For anyone that has ever had the privilege of riding in a funky ‘ole Ford Pinto, that experience was probably unforgettable.
Especially if that funky ‘ole Ford Pinto was slathered in green on the outside, but had plenty of red percolating from the inside.
Florida axeman supreme Sean Chambers explains:
“A friend of mine had just gotten his driver’s license – he was 16 and I was 15 – and he came and picked me up in his green Pinto and he put in a Jimi Hendrix cassette tape and played “Red House.” I had never heard blues, I had never heard Hendrix and I had never heard anybody play guitar like that,” Chambers recently said. “I asked my friend, ‘Who is that? What is that?’ He said, ‘That’s Jimi Hendrix and that’s blues music.’ And I instantly got chill bumps … that hit me like a ton of bricks. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do, right there.”
That’s precisely what Chambers has been doing pretty much ever since – playing an intriguing mix of Texas- and Chicago-styled blues, with a dash of Hendrix-inspired blues/rock for good measure – anywhere and everywhere he can. His latest album, The Rock House Sessions (Blue Heat Records) was recorded at Kevin McKendree’s Rock House Studio in Franklin, Tennessee and picked up a nomination for Best Blues/Rock Album at this year’s Blues Blast Awards.
In addition to the immensely-talented guitar and vocals of Chambers, The Rock House Sessions boasts a who’s-who of A-List musicians, cats like Reese Wynans (who produced and played keyboards), Tommy MacDonald (bass) and Tom Hambridge (drums). The resulting experience was one to remember, says Chambers.
“Not only was it great just to be working with those guys, but it was really cool to also just see how they work and chart stuff out. I mean, it might have been a song they had never heard and they would go in and listen to it and chart it out and then go in and record it and it would sound like they’ve been playing it for a year,” he said. “It was amazing. I really found myself having to keep up with those guys because they move and work at such a fast pace. The rhythm section tracks for the whole album were recorded in two days and then I went in and did vocals and guitar and any overdubs that I had to do the next two days. The whole thing was recorded in four days. That’s definitely the quickest I’ve ever recorded an album. It was a great experience.”
Another beneficial part of the process of having that group of heavy hitters plunked down in the Rock House was; that in addition to having access to their musical chops, Chambers also had access to some plumb material, as well.
“At the time, I only had about half the songs that I needed for an album written and finished. So one of the advantages to having Reese produce it, was he was able to bring a bunch of great songs to the table, too,” Chambers said.
Hambridge contributed some tunes to the project, Chambers brought some of his own songs – and he also paired up with Wynans for a couple – and the whole album was rounded out just right with a dash of songs from two of Chambers’ musical heroes, the late, great Alvin Lee (“Choo Choo Mama”) and the phenomenal Gary Moore (“Holding On”).
“I’ve always enjoyed redoing songs that inspired me growing up, or that have something to do with my whole musical journey. Gary Moore is one of my all-time favorite guitarists and he had just passed, as had Alvin Lee. So I thought it would be really cool to do a ‘hat’s off’ thing to two of my favorite players that really did inspire me when I was younger,” he said. “Before I really even talked to Reese (about the songs for the album), I was going through a bunch of Gary Moore and Ten Years After songs and stuff like that. When I heard “Choo Choo Mama,” I knew I wanted to do that one from Alvin Lee. Sometimes I’ll think I want to do a song, but when I play it, it just doesn’t feel right. Well, “Choo Choo Mama” was right in my barnyard. So that was a no-brainer. And Reese flew down to Florida for two days before we did the album and did a quick pre-production and told him I really wanted to do a Gary Moore song and he thought that would be a good idea, too. We both really liked “Holding On,” plus it’s a little bit different than the stuff that people may be used to hearing me do. So for picking cover songs to do, it has to be something that I like and that I really enjoy playing.”
Plans are currently underway for a follow-up to The Rock House Sessions, although Chambers’ next offering may see him going back to work with his regular band (Todd Cook, bass; Paul Broderick, drums; Gary Keith, harp) in the studio.
