“I kind of like stuff that’s a little, sometimes more than a little, outside of the box. Pushing the envelope, let’s put it that way. ”
“Some people probably don’t dig it cause it’s not straight down the path. I love straight down the path stuff too, don’t get me wrong, that was always my favorite thing, and it’s what I started with and what I still love. You know what can I say? I’m a hybrid, I’m half Sicilian half Slavic, so stuff gets wild at a certain point and I just go with it. I’ve learned to just go with it cause that’s who I really am and you just gotta be who you are.”
Peter Parcek is a hybrid. A real deal Bluesman with a who’s who resume of influences and mentors, Peter follows his inspiration outside the box to deliver emotive and powerful artistic statements about his inner self that are at once deeply rooted in tradition while being unexpectedly unique and fresh. A virtuosic guitarist, Peter plays with an intensity and fluidity that allows him to express in lyrical and engaging ways. A vocalist with an understated rasp, Peter conveys a world of emotion in a single tightly measured phrase. The soft spoken, dapper Parcek describes himself as being introverted, but in conversation he is warm, engaging, thoughtful and funny. For this his second Blues Blast feature, Peter generously shared his concept of his music, the reflective journey he took to becoming a solo recording artist, the broad arsenal of sonic tools he employs to make the lush and lavish sounds he crafts, and some truly inspirational stories about his formative experiences with some Blues legends.
Parcek’s backstory is well documented both in Blues Blast and his excellent web site. A product of the Vietnam War era, right out of high school in his native Connecticut, he relocated to London, England. Hitting the sweet spot of the British Blues scene, he saw many of the British Invasion soon to be super stars and was especially influenced by the greatest British Bluesman Peter Green.
Sent back to the US for lack of working papers, Parcek embarked on a multi-decade adventure through the height of the 80’s and 90’s Blues explosion. Based out of Boston, he was THE journeyman guitar slinger of the Northeast right up till the early 2000’s when he was ready to truly break out on his own. In his late 50’s, Parcek launched into a solo career with 2010’s The Mathematics of Love. Produced by fellow iconoclast Ted Drozdowski, The Mathematics of Love began his surge into following his own sound, his own muse. After over 30 years of professionally playing the Blues the moment was finally right.
“There’s a couple layers to it. One thing has to do with learning to be a vocalist. I was a guitar player first, played with really good vocalists, but I didn’t sing full time you know what I mean. I played in bands with singers. For me, I had to learn what my voice was capable of both in terms of key signatures, phrasing, stylistically. And then I had to find something real with it, something that was at least attempting to be, endeavoring to be, original. You know I wanted to sing like Otis Rush and I had a period where I was probably driving my producer at the time crazy cause I was doing as much Otis Rush as I could vocally. That is a brilliant model, I mean I love Otis Rush, but, it became clear to me that I was not Otis Rush. You know this applies to several other artists who I adore as vocalists. So I had to find my voice’s voice (haha) if that makes any sense. People talk about playing within yourself, sometimes they do that with sports, but it also applies to music and it applies to singing. I needed to be confident enough to play within myself and sing within myself. And you know sometimes that’s meant I’ve done a little less vocally.”
“So that was one reason, another reason was material. Again along a kind of parallel track, there’s an awful lot of great Blues guitar players, many of whom sing. So if you’re gonna put out a record, or if you’re me wanting to put out a record then there needs to be a focus there needs to be, I guess you would almost say an architecture both to the playing but also to the record that you are going to make. There’s gotta be a shape to it and a flow to it. Maybe because I’m still somewhat rebellious (chuckles) at 71, I feel like it’s important to try to bring something fresh. I try to either write or find and arrange things so they’re a little different, hopefully inspiring for the listener too. But, it took me a bit to find that, to find what would really work. You know, there are somethings you think you might be good at and other things that you have to look yourself in the mirror and say ‘I love this but I don’t think I should put that on a record,’ if that makes any sense. So a lot of it is kind of really looking deep inside at who you are, what you are, what you want to express, or what you need to express, what you want the records to be about.”
