Featured Interview – Matthew Stubbs

Cover photo © 2022 Joseph A. Rosen

imageFans of traditional blues have received a big boost in the past few years with the emergence of GA-20, the Boston-based trio who hit high notes last year with their stellar album that celebrated of Hound Dog Taylor and the 50th anniversary of Alligator Records.

Created by Matthew Stubbs, the longtime guitarist in Charlie Musselwhite’s touring band, GA-20 dug deep into Taylor’s catalog on that one, walking a tightrope between the modern era and the golden age of Chicago blues, delivering a sound steeped in the past but imbued with 21st century appeal.

Far more than a cover band, they quickly built an international following and have followed it up with an all-original effort that maintains a contemporary-but-retro balance that seems effortless but actually involves plenty of planning – something that Stubbs discussed at length with Blues Blast recently as he and his trio were about to embark on a tour that would crisscross America before a month in Europe before the end of the year.

Now in his early 40s, Stubbs grew up in Hampstead, N.H., a picture postcard town a few miles north of the Massachusetts border, where his father, a guitar player, regularly rehearsed his band, Coupe de Ville, in his home, and he and his group remain regional favorites today.

“He was into the blues, but also early rock-‘n’-roll, too – he was a big Bo Diddley-Chuck Berry fan,” Matt says. “When I was old enough, he started taking me out when he played and to shows, too – Joe Cocker was the first one, and Aerosmith, too.”

His exposure to the blues came through exposure to several of the galaxy of stars who’ve populated New England since the ‘60s – Roomful of Blues, Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl and former Muddy Waters bandmate Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, all of whom captured Stubbs’ interest from his seat in the audience as a teen.

“I got my first guitar when I was around 13. I got it…I liked it…but it really took a year to get me addicted,” he says, noting that one of the first performers whose music truly caught his attention was Lenny Kravitz – something that prompted his father to turn him on to Jimi Hendrix and more.

Soon, young Matt was plunging down the same rabbit hole so many other musicians have followed while educating themselves about the blues. Jimi led him to Buddy Guy and B.B. King. And by the time he was 15, he was taking lessons from a couple of teachers through whom he received introductions to Freddie and Albert King, Guitar Slim, Earl Hooker, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Brewer Phillips – the enigmatic second guitarist in Hound Dog’s House Rockers, all of whom provided through their music the building blocks that helped build his career today.

“As soon as I got into them,” he says, “I had blinders on. From 16 or 17 to my late 20s, I was just obsessed with blues, early R&B and rock-‘n’-roll. I wasn’t into ‘current’ music, just the opposite.  I wasn’t in to pop and psychedelic rock until much later.”

Already going to jams with his father and playing in front of audiences at 15, Matt joined Coupe de Ville a year later. By the time he graduated high school, his path in life was pretty much set. He enrolled in the prestigious Berklee College of Music and moved to Boston that fall, but dropped out after his freshman year.

“It was ‘music 24 hours a day,’ and I loved it,” he says of the school that’s produced Vanessa Collier, Al Di Meola, Kevin Eubanks, Anthony Geraci, Bruce Hornsby, Wyclef Jean, Quincy Jones, Branford Marsalis, Susan Tedeschi, Nestor Torres and dozens of other world-class talents. “But for me, there was not a lot of actual playing guitar.

“It might have changed, but back then, you only got one 30-minute, one-on-one lesson a week with your teacher and a couple of ensemble and then it was all lots of other stuff. That was cool. But, for me, as an 18-year-old kid, I wanted my guitar in my hands all day, and I was still taking lessons on the side from non-Berklee teachers ‘cause I wanted one-on-one time with people that I dug.

“That was the catalyst that made me leave.”

Stubbs spent the next year studying with four different private instructors each week, devoting an hour or two to each of them, and gigging out up to four times a week, too, noting: “It was much cheaper — and much more focused on what I wanted to learn.”

