Ronnie Baker Brooks • Ben Miller Band
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Ronnie Baker Brooks
On the first day recording Times Have Changed - the eleven-track album from Chicago bluesman Ronnie Baker Brooks that brings a sound so big it could topple a Louisiana juke joint - industry-revered album producer and drummer Steve Jordan told Brooks to put his pedal board back in the van. For the first time in his professional life, Brooks, the son of Texas and Chicago blues legend Lonnie “Guitar Jr.” Brooks, would plug a Gibson into TKTK amp and rip it straight from there.“
Back to the basics. The pedals get in the way of your tone – your natural tone. Any distortion I had came straight out of the amp,” Brooks remembers from the Times sessions. “It was almost like going to college, or grad school. It was definitely an education.”
Brooks, 49, likes to treat each album he makes as a platform for him to grow, but the reality is that he’s been climbing the blues world’s latter all his life. He was born in Chicago, and started playing guitar around age six. At 19, he joined his father, who by then had influenced some of the most well-known bluesman of our history: Jimmy Reed, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Johnny Winter, and Junior Wells. For 12 years the two would tour together, putting Ronnie out front with Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Koko Taylor. In 1998, when he was 32, his father told him to go solo.
Baker already had a band by then, one he’d been touring on the side with since 1992. But by 1998 he’d started a label; that year he made his first album, Golddigger, 16 songs tracked out in two weeks. “My dad always said to keep writing, even if you don’t think the song sounds great or you can’t finish it,” says Baker. “Write. Continue to write. The more you write, the better you get.” Take Me Witcha came three years later; his second album on Watchdog Records. Brooks broke out as his own champion on 2006’s The Torch. The Boston Herald called it “ferocious and unrelenting … the year’s best blues album.”
In the ten years since The Torch, Brooks has started a family, toured North America and Europe, and taken feature spots on the records of other bluesmen. He produced Eddy Clearwater’s West Side Strut and contributed guitar work to albums from Elvin Bishop, the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Review, Billy Branch, and Big Head Todd.
Times Have Changed, Brooks’ first album in ten years, carries with it the weight of grown perspective and time spent perfecting old material. Brooks worked it with Steve Jordan, whose work runs from Keith Richard to Stevie Wonder, John Mayer and Eric Clapton. With that comes a lesson in rhythm and blues history. Brooks refers to the director as “a walking encyclopedia of music detail and equipment,” a professor through which Brooks could take that next developmental step. “Once we got the ball rolling, my confidence went higher and higher,” he says. “I’m a better musician for this experience.”
The experience Brooks is talking about is that which came together over the course of a few weeks at Royal Studios in Memphis, the home of Al Green, Syl Johnson, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and O.V. Wright, whose 1974 hit "Blind, Crippled, and Crazy" gets a facelift on Times Have Changed. Jordan and Brooks brought in a mint press of Memphis music royalty: Stax Records staple Steve Cropper (Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave), Archie Turner (Al Green, Syl Johnson, O.V. Wright), jazz saxophonist Lannie McMillan, and R&B icon Angie Stone.“We used the same mics that Al Green used on his record,” says Brooks. “Matter of fact, we were using much of the same band! It kind of took that vibe.” The first track recorded was a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly hit “Give Me Your Love.” The second, “Twine Time,” the instrumental jam from Alvin Cash.
“To be honest with you, when Steve said ‘Man, we need an instrumental,’ the first person I thought of was Freddie King. Steve wanted something more appealing to all people, not just guitar players. He said ‘What about ‘Twine Time?’’ I said, ‘Is he serious?’ Yeah, ‘Twine Time.’ But that song was a key to this album.Man, that just lit the fire for this record. It became one of the funnest tracks we did.”