“I realized that the concept of a team is really important to me. Getting a great engineer, getting a great empathetic set of ears, whether that’s a producer or the engineer acting as a co-producer. And then getting in tune, I don’t mean in tune on a meter, but in tune in terms of their feelings and commitment, musicians to surround yourself with. Because again music is about inspiration.”
Being flexible and in tune to the inspiration, 2017’s sophomore outing Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven found Peter in Nashville at a time when that town was booming with singer/songwriters. Peter let the waves of creativity wash over him and created a piece that focuses on his original songwriting voice.
“I think some of that with Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven was that I knew I was going to be doing that in Nashville, that record. I had originally thought I was gonna be doing it with a different producer and I just couldn’t afford it. I have another friend down there (Marco Giovino) who was kind enough to basically cut me a friend deal so I could do it there. He got these amazing musicians who were all of his friends basically. So I know the bar, the metaphorical bar, was being set really high and I wanted to bring as much originality as I could to that. So I wrote a bunch of things, not all of which we used, but you know some stuff just fits better on some records than others. It’s a weird thing, it’s hard to explain why, I think some of it is predominantly emotional. Something might actually fit but if it doesn’t feel right to you. So I knew that this was gonna be this amazing band, I wanted to bring as much that was fresh and new to that situation as I could. I got inspired and wrote just a whole bunch of stuff. It kind a comes in waves to me, there’s really no pattern to it, I work hard but I should have more of a program, but I don’t. Like get up every morning, writing from 8 to 1 or something like that, I write purely from inspiration.”
Like so many other Blues musicians, Peter is an independent business owner, working on his career himself and hustling to get traction. “It’s kind of a tricky thing being an independent, you know. I mean my record company is myself, my wife and my cat. (laughs) I’m lucky I get to work with people like Patty Debris and Rick Lusher and so forth (agents and promotions), but I don’t have a machine behind me you know what I mean?” Like so many independent artist the COVID pandemic has hit the big pause button. Peter’s 2020 release Mississippi Suitcase should have built off the success of his two previous records and allowed Peter to play far and wide. But, sadly like all of us he was grounded. Delving even more deeply into eclectic waters, Suitcase, co-produced by Ducky Carlisle owner of Ice Station Zebra in Massachusetts, is a triumph of modern Blues and will hopefully serve him well once things open back up.
“Mississippi Suitcase started with an instrumental record, I made an instrumental record called The Supernatural. Not because I thought I’m supernatural but because it had that track on it (a Peter Green song). So I did what I thought was an instrumental record. You know I got good response to it, but a lot of the people I wanted to work on with it said ‘well, why don’t you do a vocal record?’ So that kind of gave me a hint. So I thought about that for a bit, I thought about just putting out the instrumental record, you know just being stubborn. (chuckles) I thought I really do want to work with these people so I started writing. I already had a bunch of instrumentals, as I say, I thought completed. But, the world was changing, the ground was changing underneath all of us. So I just kind of let that guide me. Not that it’s a news real or something. But I let the emotions and the experiences of what was going on just guide me. I had some, I guess you would say benchmarks, Sonny Boy Williamson and J.B. Lenoir and folks who wrote topically, or sometimes wrote topically, Lighnin’ Hopkins being another one.”
“So a few songs like that kind of came through and then I knew I had to balance it, I didn’t want a whole record like that. I had what I thought were strong instrumentals and I wanted to pair them. Basically I wrote probably 6 or 7 things and I arranged a bunch more. I’ve always loved the song ‘Everybody Oughta Make a Change’ by Sleepy John Estes, and I was trying to find a way to do it that was me, that wasn’t only trying to play it like John. And there were a couple other songs like that. I’ve always loved the song ‘Life is a One Way Ticket’ by Cousin Joe Pleasant. You know there is a perspective in that, in the lyric in that song, it’s humorous but it’s true at the same time. I rehearsed with a rhythm section, the guys who are on most of the record, and we just kind of had a sound. That was Tim Carmen on drums and percussion and Marc Hickox on electric bass. There was just kind of a sound with those two guys, and an energy and enthusiasm and we did an awful lot in a short time in rehearsal. So I knew once we got in the studio with that the chances are it was gonna be really really good. So we went in and did a bunch of tracks like that and then we brought in Tom West, who is just a brilliant keyboard player and been a friend for a long time. That’s kind of the genesis of that.”
