BEST OF 2018: Don Wilcock’s Top 11 Interviews

Zakir Hussain
Zakir Hussain

By Don Wilcock
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Sometimes people look at me sideways and say, “Why are you working and not retired at age 74?” To them I say, “This is not work. It’s a large part of who I am.” Read some of the entries below, and maybe you’ll understand.

The Allman Brothers’ drummer Jaimoe played The Egg in late February with his Jasssz Band. In his autobiography, “My Cross to Bear,” Gregg Allman called Jaimoe “the hippest cat in the whole world,” saying that he loved him like he loved his own brother. I can understand that talking to Jaimoe. “I tell these guys (in my band), you need to be up on your shit. We are the masters that we looked up to when we were coming along. Now that’s us because just about all of ’em are dead, and we can’t keep fucking around. When you go up on the stage to play, man, it’s like it’s the last time you ever gonna play, So, the music has to be that inspiring. If somebody is not putting in what needs to be put in, it falls short.”

My friend Dennis McNally was the Grateful Dead’s historian for more than 25 years and wrote the band’s definitive biography, so when he told me that Zakir Hussain was the best musicians he’d ever heard, period, I was intrigued. When the Indian tabla player performed in front of an audience 95% Indian at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on March 22, I realized that Dennis was not engaging in hyperbole.

“My father said to me, ‘Son, don’t try and be a master. Just try and be a good student, and you’ll get by just fine. There’s always something new to learn and if you consider yourself a master, you’re going to be walking with your head held high, and so you’re going to be missing everything that’s right under your nose, and you
might even trip and fall on your face and look silly. You step out of the door, and you see a different cloud formation. You see the tree weaving differently in the wind, and you see the sun pulling shades in a different way, and you learn, and you see new ways of looking at the earth again, and you hear the music, and you’ve heard the songs, but suddenly know there’s a riff you haven’t heard in the 10 other hearings before that,’” Hussain said.

The first time I interviewed Derek Trucks he was a week away from meeting Susan Tedeschi at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on his first Allman Brothers Band tour. Now, the Tedeschi Trucks Band is one of the hottest acts to play SPAC, as they did on July 3. He talked about forming the band. “We knew if we waited five or 10 years, we probably wouldn’t want to give that a whirl, so we were feeling like rolling the dice, and we did,” Trucks said. “I had a feeling there’d be a few really good years, and it would be as fun as hell, and who knows what happens, but we have 10 years into it now, close to 11 years. I think the band is playing better than it ever has, and I feel like a lot of the songs we played on this last record are the best tunes we made and the most honest. For it to be in the place it is right now is very surprising and humbling. Yeah. We realize how fortunate we are to be doing it.”

When the British rock guitarist and founder of the band Traffic Dave Mason realized he was going to tour with Steve Cropper, guitarist for the Stax-Volt band Booker T & The M.G’s, he was like a kid in a candy store as evidenced in his interview with me in April. Their show at The Egg on August 22 did not live up to his anticipation, but as headliner at the King Biscuit Blues Festival on October 6, the two veterans hit it out of the park.

“The list of the records that band (Booker T & The MG’s) played on is just is endless. I mean it pretty much is the entire Stax catalog. So, that’s what I was listening to. We were all listening to them when we were kids: Capaldi, Winwood, I mean, we were all huge fans of that stuff, in fact, when we were 18, 19 years old, Mason recalled. “We were trying to put something together redoing Traffic with the Traffic Jam with myself, Steve (Cropper), Michael McDonald and Steve Winwood, but basically, we couldn’t wait around for the other two, so Steve and I decided we’d go out and start doing some stuff together. That’s really how it started.”

I’ve been enjoying shows at Caffe Lena for more than half a century, but I have never seen the energy level there as high as it was when Magic Dick of J. Geils fame joined forces with Boston’s young turk Shun Ng on August 17. In a joint advance interview, they demonstrated their mutual admiration for each other as it manifests in creativity between two people almost half a century apart in age.

Shun Ng: “A mistake is the seed that grows a tree that becomes an idea.”

Magic Dick: “I learned that Shun couldn’t care less if I make mistakes or sound bad or whatever because he totally understands what it takes to do this and where it’s all coming from, which I kind of organize around it.”