Times also comes laden with original hits. Five of the eleven tracks were penned by Brooks. Raised on others’ music, he’s always considered the songwriting process to be as sacred. “It’s like having a baby,” he says. “You see it come to live. Once you play it live, it grows even more. That was the most fun part of it, for me: the creative side. Coming up with a song people can relate to, and you relate to, it just snowballs. It’s almost like therapy for me. Like the song ‘Times Have Changed’: I wrote that song years ago. I sent Steve my songs and he picked that one. It’s kind of timeless. Every day something’s changing. Now, when I play it live, you can see the effect of it. Initially, it was just an idea: just a riff. Now, this song has influence on people. We were just in Europe this year, after the bombing in Brussels. And we’re playing Brussels. I played that song; people were in tears. It helped them heal.”
It’s on that title track that Brooks brandishes what may be his finest songwriting talent: the ability to humanize social issues and unite different voices into one cohesive thought. That’s no more evident than in the latter stages of the song, in which Brooks deploys his longtime friend, Memphis' Al Kapone, to drop 32 bars on what the future holds for our people.
“My whole intention, when I started with Golddigger and up through this one, was to be authentic enough for the older generation but have something that the younger generation could latch onto,” says Brooks. “I try to be that bridge. With Tame Me Witcha, I’ve got a rapper on that. On The Torch we went with Al. He’s a bridge. He’s a bridge from blues to hip-hop. With music, it all comes from the heart. It comes from the heart and from the soul. It blues, it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, it definitely relates.
“That was my intention on this record: to build that bridge"
Ben Miller Band
"I LIKE THE IDEA OF SAYING SOMETHING VERY COMPLICATED IN A VERY SIMPLE WAY," BEN MILLER STATES. "THAT'S WHAT WE STRIVE FOR MUSICALLY, AND WHAT I STRIVE FOR LYRICALLY—TO GET DIRECTLY TO THE POINT."
GETTING TO THE POINT IS SOMETHING THAT THE BEN MILLER BAND DOES CONSISTENTLY ON CHOKE CHERRY TREE, THE JOPLIN, MISSOURI-BRED COMBO'S THIRD ALBUM AND SECOND NEW WEST RELEASE. THE CONSISTENTLY COMPELLING SET OFFERS 11 NEW EXAMPLES OF MILLER'S DECEPTIVELY UNPRETENTIOUS SONGCRAFT, BENEATH WHOSE RAMSHACKLE EXTERIOR LURKS STURDY, INFECTIOUS MELODIES AND RESONANT, EMOTIONALLY INSIGHTFUL LYRICS.
MILLER'S BAND DELIVERS SUCH MEMORABLE NEW TUNES AS "NOTHING GETS ME DOWN," "AKIRA KUROSAWA," "TRAPEZE," "LIGHTHOUSE" AND "MISSISSIPPI CURE" WITH THE SORT OF UNPRETENTIOUS ENTHUSIASM THAT'S ALREADY WON THE GROUP A DEVOTED FAN BASE THAT STRETCHES FROM THE BAND'S MIDWESTERN HOME TURF TO THE U.K. AND EUROPE, WHERE THEY'VE TOURED TO RAVE REVIEWS.
CHOKE CHERRY TREE INTRODUCES A RETOOLED BEN MILLER BAND LINEUP, WITH MILLER AND FELLOW FOUNDING MEMBER SCOTT LEEPER JOINED BY NEW ADDITIONS RACHEL AMMONS AND SMILIN' BOB LEWIS. THE PAIR'S MULTI-INSTRUMENTAL SKILLS BRING ADDED AUTHORITY TO MILLER'S ROOTSY NEW COMPOSITIONS, WHILE MAINTAINING THE HIGH ENERGY LEVEL (COMPLETE WITH HOMEMADE INSTRUMENTS CONSTRUCTED FROM BROKEN AND DISCARDED AXES) THAT ORIGINALLY ENDEARED THE BAND TO ITS FANS. ELSEWHERE, RACHEL AMMONS' EXPRESSIVE VOCALS LEND DEPTH TO THE HAUNTING "REDWING BLACKBIRD."