“It’s hard to tell right now, but it will probably be the Sean Chambers Band. The whole way that (The Rock House Sessions being a Sean Chambers CD instead of a Sean Chambers Band disc) came about was; I was talking to Reese about just playing on the album. And Jeff (Fischer), who is my manager and the owner of Blue Heat Records, was throwing around the idea of bringing in an outside producer this time, rather than me and the band producing it. So as I was talking to Reese about the album, it just kind of hit me that Reese might actually be a really good producer for the record. And because we had a limited budget and time frame, he asked if I’d ever considered using a studio band. He said, ‘One, they can get it done quicker and two, they can bring some really cool songs to the table.’ So once we decided that Reese was going to produce it, it was his suggestion that we use a studio band to record it and try something different. That’s how that whole thing came about, but I doubt we’re going to do it that way on the next one. I think the next one will have my band on it and the majority of the songs will probably be mine. I’m already starting to kind of get into the mindset of writing for the next album.”
The last couple of years have seen Chambers devoting considerable time and effort on another front. In 2012, Rickey Medlocke decided to reform southern rock stalwarts Blackfoot. Medlocke – a founder of Blackfoot and current guitarist for Lynyrd Skynyrd – handpicked the members of the latest version of Blackfoot (his involvement was as producer, not as a musician with the Jacksonville-based group) and Chambers was tabbed to play guitar and sing, which he did for a couple of years.
“I did my last shows with Blackfoot in June of this year. After about a year-and-a-half with Blackfoot, I started noticing that my band was kind of losing momentum and not working as much … just losing steam. So it was time to do my next album and at that same time, Blackfoot was working on material for a possible album,” he said. “The agreement that I had with my label (Blue Heat Records) was that when I did my album, I had to go out and tour and give it 120-percent, playing shows and pushing the record. So I had to make a decision. I thought it would be a great opportunity to do the album and then tour behind it, so the manager of Blackfoot and I came to a mutual agreement that I couldn’t be in two places at once. It was an easy decision. But it’s all cool with those guys; I really enjoyed playing with them and learned a lot about the way they do things. It was definitely a good experience. I played with them for two years.”
No doubt Chambers knew this before his time with Blackfoot, but it was reinforced during his 24 months with the band that there are a few differences between a big rock-n-roll extravaganza and an evening spent playing the blues.
“Blackfoot’s set-list in their shows is a lot more structured than with my band. Their shows are very arranged and everything is played the same way, night after night. It’s more of a put-together show, which is one thing I learned from those guys,” he said. “Whereas my band, a lot of times I’ll get out there and not even have a set-list. We just get up there and feel the vibe of the room or the crowd and play off of that. I don’t think I play any songs the same way each night with my band, as far as guitar solos. The arrangements are basically the same, but one night I may take one or two times around on a solo and then go back into the vocal line. The next night on the same song, I may go three or four times around on the solo and then back. It’s not as arranged.”
Before his tour of duty with Blackfoot, Chambers had the unique opportunity to play with one of the true legends of electric blues guitar – heck, any kind of guitar for that matter – Hubert Sumlin.
“Hubert was playing on the bill at Bluestock in Memphis in 1998, so Steve Einzig (Sumlin’s manager at the time and also owner of Vestige Records, the label that Chambers recorded for then) called and asked if me and my band wanted to back up him up, because Hubert didn’t have a band at that time. That was a no-brainer. That was about three months or so before the gig, so my band and I started wood-shedding the Hubert stuff … the Wolf hits and some of Hubert’s material, enough for about a 60-minute set.”
That wood-shedding paid off when Sumlin was so pleased with the job that Chambers and his group did at the Bluestock gig that he asked them to stay with him and hit the road hard.
“He said, ‘Man, I want you guys to be my group.’ So it was Hubert Sumlin with the Sean Chambers Band; that was good for both of us. Usually my band would open and then take a 30-minute break and come out and back him up for his set. We went all over the country and to Japan, England and Ireland … a lot of cool places all over the world. Steve really played a big part in getting Hubert back on the map and playing again, because he wasn’t really playing a whole lot then.”