“Also during that time I had had a pretty serious injury to my wrist and I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen with that, I was kind of playing through pain. After we completed the recordings for the album I had to start wearing a brace which was kind of like a cast. I am okay now, was lucky I didn’t have to have surgery. So it wasn’t a simple or painless process writing, feeling or recording any of that music. It kind of reflected everything else that was going on in the world at that time. Certainly the music you and I love, it’s about truth, it’s about high ideals and it’s about truth. I mean it can be down and dirty, but, it’s about truth, it’s about humanity. That’s what I was trying to pour into this and connect with. In some ways I think it is the simplest, most direct that I’ve played on a record.”
Guitar tone is a personal and at times elusive thing. There is an overabundance of gizmos and gadgets one can use to augment, accentuate and distort the sound of a guitar’s strings vibrating. Musicians such as Peter, and Ted Drozdowski for that matter, have learned how to employ the wealth of effects and amplifiers to dramatic and meaningful results. With musicians like these the effects are used to accentuate the music and sharpen the power of the statement.
“Early on I went straight in, whatever guitar I had I went straight in and usually to a Fender amp. At a certain point it became harder to get the tones I was looking for at the volume levels that the venues I was playing would allow. In other words, I love to turn the thing up. You know some of those tones are not available if you have to play at 4 on the dial. So almost against my will I got back into some colors provided by these boxes (effect stomp boxes). So now-a-days it’s a little different between studio and live. On Mississippi Suitcase we recorded a high percentage of it at Ducky Carlisle’s place. He has tweed Twins, he has vintage Marshalls, he has brown Deluxes, tweed Princtons, you name it. Then I brought a Swart Atomic Space Tone which is what you hear on the chord part in ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing” and ‘Everybody Oughta Make a Change,’ you hear that tremolo and reverb from that amp real strong. I also brought a Carr Skylark, and you know little Fenders, little tweed Fenders and also another Swart amp called the Space Tone, that’s one of my favorites.”
“Kinda got into some trouble with Ducky’s neighbors in recording ‘The Supernatural.’ Because the only way to get those tones, or at least the only way we could figure out how to get those tones is to turn the thing up to patent pending. So we had two amps I think we had a Marshall and we had a tweed Twin and we were getting some really really beautiful tones. But, Ducky lives right next to a couple that recently moved in and they really weren’t very happy with the sonic onslaught (hahaha).”
Being a guitarist first, Peter always incorporates a number of instrumentals into his music. Always approaching things from his own angle, Peter makes many interesting choices. There are instrumental songs he records such as “The Supernatural” as was the title track for his would be instrumental record and is an emotional high point on Mississippi Suitcase. But, Peter, like a great Jazzman such as Grant Green or Wes Montgomery, often takes vocal songs and turns them inside out as instrumentals. His take on Lucinda Williams’ “Gotta Get Right with God” from Mathematics or the classic Rickie Lee Simms “She Likes to Boogie Real Low,” and the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” from Suitcase are revelations. The prototype for this thread of Parcek’s work came in the form of the Ray Charles staple “Busted” on Mathematics.
