It's been quite sometime since I've written about any musical experiences I've encountered. The tag line to this blog is "A Sales Guy's Guide to Travel, Food and Music in the Midwest and Beyond" and I had the pleasure of seeing someone the other night that I had hoped to see sooner than later, blues guitarist J.P. Soars. Soars and his band, the Red Hots, played a show at Martini's on the Rocks in Rock Island the other night. The event was sponsored by the Mississippi Valley Blues Society.
When I drive throughout the Midwest, I have my car radio tuned to Sirius XM channel 21 - Little Steven's Underground Garage - almost exclusively. I've found the music to be edgy and eclectic, reminding me of music that I grew up with and introducing me to new bands and artists that don't get a lot of air time on over-the-air radio stations. It was on Little Steven's Underground Garage where I was first exposed to J.P. Soars a little less than two years ago. While his songs aren't in quite the same heavy rotation they were about a year ago, I still hear "Doggin' ", "Back of My Mind" and "More Bees with Honey" on the channel from time to time. When I found out that he was going to be coming to the Quad Cities to play a midweek show, I made double-damned sure that I was going to be in town for that. (Besides, I have been traveling so much lately, I needed a week at home to catch up in the office and recharge.)
John Paul Soars was born in California before his family moved to Cedarville, AR near Fort Smith. He picked up his first guitar at age 11 and continued to play when his family eventually relocated to South Florida when Soars was 16. Influenced by Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top and the Beatles, Soars turned to heavy metal music and joined a popular area band by the name of Raped Ape. Soars was with the band - which eventually took the name Paingod - for eight years turning out one heavy metal album and disbanding soon thereafter.
While he was still in his "metal phase", Soars discovered the music of French jazz guitarist Jean "Django" Reinhardt, an avant-garde musician and composer who has been called one of the greatest guitarists of all time. One of Soars songs featured on his My Space web site is called "Django's Tiger" which displays his prowess for the gypsy jazz guitar stylings from the era before, during, and after World War II.
It was also during his time playing heavy metal that he was captivated by down-home, southern-roots-style blues. Soars was in and out of South Florida bands over the years and traveled the states with other musicians playing all different types of music. But he was more well-known for his work with hard metal/thrash bands Malevolent Creation and later with Divine Empire, recording a total of six albums with those bands.
In 2005, Soars left Divine Empire to focus on blues and jazz music. He started up his blues band - the Red Hots - soon thereafter. Another one of Soars' side projects at the time was a band called the Gypsy Blue Acoustic Revue, a group of South Florida musicians who played the gypsy jazz music from the 30's and 40's that Django Reinhardt made famous among jazz aficionados.
In 2008, Soars and the Red Hots won a local competition for Best Blues Band in South Florida and they went on to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Challenge in February 2009. Soars and his band blew away the competition to capture the Best Blues Band award for the IBC while Soars also garnered the "Best Guitarist" award. His blues career was beginning to take off.
We heard a lot of different varieties of music when Soars and his bandmates - Don "The Cougar" Gottlieb on bass, and Chris Peet on drums - took the stage at Martini's on the Rock around 7 p.m. From traditional blues, to jump-style blues, to down-in-the-swamp blues, to surf music, to gypsy jazz stylings, Soars captivated the audience with his guitar playing.
About halfway through the first set, Soars got out one of his homemade "cigar box" guitars that he and his brother made, paying homage to some of the down-south do-it-yourself musicians who made guitars out of cigar boxes and wooden planks in the 1920's and 30's. Soars' cigar box guitars have fretless boards and feature just two strings that are tuned an octave apart. (For giggles when he was tuning up his guitar, I got out my Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone and got into my guitar tuning application. He was tuning it to G.)
With a combination of both a slide and regular fret work, Soars made some amazing music on this cigar box. The 50 or so people on hand for the show couldn't wait until the next day to tell others what they missed the night before.
Soars took a short break and Mike Livermore from the Mississippi Valley Blues Society got up on stage to announce some of the bands coming up at this years Mississippi Valley Blues Festival being held at LeClaire Park in downtown Davenport on July 4th through the 6th. I had heard that Walter Trout, John Primer, Eddie Turner, Anthony Gomes and Samantha Fish had already been booked. But Mike said that another one of J.P. Soars' side projects - Southern Hospitality, a Southern roots blues band featuring fellow Florida bluesmen Damon Fowler and Victor Wainwright - would be playing the festival.
(As an aside, I'll be the Master of Ceremonies for the Mississippi Valley Blues Challenge for both the preliminary round at Muddy Waters in Bettendorf on April 28, and for the finals during the blues fesitval at 5 p.m. on Friday, July 5. The winning band goes on to the International Blues Challenge - the same competition J.P. Soars won over four years ago. This will be my 16th time MC'ing the Quad Cities preliminary round of the Blues Challenge.)
But the biggest announcement was the addition of Kenny Wayne Shepherd to the blues fest line up. I had run into Bob Covemaker, the chairman of the committee that books bands for the blues fest, a couple three weeks ago and he said that they were close to getting Shepherd to play the festival. The announcement that night confirmed what Bob told me previously.
After about a 45 minute break, which allowed me to catch up with some blues society people I haven't seen in awhile, Soars and the Red Hots came back out and began to play a number of songs from his current CD, "Bees With Honey". He implored the people sitting at the tables away from the stage to move closer. When the bulk of the crowd took their chairs and tables closer to the stage, Soars said, "There you go! Now it's a show!"
It was a great show for a weeknight. The only quibble I had was that they allowed smoking in the enclosed patio at Martini's on the Rock. We were wondering how they could do that with the no-smoking laws in the state of Illinois, especially when they were serving food out there. It was the first time in a long time I had to ditch my clothes in the basement laundry after I came home because of the smell of smoke. Nonetheless, I was glad that I had the opportunity to see J.P. Soars play in a local venue and can't wait until he comes back with Southern Hospitality this summer.