It only takes listening to a few measures of his fretwork to know that the method of instruction he pursued has served him well. His no-frills, no-note-wasted attack delivers fat tone with plenty of sting.   An attack that emulates the ‘60s, he says, it rings true with mainstream fans while presenting something “new” to listeners who’ve been exposed to rock-heavy riffs throughout their lives that might have them falsely believing that they have no love for blues.

Most of that crowd grew up listening to guitarists inspired by Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Peter Green and others who blended blues and rock during the British invasion of the ‘60s.

“There’s nothing wrong with the blues-rockers,” Stubbs insists, “but when I hear the word ‘blues,’ that’s not where my head goes. Three records in, that’s been GA-20’s mission…to make records that people want to listen to.”

Throughout the 2000s, Matt became a fixture in the New England music scene, earning multiple honors in the Boston Music Awards. Fronting the short-lived Matthew Stubbs Band, and a big-band ensemble with horns that featured the dynamic Kit Holliday on vocals, he made his recording debut with Stop Licking That in 2005. He subsequently released two instrumental CDs — Soul Bender on VizzTone in 2007 and Medford & Main on Nick Moss’ Blue Bella imprint in 2009 – both of which were delivered in trio format and came with a strong Memphis influence.

In the midst of it all, he also went out on a couple of East Coast runs with Janiva Magness thanks to an introduction that came through Mark Poniatowski, a fellow Bostonian who previously served as her bass player, Matt uprooted himself for Los Angeles, where she was based, after she invited him to join her regular road band, leading to a dizzying number of other projects, too.

Initially, he filled out his down time by playing with John Németh and gigging occasionally with James Harman, Lynwood Slim and Junior Watson, too.

imageOne of the best percussionists on the West Coast, June Core was playing with both Németh and Charlie Musselwhite at the time. In 2007, he served as the catalyst for Matt to join Charlie after Kid Andersen moved on. He’s been with him ever since, appearing on two of Musselwhite’s CDs, including the Grammy-nominated live set, Juke Joint Chapel.

Until GA-20, his only other side project in the years since was Matthew Stubbs & the Antiguas, another all-instrumental trio, which delivered an experimental mix of psyche rock, afrobeat, garage rock and acid blues – something he describes as “cinematic music” — and released a eponymous CD in 2010.

In 2018, however, Stubbs needed to find a new direction.

In 2013 Musselwhite teamed up with Ben Harper and they won a Grammy for the CD, Get Up!, in 2014, the duo reunited for No Mercy in This Land, a follow-up that would eventually garner another trophy, and they were booked for a tour to promote it.

“Charlie let the whole band know that it looked like he was gonna be out for the full year with Ben’s band,” Stubbs remembers. “For the first time in about 12 years, I was gonna be off the road.”

It proved to be a bit of good fortune, but around the same time, Matt says, he became buddies with Pat Faherty, a singer/guitar player who’d recently dove head-first into the blues after primarily being interested in jazz and other style of music and a stint with the progressive rock/death metal band Revocation.

“Pat was already a pro,” Stubbs says, “but he started followin’ my band around, comin’ to a lot of shows, and he took a few lessons with me, too. He wanted to learn traditional blues and didn’t want to do any of the shredding stuff or anything like that.

“So, when Charlie said that, Pat and I were like…well, we’re both kickin’ around Boston…why don’t we set up a little trio.”

It didn’t take much discussion before they decided to focus on the mid- to late-‘50s Chicago-style blues in a manner similar to John Lee Hooker with Eddie Taylor, Louis Myers and his brother Dave, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers and Hound Dog Taylor and Brewer Phillips and in a format that included two guitars and drums with no bass player – like the House Rockers – while playing quietly and using small, vintage amps.

Curious about their band name GA-20? Fans question the origin frequently, Matt says, noting: “They think it means Georgia Hwy. 20 or something like that.”

Believe it or not, however, it’s a direct tie-in to the sound they produce.

Gibson launched a new line of guitar amps in 1950 and designated the model as the GA-20, and several of the biggest stars in the Windy City used it when they laid down many of their biggest hits – and a model that Stubbs records through frequently today. And, he jokes, he decided to name the trio GA-20 “because all the other good band names had been taken.”