“There is a very profound reason for doing ‘Busted’ as an instrumental. My uncle introduced me to the music of Ray Charles, my uncle Joe. I remember walking into his house one day and hearing this music I was like ‘what is that?’ That’s Ray Charles, man, you gotta sit down and just listen to that and absorb that and feel that. Now the difficulty comes, cause you know you’re not gonna be able to sing it like Ray Charles, you know what I mean? Come on (chuckles), I mean I’m not. I would love to but I know in my heart I’m still working on being a vocalist, so. I really wanted to do that song, I love the lyrics of the song, obviously I adore Ray Charles version of it. So then we started just kind of thinking about it, you know thinking aloud about it. Well what if Ray Charles met Jimi Hendrix and Roy Buchanan and kind of went to Mars (laughs). That’s what we were going for, seriously that’s what we were going for. We were honored and lucky to have Al Kooper play on it. And then all that weirdness that wildness, I borrowed a whammy pedal from Ted Drozdowski who produced the record. Ted and Ducky who engineered it and myself just went crazy on that thing. I thought we were gonna break the whammy bar right off my guitar and I was convinced that we were gonna destroy this whammy pedal, cause we were working both of them. (haha) So some of those sounds were completely and utterly experimental and definitely not planned, but in a good way. (haha)”
Parcek has had a full life so far in music. Having been tutored by many of the greats, he also studies the music and finds constant inspirations from the wealth of music. Using his social media as an outlet hebattempts to pay homage.
“I was just trying to do something positive with the format, you know not just talk about me, try to focus it back on the giants who were inspired by and actually standing on the shoulders on. I know the stuff that I learned that’s allowed me to play. I know the names and what those people mean to me, I’m not saying I know everything I certainly do not. And I’m not trying to present myself as any kind of expert, I’m just a huge fan. I guess that is one way to give back, or that’s how I’m looking at it is to point people to this music. Or, recognize people who maybe not everybody knows or who have been forgotten a little bit by folks. I’m excited when people say ‘hey I didn’t know about so and so’ or ‘I hadn’t thought about so and so in a long time.’ That’s the impetus for me, it’s a kind of giving back.”
Parcek can draw from experience when he is sharing. Being the go to guitarist in the Northeast for now over 4 decades has afforded him an education. One very important mentor was Pinetop Perkins. In the early 90’s Parcek worked with Pinetop, touring and learning at his feet.
“I was playing in the Boston version of Nine Below Zero. The much more famous version is obviously the UK version and we weren’t trying to rip them off, we just loved the Sonny Boy tune and we needed a name (ha). We got popular, we were doing pretty well, limited circle in and around Boston. There came to be these guys who would come check us out who had a small interest in Syncro Sound which was a studio on Newbury Street which was owned by the Cars. These two guys, one was a producer and one was an engineer, they were gonna start doing Blues recordings in Syncro as part of their deal with the studio. They did several and one they had planned to do with Pinetop, cause he was gonna come through. And they did the sessions with Pinetop. For whatever reason, I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, they wanted some other guitar stuff on a few tracks. So the engineer called me up and he said ‘would you have any interest in playing on a Pinetop Perkins record?’ I was like ‘any interest? Yeah I mean you tell me when and where and I’ll be there.’ He said ‘well here’s the thing here’s what we want, we want you to double the piano parts. There’s the figures, kind of signature figures that Pinetop Perkins will do and we want the guitar to double them.’ I said sure. He said ‘well I’ll send you 3 tracks and you learn those figures and we’ll see how it goes.’ I remember I went down to Syncro Sound and brought my blackface Super Reverb and a Stratocaster and I had learned as much as I could of the music. So we did it and they seemed to like it and so they had me play on some more tracks. The record is called On Top. So, did the record, they seemed to like it. They said ‘well Pinetop is gonna come through the Northeast. Would you have any interest in playing with him on some of the shows?’ I’m like ‘what are you kidding? Yeah!’ ‘How would you feel about putting together a rhythm section?’ ‘Yeah! I know guys, like right now, we’ll go do it tonight!”
