Unorthodox artist Blind Lemon Peel gains a foothold in the capital region
By Chris Elliott
Blind Lemon Peel is a newcomer to Sacramento, but has been at the forefront of progressive blues communities for over 40 years. Peel’s particular approach, incorporating traditional blues styles into adaptations of progressive blues, has been an evolution of decades.
The very phrase of the progressive blues seems to have a standoff in itself. It’s like “giant prawns” or “the only choice”. There is an inherent contradiction in the notion of progressive blues because the blues holds simplicity and tradition in such a sacred respect.
There is probably no form of American music whose purity is more fiercely protected by its listeners and practitioners than the blues. Any musician looking to make a high level expansion of traditional blues will be faced with stubborn doctrinaires eager to share their opinion on the merits of the experiment.
And they will usually say “no”.
Blind Lemon Peel seeks to do in Sacramento what it has already done on the blues scene in New York and, more recently, in Los Angeles: present its catalog of songs in an environment of impeccable musicality and engaging vocal delivery. Throughout his career, Peel has attracted musicians who are comfortable pushing the boundaries of traditional blues that have long served as benchmarks for the creation of new music.
In Los Angeles, Peel’s musical director was LA blues star Lucky Lloyd. Bobby “Hurricane” Spencer was his tenor and, as Peel likes to say, his “musical conscience”. Spencer is an LA blues legend, but also has a deep jazz education. His outsized presence in Los Angeles marks a second chapter, as Spencer’s time in the Bay Area earned him a star on the Walk on Fame in his hometown of Oakland. The company of advanced musicians following Lloyd and Spencer has become a Swiss Army knife to Peel, and his eagerness to start in Sacramento is palpable.
Meanwhile, local fans see Peel’s presence in Sacramento as a welcome pop of color to accentuate its bustling traditional blues community.
So is progressive blues still a thing? Believers say it is human nature – and also the nature of musicians – to test what convention has determined to be a limit or a bare minimum.
“It’s not a muddy okra, you can taste each flavor individually,” notes Spencer. “It’s the kind of music that brings me back to clubs where, if you play the music well, there’s bound to be a fight.”
There comes a time when a progressive blues experience will be seen as frivolous, but many musicians are looking to further open the umbrella that covers the genre, and do so with a credibility that shifts the markers. Blind Lemon Peel identifies with this company.
A little-known story
Who could be the Robert Johnson of progressive blues? Who was the first blues band or musician to turn the wheel to the left and hold it there, and do so with wide acceptance? A questionable ancestor is John Lee Hooker. He moved the blues in a new direction not by adorning it, not so much by expanding the existing accepted harmonic structures, but by composing them even lower and shining a light with his fiery vocal timbre. Hooker’s way of approaching the blues was gradual as it was, very often, an additional three chord reduction to one.
Another favorite is Canned Heat. The band comes from one place, the blues, but also demonstrated with their 1968 double live album “Living the Blues” that they are comfortable bringing style into a rock and psychedelic universe.
Captain Beefheart’s music is another place to look to increase your progressive blues intake, bearing some resemblance to the Blind Lemon Peel concept. The captain’s rough, ready throaty bark doesn’t necessarily clash with the blues (think Howlin ‘Wolf and Koko Taylor), but Beefheart’s growl adds angularity to the storytelling. Likewise, Peel’s emotional hostage-taking in his final choruses arched an often pretty and often twisted back-and-forth between him and his back vocal line. So while a good part of Beefheart’s work is well outside of the blues, another part is unmistakably inside – and that part sounds a bit like Peel.
Given that Peel has a composition and performance style that both borrows and creates, there is a real opportunity for a twelve bar semantic war of blues philosophy to erupt here. It happened before when people said that the act of Muddy Waters plugging his guitar into an amp was progressive.
Innovations in amplification, instrument making and recording were all integral to the evolution of blues music, and the great artists who took advantage of these technologies to create new avenues of expression could be considered “progressives” in the blues. The tent is as big as you want it to be.
In terms of live performances, Peel’s show is absolutely traditional – the crisp arrangements, the high-level musicality, the bright red hat – but what separates its lemony approach is its elaborate emphasis on presentation. Eight-tenths of the show is original material, and the covers it does usually have an extreme makeover. Rather than offering traditional BB King covers and arrangements to a blues-savvy audience, Peel presents a wide selection of sensations, tempos, tones and lyrical content, all with a philosophy of never being bored. which enlivens the larger spectacle. Master of ceremonies skills, comedic elements, and an all-female backstory vocal line give an evening with Peel an almost cabaret-like glow.
The right city at the right time
Sacramento has long burned with a deep love for the bizarre side of the blues. Maybe some of it stays a bit underground – traditional musicians meeting in the garage for a progressive jam. It’s a city where you sometimes hear unusual harmonies over common chord changes, as well as rhythms that shift the tonal foundations away from expectations. That’s what Peel found here.
In Sacramento, the team preparing to support Peel’s upcoming show on September 24 at the El Dorado County Fair includes a top-notch brass section, vocal elements derived from Oakland’s famous Cold Blood and the one of the best rhythm sections in the Sacramento area. This includes Dana Moret. Fans of regional clubs take note of shows such as Moret, Steve Dunne, Danny Sandoval, Larry Davis, Dave Johnson and AJ Joyce.
“I know I’m walking on sacred ground,” Peel says of taking liberties with what has been proven to work. “This is the reason why I am here. Believe me, I respect the track record of the music I play. My show is not humble. It’s scandalous. But I am humble. I know where this music comes from and what it means. I have a band ready to put on a version of the show that I had in New York and Los Angeles… They have always found a large and appreciative audience, and I intend to do the same here.
Peel adds, “The way I categorize progressive blues broadens the genre while also firmly anchoring its roots in its past – Mississippi, Chicago, Texas, Kansas City and even Louisiana – almost creating a fusion of styles. Progressive blues works outside the box and isn’t afraid to take risks and experiment, knowing exactly when to bring it home.
B. Noel Barr, producer at the New Blues Festival and president of the Long Beach Blues Society, is a fan who thinks Peel keeps his promises.
“Blind Lemon Peel puts on an incredibly awesome show for audiences who want real blues with a healthy sense of humor,” says Barr. “It’s a cool, mean act that generates incredible energy and contagious excitement.”