Jim Anderson has been producing oldies shows at Proctors for years. Notice I said “producing” and not just “presenting.” He sees the veteran rock and rollers as real people and not just products with hits. I always ask him who will give me the best interviews out of his acts. In April he suggested Dennis Tufano of The Buckinghams, who broke nationally in 1967 with “Kind of a Drag.” A few years later, Clive Davis of Columbia Records cut the band from the label. Forty years later, Tufano is still singing those songs.

“I do the hits exactly as they were made. That’s part of the charm if it,” Tufano explained. “I’m so gratefully that the songs hold up today ’cause a man in his 70s who can sing the same sentiments and the same ideas that came out of those songs and the music was very sophisticated for that time and it holds up today. I still have a ball like a kid on the stage. And I find the other acts to be like that: Jay & The Americans, the Vogues, all those guys. They’re like kids. It’s like turning into kids again, even though we shuffle on stage sometimes, but we make it work. That’s the whole thing.”

Valerie June’s February 25 concert at The Egg was odd even by her standards. At her best she channels ancient black culture, but I wasn’t really sure where she was going this night. “You have (to decide) which songs get to go out there to the world and which ones are just for you, which one are for your friends. They tell you, the songs do. I’ve been writing songs for a long time and (some of ’em) are just for me, or sometimes I’ll have a song just for my friends. It’s just for my niece who was just born. That’s her song. I don’t sing it for anybody else but her. That’s her song. Deciding which song is a song that’s gonna change the world (is a challenge.)”

Delta bluesman Eddie Shaw died on January 29. I had worked on a book about him but gave up the effort when I realized he just wasn’t well known enough to sell such an effort. Reviewing some of his quotes after his death made me wonder if I’d made a mistake. He started his career at age 14 playing for Ike Turner on recordings made in Clarksdale at the WROX studios.

“Ike Turner was the guy. He was the undercover guy, 16 years old bringing Howlin’ Wolf to Sun Records, or bringing Roy Brown, Carl Perkins, the “Blue Suede Shoes” guy. All of this was Ike’s doing, but all you hear about Ike is that he beat Tina’s ass. But they don’t never tell you how great the man was. He never wanted to be this front man in the band, but he was always the boss.”

Shaw toured the south with Muddy Waters in a brand-new Cadillac with Muddy in 1959 and ’60. “Muddy always treated me right, man. I rode with him in the car when other boys couldn’t ride with him. I knew all the maps. I could read the map of the highways and byways to the gig. ‘Now you don’t ride with the boys in the band. You
ride with me.’ Muddy’s in the back seat. I’m in the front. Bo’s driving. I have the map.”

Dom Flemons is up for a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album for Black Cowboys. He played Caffe Lena on August 30 and proved that, in this case at least, the voters who nominated him knew what they were doing. He’s a traditionalist who illustrates that black artists from the early 20th century were performing in folk arenas other than blues alone. He explained to me how circumstance broke down prejudice among many of the artists whose songs he sings and plays.

“By necessity there were situations (where you had) equality through the circumstances more so than equality through decision, Flemons said. “In spite of the ideological separation between the races, there are many examples of people working together, especially working-class people. There are definite exceptions to the rule even though socially to see people working together in any regard in the open was something that was taboo and not accepted.

“People were working together when they had familiar ties, or they connected to a similar church or general store. Or they had some sort of familiarity. In the south, of course, that was a strong way to get a foot in the door socially, especially churches. They say, ‘What church did you go to?’ They could tell a lot about who you
were based on where you went to church, and in the history of the west and the cowboys, we found that ideology of working and togetherness through that work.”

Tinsley Ellis is a veteran blues road warrior, Tinsley played the Linda on January 26. We’ve been friends for decades, and I’ve always loved his hard driving biker blues. But even I was shocked at how tight and energized his set was.

“This tour we’re staying gone the whole time and right at the beginning of a new CD,” Ellis told me. “I think that if there’s a way to market new music, it is by taking it to the people. And I haven’t done a tour like this in 20 years. I think I can still do it. Ask me in three months.”

Local veteran keyboardist Gary Brooks performed on the Martin Luther King Tribute concert on Saturday, January 13 with Milayne Jackson at the Strand Theatre in Hudson Falls.

“Martin Luther King never really touched my life that much until we started doing these showcases, and the people that show up for them are moved,” said Brooks. “It’s rewarding for me at the end of the evening to see how satisfied a lot of the people are by the guest speakers and the music and the whole presentation.”

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1 Comment
  1. Mark Alexander Hudson says

    Good stuff Don !

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