“There were many interesting and complicated factors in all this. One was that for the portion of the tour where we were going to play, we, meaning myself, Mike Lavesque the drummer and Ed Spargo the bass player, we were going to back Pinetop up. I was going to be the quote unquote musical director. Now you and I and everybody who reads Blues Blast knows that Pinetop Perkins was the musical director. What it meant is that they were gonna pay me, I was gonna get the money. Doesn’t mean I was gonna keep the money it just means I was gonna get the money at the club.”
“So the first night that we played together he was on fire, I mean seriously he was just tearing it up in a beautiful way, really artistic way. And I lay way way way back because I understood people in this room were here for this artist. This guy, he’s a legend and there’s a reason he’s a legend. So after the first set we were in the dressing room and Mr. Perkins called me over and he said ‘why aren’t you playing? I know you can play, why aren’t you playing?’ And I said ‘you are the reason this club is sold out. I understand that I am backing you up and I’m trying to be really respectful of your legacy,’ and on and on. He was like ‘you know what, I like it when the guitar player gets up my ass. When I look at you, I want you to play.’ And there was kind of a implied ‘you BETTER play.’ And so I did. When he looked at me, I played. And he taught me this is what I do on this song, these are the chords I do, I’m gonna do the figures here, I’m gonna use this as a break tune and he smiled. And after that night he came over, he rubbed the drummer’s head and he looked at all of us and he said ‘you made an old man feel young.’ I don’t know, he might have said that to every band he played with but I have to tell you it was a thrill hearing it from him. Consistently I have to say about the experience he was incredibly supportive, he was a mentor.”
Peter also got to witness first hand the hardship a black man had to endure and the coping strategies he had to employ to survive. Often double booking himself and taking advantage of every opportunity offered, Mr. Perkins was mistrustful of business people and record executives. A gentle fatherly man who also carried a switchblade, there were times Peter and the band were left holding the bag because Mr. Perkins was at a different gig that paid better. Similarly some venues tried to short change Mr. Perkins even though he had sold out their club. Mr. Perkins’ policy of recording as much as possible also created some funny situation one of which Peter still holds dearly.
“We were in a club in Nova Scotia. One off shoot of Mr. Perkins taking offers as they were presented, he might do similar songs on a couple of different records and those records might be out if not simultaneously within a short period of time. So there was On Top but then there was a record on Antone’s that had featured great players like Duke Robillard and Kim Wilson, etc. So we’re in the club and this track comes on and I recognized it right away because it was from the On Top record. But, he was sitting there, he turned to somebody and he said ‘that Duke Robillard he’s the best in the world.’ And it was me. So it was like a weird, it was a compliment but it was heartbreaking because he didn’t know it was me. And you know (cracking up) Duke is one of the best in the world so you know I was just like okay I’ll take it. (laughing)”
Parcek is working on his next record. This next one will have a large influx of original material. After he opened up the floodgates in 2010 he has been on a mission to create as much music as possible. He is also looking forward to bringing his music to people.
“I think I got an agent when I was 69 or 70 years old. Now that I’ve kinda got enough records out, I’m hoping that I’m going to be able to take all the best of those records and all this new stuff I’ve been working on and have a really really strong, really exciting musical presentation to make. That’s what I’d really like to do, that’s what I’d like to focus on now. Because I feel like I’m trying to outrun age I want to really go out there and make a statement with the music and with the themes. Much like the records themselves but pick the stuff we can do best live.”
Peter Parcek is the great Blues romantic. Not that he sings love songs, although he does have a few. But, he plays for us out of deep love for the human spirit and the power of inspiration. Courageously, he puts himself out on a tightrope and melds all the, at times disparate, sonic threads of his inner life into a sonic tapestry he wants to wrap us in.
“You know music, a lot of it is about inspiration. Just trying to share the inspiration, pass it on and keep it going. Music it’s almost like an element. It’s as necessary as an element, it’s as necessary as what we’re breathing. Music draws people together. It can unite people who might not unite otherwise if you know what I’m talking about. I think that’s an amazing and beautiful thing about music, it can unite us and God knows we need that more than ever it seems.”