During their first year, he and Flaherty worked with multiple drummers and kept things low-key and stress-free as they worked any gigs they could land – everything from neighborhood wine bars to large rock clubs. After penning a few originals – and with former Roomful of Blues percussionist Chris Anzalone in tow, they decided to record what they thought would be nothing more than a demo EP.

image“I sent it to two labels at once — Alligator and (New York-based) Colemine Records,” Matt says. “Alligator (Musselwhite’s frequent home) turned me down. (Label founder) Bruce (Iglauer) said it was ‘too distorted and too retro-sounding.’ Colemine (a retro-soul label with no other blues acts) really dug it, but they said they wanted a full-length album.”

The trio quickly went into the studio and added four cover tunes — from Clifton Chenier and James Harman, J.B. Lenoir, Bo Diddley and Slim Harpo – to the mix. Released as Lonely Soul in October 2019, this disc debuted in the No. 2 position on Billboard’s blues chart and the opening track, “Naggin’ on My Mind,” featured Musselwhite and Luther Dickinson as guests.

At that point, Stubbs and Faherty were ready to hit the road but both Anzalone and Mick Toscano, their other frequent percussionist, both had other commitments, and were replaced by another friend, jazz drummer Tim Carman, who’s held down the bottom ever since, quickly fitting in hand-to-glove despite no prior history in the blues.

As the calendar turned to 2020, GA-20 had a new, four-tune EP, Live Vol. 1, in the can and were getting ready to release it. But the world had a different plan.

COVID-19 was already beginning to put a stranglehold on the other side of the world, forcing Colemine to delay its release until the band could tour to promote it. Then, a few months later, a conversation with Iglauer triggered what would be a major change of direction and an unexpected career boost, too.

“That July, I got an email from Bruce,” Matt remembers. “He’d seen the band at The Hideout when we came through Chicago before the pandemic and said he’d enjoyed our set after seeing us live – a lot more than when he heard us on record.

“I sent him a reply and told him we really appreciated it, but that if he was interested in signing us, we were already under contract with another label — and were very happy with ‘em.”

But wait a minute…

Stubbs quickly realized that the upcoming year, 2021, would serve as the 50th anniversary of Hound Dog’s first album and the golden anniversary of Alligator Records, too. After all, Bruce launched the label to record him, and the eponymous Hound Dog Taylor & the House Rockers was the label’s very first LP.

“After I sent the email, I got to thinking,” Matt says, noting: “a lot of people were already comparing us to Hound Dog. We weren’t playing any of his songs at the time, but just like him with two guitars and drums and playing Chicago-style blues – and I really wanna work with Alligator.

“It’s a historic label, and I grew up listening to a lot of early Alligator records…I started thinking: ‘What if I could convince our record label and Bruce to put out an album together?’

“I mentioned it to the owner of Colemine, and he loved the idea. He was an Alligator fan, too. Then I talked to Bruce. It took a few phone calls but we were able to figure how to work things out.”

imageAlthough Colemine has co-partnered on projects with other labels in the past, the resulting product, GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor: Try It…You Might Like It, is the first-ever venture of this type for Iglauer, and it’s far more than a cover album.

“We were all fans of Hound Dog, but didn’t know every song or every part inside and out,” Stubbs confesses. “Our concept was to capture the live, party-off-the-rails excitement Hound Dog delivers on all his records.

“We started working on the songs in August. The guys would come over to my house in Providence and we worked things out on my little screened-in patio. We’d all come with a couple of Hound Dog songs and try ‘em with the goal to capture their spirit because we’d never be able to sound just like those guys. And because there were no vaccines at the time, we had to keep our distance.

“We narrowed it down to ten or 11 tunes pretty quickly. And even though there wasn’t very much going on at that time, there were one or two outdoor places that were having bands. We took a couple of those gigs to try things out under the radar to see how the songs felt live.”