MILLER AND COMPANY RECORDED CHOKE CHERRY TREE WITH PRODUCER CHRIS FUNK, A MEMBER OF THE DECEMBERISTS WHOSE MULTI-INSTRUMENTAL ABILITIES HELPED TO EXPAND THE BAND'S SONIC OPTIONS, AS DID HIS INTEREST IN USING SUCH GUEST PLAYERS AS JENNY CONLEE AND NATE QUERY (ALSO OF THE DECEMBERISTS), RENOWNED SAXOPHONIST RALPH CARNEY (TOM WAITS, TIN HUEY, AND UNCLE TO PATRICK CARNEY OF THE BLACK KEYS), DAN HUNT OF NEKO CASE’S BAND, URAL THOMAS, REV SHINES OF LIFESAVAS, AND MORE. “CHRIS HAS A LOT OF MUSICIAN FRIENDS,” MILLER NOTES, “SO IF WE NEEDED AN ACCORDION PLAYER, HE’D JUST CALL ONE.”
ACCORDING TO MILLER, "EARLY IN THE PROCESS OF MAKING THIS ALBUM, I THOUGHT THAT WE EITHER HAD TO REALLY NAIL OUR LIVE APPROACH IN THE RECORDING STUDIO, OR WE NEEDED TO FORGET ABOUT THAT AND JUST WORK ON CAPTURING THE SONGS IN AN INVENTIVE WAY THAT PRESENTS THEM IN THEIR BEST LIGHT. WE DECIDED ON THE LATTER APPROACH, AND WE NEVER LOOKED BACK."
INDEED, WHILE CHOKE CHERRY TREE MAINTAINS THE ROUGH-AND-READY VIBE OF THE BAND'S PRIOR RELEASES, THE NEW MATERIAL ALSO FEATURES SOME OF THE MOST CAREFULLY-CRAFTED ARRANGEMENTS THAT MILLER AND COMPANY HAVE EVER HAD. "THIS TIME AROUND," MILLER EXPLAINS, "I DID MORE DEMOS THAN USUAL, AND REALLY HASHED OUT THE SONGS AT HOME, WHICH GAVE ME AND CHRIS A REALLY GOOD STARTING POINT TO WORK THE SONGS. IT WAS THE OPPOSITE OF JUST JUMPING IN AND PLAYING AND TRYING TO CAPTURE IT ON THE MICS. EVEN THOUGH THERE WAS MORE COLLABORATION WITH OTHER PEOPLE ON THIS ALBUM, IT'S PROBABLY THE LEAST COMPROMISED ALBUM I'VE EVER MADE."
SINCE ITS FORMATION IN 2004, THE BEN MILLER BAND HAS STAKED OUT AN ICONOCLASTIC NICHE THAT'S ESTABLISHED THEM AS BOTH A ONE-OF-A-KIND CREATIVE UNIT AND A GRASS-ROOTS FAN FAVORITE. CHANNELING A CENTURY'S WORTH OF FAR-FLUNG AMERICAN MUSICAL INFLUENCES INTO ROUSING SONGCRAFT THAT RADIATES WITH SMARTS AND SOUL, MILLER'S TUNES ACHIEVE A MUSICAL AND EMOTIONAL DEPTH THAT BELIES THE MATERIAL'S (AND THE MUSICIANS') ROUGH EXTERIOR.
THE HARD-WORKING UNIT FIRST WON A REGIONAL FAN BASE THROUGH OLD-FASHIONED INGENUITY AND AN UNSTINTING WORK ETHIC, GENERATING A NATIONAL BUZZ AND A HIGH-PROFILE 2013 TOUR OF EUROPE WITH ZZ TOP, THANKS TO THE PATRONAGE OF AVOWED BMB FAN BILLY GIBBONS.
THE BEN MILLER BAND'S EARLY D.I.Y. APPROACH EXTENDED TO THE LO-TECH, LARGELY SELF-BUILT, INSTRUMENTS THAT THE MEMBERS STILL PLAY ON STAGE, INCLUDING MILLER'S THRIFT-SHOP GUITARS AND BANJOS AND SCOTT LEEPER'S ONE-STRING WASHTUB BASS. THE BAND'S USE OF OFFBEAT INSTRUMENTATION, HOWEVER, SHOULDN'T BE MISUNDERSTOOD AS A GIMMICK.
