Blues-Rock Behemoth Peter Parcek to Play Saratoga New Year’s Fest
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Almost every city and many towns across the country have unsung guitar heroes. In Nippertown they include the late Ernie Williams, Rhett Tyler, Joe Roy Jackson, Allen Payette, George Boone, and Matt Mirabile. The late Danny Kalb in New York was one. Each of these blues-rock/roots guitarists were or are as good as a host of million-selling superstars, but for one reason or another they haven’t broken through to the general consciousness. Peter Parcek from the Boston suburb of Malden is a prime example of just such an artist, and by some fortunate quirk of fate he happens to be playing the Saratoga New Year’s Fest at 9:30 p.m. at the City Center on Saturday night.
Parcek is the poster boy for musicians who have been closing the gap between iconic black blues artists and white blues rockers for almost half a century. He should be thought of in the same breath as Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Buddy Guy and B. B. King. Those artists all have a couple decades more experience and have sold several million more records than he has, but creatively he could sit in with any of them and play original music that’s every bit as relevant as theirs. And he’s playing Saratoga New Year’s Eve.
At 73, he’s released four albums. He spent time woodshedding in England in the ’80s where he caught Peter Green, the guitar genius behind early Fleetwood Mac, playing in small nightclubs. That said, America’s legacy blues artists have been a primary inspiration and Peter’s heaviest influence. He talks about his experience with two such artists: Hubert Sumlin, Howlin Wolf’s guitarist who defined The Wolf’s sound on such iconic numbers as “Killing Floor” and “Shake for Me,” and Pinetop Perkins, the ubiquitous go-to keyboardist for everyone from The Blues Brothers to Muddy Waters and B. B. King.
Pinetop’s record label asked Parcek to get musicians together and deal with club owners for a tour of Massachusetts and Nova Scotia. “Mr. Perkins came over to me after the first set we played together, and he said, ‘I know you can play. Why aren’t you playing?’ I was shooting myself. I said, ‘Out of respect. This club is filled, and they’re not here for me. They’re here for you.’ And he looked at me for a little bit and said, ‘I like it when the guitar player gets up my ass. When I look at you, I want you to play.’”
“He (Pinetop) wasn’t at all concerned that anybody was doing something that might distract from him. He didn’t give a shit about that. He knew how great he was, and he knew he had those people in the palm of his hand. So, he could dance. He wore a different suit every night in Nova Scotia. And there was a different woman there every night. He would get out in the audience and dance, and he came and rubbed the drummer’s head and said to the three of us, ‘You make an old man feel young.’ That was the biggest compliment I could have ever got.”
Parcek recalls going on a Harvard radio station with Hubert Sumlin. “He started playing, and I remember his hand. I swear there was an extra digit on every one of his fingers, like an extra portion. His hands and his vibrato on the acoustic guitar was a vibrato that people would sell their soul for on electric guitar. It seemed like he could do it no problem. And all those glisses, all those like idiosyncratic trills…he just did that like on an acoustic guitar. ‘That’s what I do,’ and he knew that he was completely unique.”
“I mean you could try, but basically, he was impossible to copy, right? He knew it. So, he was like very open and gentle. So, (the deejay) David starts interviewing him, and he even told a story about Eric Clapton giving him a guitar to borrow, a beautiful Stratocaster. At some point they took a break for an ad or something, and Hubert said, ‘Hey, Peter, want to come and play with me?’ I think my jaw must have been hanging down. I don’t even know what I said. So, we played some stuff together on the radio station.”
Later, Parcek sat in with Hubert at The House of Blues in Cambridge on an off-night for the legacy artist. “I can’t believe I said this to him because he was and continues to be an incredible inspiration. I said, ‘What I’d really like is to hear you play, really play.’ And he looked at me like he could tell I knew that this wasn’t the night for him, and he said ‘Ok, I’m gonna go and play.” And he came out that set and just tore it up.”
Parcek has as much respect for great blues-rock artists as he does the progenitors of blues. Of Peter Green he says, “It seemed like the notes vibrated in his body when he played them. I thought he had beautiful hands to watch him play. It was almost like watching a lightning rod. And there would be times, especially early on in these little bars, it’s weird that I saw this guy in a bar, but I did. Jeremy Spencer, for some reason that I never understood, would go off the stage. He didn’t play guitar or background guitar. Before Dan Kirwin joined (Fleetwood Mac), it was a power trio when Jermey Spencer wasn’t on stage.
On his 2020 album Mississippi Suitcase, Parcek mixes originals with cover songs by Sleepy John Estes, Bob Dylan, Peter Green, Lennon/McCartney, Sonny Boy Williamson, and even Lou Reed’s “Waitin’ for the Man” with its eerie supernatural sheen. The covers are so different from the originals that if he tweaked them ever so slightly, he could take composition credits.
Mortality is a recurring theme. On “Life Is a One-Way Ticket” he sings “Life is a one-way ticket. Ain’t no second time around. Get all you can outa life before you’re six feet under the ground.” On “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” by Bob Dylan and Robert Hunter are the lines “Beyond here lies nothing but the moon and stars. Let’s get lovin,’ baby as long as love lasts. Beyond here lies nothing but the mountains of the past.” On his original composition “The World Is Upside Down” he sings “The wrong people have all the power and they’re running it into the ground…..Is it the second coming or just a sign? …..If anybody asks about me tell ’em I just walked out the door.”
Ted Drozdowski is a veteran music journalist and himself leader of the band Coyote Motel. Ted plays guitar on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Until My Love Comes Down” on Mississippi Suitcase. He also produced Parcek’s The Mathematics of Love record in 2009. Ted says of his friend Peter Parcek: “There’s his ability to reframe classic material, whether by Sonny Boy Williamson or Lou Reed, in a way that’s respectful of history and yet resonant in the present. He can be wild and unpredictable, yet resolute as granite. And, like a bonfire, he burns. He is truly a master, and I love this album.”
I asked Parcek the oldest cliché question in music journalism, can a white man sing the blues? Who better to answer it than a man so inspired and influenced by the genre?
“My reaction is severalfold. Number one, there is no denying, and it would be foolish to deny, that it is a black art form, and therefore paying homage and honor to the people who created the art form is both part of being the lineage, and it’s what’s required. But having said that, if you are going to enter or attempt to enter it, then my point of view has been to try and be as good as I possibly can, which means I never stop practicing. I practice every single day for a number of hours. And also, you’re really best to introduce your soul, your individual vision or element to it. It’s also pretty clear the blues wasn’t one way. What I mean by that is, the blues took some influences in – whether that was a certain kind of beat, or certain kinds of electricity – the influence went both ways.”