When it came to recording, Stubbs built a home studio, using photos from the ‘70s that Iglauer provided to mirror the set-up he’d used on the original sessions in the ‘70s and making only minimal changes to accommodate the recording process.

Both Matt and Pat have a huge love for vintage hardware and bought and tried out several different, cheap guitars and Silvertone amps before deciding they had equipment that produced a sound that echoed the work of their predecessors. They had to turn to smaller model amps because the Silvertones the House Rockers used would have rattled the walls of the smaller room.

“More Pat than myself, but he and I searched out of those Kingston Teisco Kawai guitars that Hound Dog would use,” Stubbs notes. “They’re so-o-o cheap, and it’s easy to find ‘em. We started buyin’ em from anywhere from 50 to 200 bucks then rehearsed with them to figure out which ones were closest in tone.

“A week before the actual session, Pat found the guitar that was the closest to the model that Hound Dog used, took it to his guy to get set up, and that’s the one you hear on all the slide parts.

“We lucked out. The other ones sounded close but they weren’t quite as close as the one he used.”

And Matt made sure the room was as dead as possible to eliminate reverb, which would have sounded different than Taylor’s barebones, almost piercing sound – a technique that Stubbs and his cohorts adopted solely for this project by eliminating some of the high end on both guitars and vocals.

About the only things they didn’t do was make Flaherty grow – and slice off – a sixth digit nubbin like Hound Dog did in real life or play with a cracked amp head, something the Chicagoan did for decades.

imageAlthough recorded in digital rather than analog, the rest of the project was captured old-school in a day and a half with amps beside the drums in a stage setting, only a handful of mics and the band working in unison in the same room with only an engineer for company. With Pat on slide and the mic and Matt handling all of the fills, rhythm and quasi-bass runs, Carman laid down rhythm on a set of vintage tubs not unlike the ones used by Ted Harvey on the original recordings.

Released to rave reviews in August 2021, the album proved to be an instant winner, charting No. 1 on Billboard in the U.S. and receiving similar recognition in the U.K. and Australia, too. And the album received a 2022 Blues Music Award nomination in the best emerging artist category, losing out to Rodd Bland’s Live on Beale Street, a tribute to Bobby “Blue” Bland, his father.

The retro feel that GA-20 established with their Taylor effort powers the band’s new album, Crackdown, but the overall feel is more balls-to-the-wall and slightly more “contemporary” because the return of reverb and room ambiance they produce in live performance have returned with a bite. Delivered from the intersection of early blues, country and rock,  it’s loaded with what some reviewers have termed “maximum-intensity rocking” and “tough, insistent vocals.”

Loaded with fat fretwork, and elements of swamp, surf guitar and more, it was  conceived as a follow-up to Lonely Soul, Matt says, noting: “I really wanted that one to sound ‘50s…maybe a little early ‘60s. On this one, though, I was comfortable making it sound more ‘modern’ – a term I use very loosely…just more ‘modern’ than the ‘50s.

“’Dry Run,’ the first single, is a bluesy country song in my mind – somewhere between Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed and country music. To me, both those guys have country in their music even though they’re playing the blues. And then the opener, ‘Fairweather Friend,’ is bluesy with a garage-rock attitude with drums like The Kinks or The Ramones slipped in. And with ‘Gone for Good’ we do have some straight-ahead blues, too.”

Recorded at Q Division Studios in Somerville, Mass., where they laid down Lonely Soul, it was captured live with everyone in the same room, and the band did extensive experimentation with guitar and amp setups on this one, too. “We just kinda let these songs grow on their own,” Stubbs adds, “with allowances for more low end and other sonic choices that I was doing before.”

Currently in the midst of a tour that will take GA-20 from coast to coast before a lengthy foray to Europe, Stubbs says: “I hope people will come see us live because that’s what we like to do the best. We’re pretty much touring non-stop through the end of the year.”

Check out Matt’s music and where GA-20 will be in your neighborhood by visiting the band’s website: www.ga20band.net.

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