Considering the fact that Sumlin had to put up with all the trials and tribulations of touring around the country in a station wagon with Howlin’ Wolf, it would make perfect sense if Sumlin was a bit standoffish or hard to get next to. However, Chambers says nothing could be further from the truth.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a nicer or more humble guy than Hubert. He was just a really great guy and a great person. When I first met him, I remember I was a nervous wreck. He was staying at the Peabody (in Memphis for the Bluestock show) and I had a set-list made out and all the stuff written down – the keys of the songs – I wanted to make sure I had my act together. So I knocked on his door and he told me to come in. Hubert just had this way of instantly making you at ease,” Chambers said. “I said, ‘I’m a little nervous, but I do have a set-list. Would you like to look at it?’ He goes, “Pardner, man, I’m not worried about it at all. All I want you to do is to let your hair down and have some fun. I don’t care if you make a mistake; let’s just have a good time.’ So by the time we went on stage, I was totally relaxed and calm. He just had a way and demeanor about him that was just so cool. He wasn’t worried about what songs we were doing, or who was going to start them out, he just wanted to get on stage and have fun. He was the ultimate storyteller. Every night he’d tell us stories about him and Wolf, or him and Hendrix or Muddy Waters … he was just a special guy.”
A special guy who never once forget the reason that he was up on the bandstand.
“Hubert always said, ‘You know, we’re lucky to be doing what we’re doing. Let’s do this as long as we can. Let’s keep this thing alive. You know why? Because one day we’re not going to be able to,’’’ Chambers said. “He was really convinced that this was a gift and that he had to share it with people. He’d say, “People work all week long and they’re tired and they spend $10 or $20 to come see a show and we have to make sure we always give them a good show and have fun and try to show them a good time. You always have to give the crowd their money’s worth, even if there’s only 12 of them out there.’ He also taught me how to be humble and how to ‘keep it real’ – that’s how people say it nowadays.”
He may not have known it as a pre-teen, but a good number of the bands – some even on the heavier side of things – that he was listening to at the time all had Hubert Sumlin to thank in some way, shape or form.
“When I was 11- and 12-years-old, I used to listen to the rock music of the day, stuff like Dio and Ozzy and Led Zeppelin and Boston and all the Florida bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers,” he said. “I loved all that classic rock stuff. That’s what kind of made me want to play guitar in the first place. But when I started learning that stuff on guitar, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.”
Then came the fateful encounter with Hendrix and “Red House.”
“That’s how I really got introduced to the blues – through Hendrix. I listened to nothing but Hendrix for several years … I just loved Jimi. I still hadn’t heard of Muddy Waters or any of those guys at that point,” Chambers said. “After I was learning about the blues and Hendrix’ style, I really became taken by the Texas guitar players, like Albert Collins, Freddie King, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray and all those guys. There was something about the Texas players that I just loved. Then, I started learning about the influences of all those guys. I heard Johnny talking about Muddy or Stevie talking about Albert King, so I started checking those guys out. That’s kind of how I backed into the blues. That’s how I learned it.”
All those sparks of inspiration come through loud and clear in Chambers’ playing, as does a touch of the bombastic leanings of Zeppelin, Skynyrd and Boston, influences from his younger days.
“Well, I’m a middle-aged white guy, and I think a lot of it (guitar playing) has to do with your upbringing. I love traditional blues and guys like Robert Johnson and B.B. King and Otis Rush, but as much as I try and play and sound like that, it still comes out the way that I am. That’s one of the things that I struggled with when we would open one of Hubert’s sets. He was so traditional and was the master of what he did,” said Chambers. “I always felt like I was too much blues/rock and would try and make myself more traditional. I would talk to Hubert about that a lot and tell him I felt like I needed to play more (traditional) blues since I was playing with him. He would say, ‘Pardner, just do what you do. There’s always going to be people that like what you’re doing and they’re always going to be people that don’t like what you’re doing. You’re never going to please everybody.’ So I quit worrying about that. I just do what I do.”