party. They’d never heard me before, but I mentioned that after the party I was going over to the Absinthe to play and for everyone to come on over. So they (the Shepherds) came over and Big Ken offered me $50 to let his son sit in with me. I said, ‘is your son any good?’ He said, ‘I think he is.’ So I said, ‘you don’t have to give me $50, but your son can play with me during the next set.’ So he started off the set playing with me and the kid played really good. So good that we played the whole set together. Well by that time, the whole club was packed wall-to-wall and outside the street was packed wall-to-wall. So he went on to play the next set with me. We were supposed to quit after that, but we ended up going another half-hour. And that was the beginning of me and Kenny. His dad told me later, ‘Kenny had never played in front of a live audience before and you’re the guy that gave him his first break. We’ll never forget you.’”
That would lead to the two kindred spirits swapping appearances on each other’s albums, with Lee playing a major role in Kenny Wayne’s CD/DVD documentary 10 Days Out – nearly stealing the show with the scorching “Tina Marie,” a hastily-penned song that doesn’t sound that way at all.
“About five days before the filming, I got a call from Big Ken and he said, ‘we need you, man. We’re going to film you and Gatemouth (Brown) over at your Blues Club and I want you to write a new song for it. Don’t use any of your Justin Time stuff, come up with something new,’” said Lee. “I said, ‘dang, you don’t give me much time.’ But I sat down and started thinking about it and I thought about this waitress we had at the club. She wasn’t the best waitress around, but she was a great dancer. And that’s where I got – ‘Tina Marie, work your show for me.’ And that song was the one that really jumped off the album and sold the most. It also crossed over to rock radio for awhile. In the end, it took all of five minutes to write that tune.”
Lee also played on Shepherd’s Live! In Chicago album, a disc that was up for Best Contemporary Blues Album at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
And while that album lost out to Buddy Guy’s Living Proof, Lee will still have a lifetime of memories from the ceremony itself.
“I couldn’t believe that instead of just doing the one Grammy nomination, they did the individual Grammy nominations (for performances from the album). That was so beautiful,” he said. “To be able to walk the red carpet and go through the whole thing – get that medallion and get your picture taken and sign the big book – it’s the real deal. And to think as long as mankind keeps musical records, I’ll be there, is just so overwhelming.”
Since he’s as much a part of New Orleans as red beans and rice, it’s no shock that Lee’s musical style runs the gamut -weaving jazz with blues and country and funk and rock-n-roll – with the end result being something that is distinctly Bryan Lee.
And that mixture of influences over the course of 13 albums is by no means an accident.
“I just love knowledge and I want to be able to do it all,” he said. “I don’t want to be caught in just one bag. I want to keep learning and trying different things. I’m a bluesman, but there are a lot of other cool things out there. I love challenges.”
Facing challenges is something that Bryan Lee has never backed down from. He decided early on that nothing was going to stop him from playing the blues.
Despite being without eyesight since he was 8-years-old, and despite being raised in the non-bluesy climate of northern Wisconsin, Bryan Lee was bound and determined he was going to play the blues.
“It’s so neat that after all these years, as hard as I’ve worked, to have the respect of my peers,” he said. “It ain’t about the money. It’s about the respect of my peers. I was just young kid that heard the blues and loved it. It was in my gut from an early age and would just not go away. I just can’t help it – it’s in me. I respect this art form and want to help keep it alive.”