"WHAT I REALLY CARE ABOUT IS SONGS, AND THE REST OF IT IS JUST A VEHICLE TO GET YOU TO THAT DESTINATION," MILLER ASSERTS, ADDING, "WE HAVE NO INTEREST IN BEING SOME KIND OF WACKY NOVELTY ACT, AND JUST BECAUSE WE USE JUNK TO MAKE MUSIC DOESN'T MEAN WE AREN'T SERIOUS ABOUT IT."
GROWING UP IN RURAL CURLEW, WASHINGTON, BEN MILLER BEGAN PLAYING GUITAR AT 16, TURNING HIS BACK ON A PROMISING CAREER AS A VISUAL ARTIST TO FOCUS ON MUSIC. HE GAINED EXPERIENCE BUSKING AND PERFORMING IN OPEN-MIKE NIGHTS WHILE ROAD-TRIPPING AROUND AMERICA, AND DURING AN EXTENDED STINT IN EASTERN EUROPE. HE EVENTUALLY FOUND KINDRED SPIRITS IN SCOTT LEEPER AND ORIGINAL BMB DRUMMER DOUG DICHARRY.
THE THREE LIKE-MINDED PLAYERS JOINED FORCES, AND BEFORE LONG THEIR DILIGENT TOURING REGIMEN ALLOWED THEM TO CONQUER AN EVER-WIDENING FAN BASE. IN 2012, THE BEN MILLER BAND TOOK ITS FIRST TENTATIVE STEPS IN THE RECORDING STUDIO, RESULTING IN THE SELF-RELEASED CD HEAVY LOAD, WHICH ATTRACTED A GOOD DEAL OF FAN PRAISE AND CRITICAL ACCLAIM.
WORD OF THE BMB'S CHARISMATIC LIVE SHOWS AND REGIONAL POPULARITY EVENTUALLY BEGAN TO GENERATE A NATIONAL BUZZ, WINNING THEM A SPOT ON NEW WEST RECORDS' ROSTER. THE BAND MADE ITS NEW WEST DEBUT WITH 2014'S ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM, RECORDED IN NASHVILLE WITH RENOWNED PRODUCER VANCE POWELL.
NOW, WITH CHOKE CHERRY TREE READY FOR UNVEILING, BEN MILLER IS ENJOYING HIS BAND'S NEW FOUR-PERSON LINEUP. "THE AUDIENCES SEEM TO LIKE IT AS MUCH AS EVER," HE OBSERVES, ADDING, "OUR TWO NEW MEMBERS ARE GREAT AND EXUDE PERSONALITY FROM THE STAGE, SO I FEEL LIKE WE'RE AN ALL-STAR BAND NOW. I LOVE HAVING A FEMALE PRESENCE ON STAGE, WHICH CREATES A DIFFERENT ENERGY THAT YOU CAN'T GET WITH JUST DUDES. I THINK IT ADDS A TENSION THAT'S DIFFERENT, BUT WE'RE STILL HIGH-ENERGY ON STAGE, AND WE STILL PLAY CRAZY INSTRUMENTS AND MOVE AROUND A LOT."
MILLER IS CAREFUL, THOUGH, NOT TO ALLOW THE NOVELTY OF THE BAND'S HOMEMADE INSTRUMENTS TO OVERSHADOW THE MORE SUBSTANTIAL ASPECTS OF THE BAND'S OUTPUT.
"IF OUR ONLY SELLING POINT WAS 'COME AND CHECK OUT THE WEIRD INSTRUMENTS,' IT WOULD GET OLD REAL FAST," MILLER STATES. "IT GOT US IN THE DOOR, BUT ONCE WE GOT IN THE DOOR, THE SONGS BECAME OUR FOCUS. WHERE I PUT MOST OF MY ENERGY IS TRYING TO SERVE THE SONGS, AND TRYING TO MAKE THEM AS GOOD AS THEY CAN BE."
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