When bluesman Patrick Sweany plays Jazz UpFront on Saturday night, he'll be sporting a new release, and a new recording he says gave him goosebumps during the recording process.
His latest release is actually a re-release of his debut album, 1999’s acoustic “I Want to Tell You.” His newest recording is last year’s “Ancient Noise,” a much more plugged-in album more kin to The Black Keys than Robert Johnson. It was recorded at the famous Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis, which is not to be confused with nearby Sun Records where Phillips recorded Elvis Presley, Howlin Wolf, Johnny Cash, James Cotton, Carl Perkins and other blues, country and pop stars in the 1950s.
“He never owned the building at Sun,” said Sweany. “He wanted to build his own facility, so he used the money from selling Elvis’ contract as collateral for a million-dollar loan in 1958.”
So even though Sweany didn’t record in the legendary Sun studios, he still felt the ghosts of those who came before him in the swanky Sam Phillips Studio.
“Oh absolutely,” said Sweany. “But all the Charlie Rich stuff was recorded there, as was Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino … and ‘Wooly Bully’ was recorded there in the new Sam Phillips studio. It’s one of the greatest environments to perform music in that I’ve ever encountered. The vibe is like Sun Records times a hundred.”
Perhaps not unlike the feeling of touring the equally legendary Stax Museum, once home to the recording studio where Booker T. Jones, Otis Redding, Steve Cropper, and Duck Dunn cut tracks now indelibly pressed into America’s musical fabric.
“It’s a very emotional place," said Sweany. “When you think about all the artists and the world changing music … they poured everything they had into those performances that ended up on tape in that very room. That energy doesn’t go away. Talking about Newton’s law, energy can’t be created or destroyed.”
Sweany does have a serendipitous connection to the old Sun Records, having recorded a PBS special with his band in that studio. It’s where he met producer Matt Ross-Spang, whose credits include Jason Isbell, Margo Price, John Prine, and now Sweany’s “Ancient Noise.”
Phillips was known as a label owner and producer—someone who would literally record artists who walked through his front door asking for a chance. It's something almost unimaginable today. Sure, home studios and online distrubution allows anyone with a computer a potential worldwide audience, but you'd get a funny look today trying to talk your way into a recording contract with a label essentially sight unseen.
"What Sam Phillips did didn't exist prior to him doing it. His principles were capturing something exiciting and raw. His phrase was 'perfect imperfection,'" said Sweany of Phillips' mantra of allowing some blemishes while recording, feeling they often carptured the essence of the artist.
Does that describe how Sweany approaches recording?
"I'm a big fan of Phillips, not necessarily by design," Sweany belly laughed, conceding he was more the perfectionist, but also shares Phillip's ethic of giving every take full energy.
"You have to treat every take like it's 'the one,'" said Sweany. "I like to record with the band in the room. I like to be singing live with the band. And that's the nice thing about the Phillps studio, we could do it right in there off the floor and try to get as much as you can happening right there, in real time."
Knowing that ethic, it's not surprising he’s a fan of bluesman Hound Dog Taylor, whose raw "house-rocking" sound captured expertly by Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer still resonates today with many artists.
“Oh my … the reason I put a band together was because of Hound Dog Taylor,” said Sweany of the time in the early 2000s when he had his own trio and filled in with other blues bands in his native Ohio.
“All the bass players I knew at the time were trying to play 5-strings and all this kind of modern sounds, and I went, ‘This does not sound as good,’” said Sweany, who didn’t know serendipity was about to call again.
His trio was playing a Monday night residency, and friend Mike Lenz suggested one of his teenage guitar students sit in with Sweany, as the then 16-year old was also a devoted Hound Dog Taylor fan.
“So that’s when Dan Auerbach first sat in,” said Sweany of the now in-demand producer and founding member of the Black Keys who would end up producing some of Sweany’s music. “He knew all the (Taylor bassist/guitarist) Brewer Phillips parts and I knew all the Hound Dog Taylor parts. Their trio was two guitars and drums. Brewer would just turn the bass up all the way on his amplifier and play in the lower register and Hound Dog would play the upper register. And then they would switch.”
So Auerbach joined Sweany’s band for a time when they replicated the two guitar/drum configuration of Hound Dog Taylor’s band.
“I was always an Elmore James fan, and Hound Dog is definitely in line with that sort of electric slide guitar sound that Elmore pioneered. But he made it his own,” said Sweany.
Patrick Sweany plays Jazz UpFront in downtown Bloomington on Saturday night. Bloomington native Matthew Curry is also on the bill.
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