Acclaimed 37-year-old bluesman Brandon Santini has an award-winning new album and is edging into a newer sound.
The North Carolina native said that rock-edged sound had been knocking around his brain for some time.
“I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock of the 1970s,” said Santini, who now calls Springfield, Illinois, home after a stop in the blues mecca of Memphis. Ironically, he was speaking from Memphis while on the road touring.
“I’m a huge fan of the Allman Brothers, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers just as much as I am a fan of Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and Howlin Wolf. I’ve always wanted to cut a record that is outside the traditional blues realm I’ve been known for, for the better part of my career.”
Santini said the songs that landed on “The Longshot” are ones he had percolating with him the past four years and gave him a chance to add a wrinkle to his recorded repertoire. Not to mention being able to market himself to a wider audience.
“Especially the younger blues fans are into the more progressive, contemporary style, and blues-rock,” said Santini. “Plus, there are guys out there like (blues veterans) Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin that can play traditional blues much better than I can. But with the industry evolving, I think you have to figure out ways to roll with ‘the machine’ so to speak.”
You could be forgiven if you missed Santini’s omnipresent harmonica with a quick first listen front to back of “The Longshot.” It’s the second, more intentional tuning in to hear the harmonica that reveals his trademark sound. It’s a more guitar-driven album than what many have come to know of his recorded material.
“I didn’t want to just blow harmonica all over the place as I wanted to be able to feature a lot of the great musicians that I had with me. I also think some of these songs didn’t need blazing harmonica solos throughout the entire song. I also like to be featured as a singer as well,” he chuckled.
At 37, Santini is considered relatively young for a blues musician, but he’s already been described by many pundits and industry insiders as one of the talented younger artists moving the harmonica sound forward. Despite downplaying that sound on “The Longshot,” he said it’s a distinction he’s quite proud of.
“I love the way the instrument is progressing today and there are so many great players that are changing the instrument from what it’s typically known for,” said Santini. “But I think everything needs to evolve in music. I’m a big fan of contemporary players just as much as I am of the traditional guys.”
Matter of fact, it was John Popper of Blues Traveler that first caught his ear.
“He has a very progressive style of playing and it’s not really blues,” said Santini. “So I bring a lot of that influence with my playing, and from when I first started playing, it wasn’t from a traditional (blues) style of playing. I got into the old blues guys a little bit after that.”
“The Longshot is mostly originals, but the cover of Howlin Wolf is one of the album’s standouts, and a great example of moving traditional blues into new territory. “Evil (Is Going On) is one of the greatest blues performances ever, but instead of trying to replicate Wolf’s distinctive booming raspy voice and presence writer Cub Koda once described as something “no one could match for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits,” Santini turned to his band for the haunting sound the song is known for.
“Again, when it comes to the evolution of blues music, it can’t stay as a piece on the shelf of a museum. It has to evolve to survive. That song specifically … the guitar and bass parts to that I just started singing the ‘evil’ line to it. Then we recorded the dark sounding guitar and rogue noises, and the drums turned out really funky. It was a completely different take. Whether Howlin Wolf would like it or not? I don’t know, but a lot of people have really enjoyed that.”
Brandon Santini returns to Jazz UpFront in downtown Bloomington on Saturday night.
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