music by STEVE GUYGER
Text and Photos by Larry Benicewicz
Ironically, before making more inroads in the States, he first went abroad backing the late Jimmy Rogers for nearly a month in 1993 on a junket in which they paid a call in England, Scotland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Holland (Utrecht). Later in 1998, he reprised this role in Belgium with the underappreciated blues guitarist/ vocalist, John Brim, who was back on the comeback trail. Since then, Steve’s been quite the globetrotter, especially recently with a few forays into Finland in the company of local legend Tomi Leino and with whom he recorded a CD, Keep It Moving, released in 2007. “We kind of admired each other’s work and began communicating by e-mail. It blossomed into a tour,” he said. By the way, Steve, who has cultivated a fine, smoky (and sometimes gravely) blues delivery, handles the vocals on this album, many tracks of which he composed himself.
I had heard of Steve (seemingly a fixture at Tom Cullen’s Bucks County Blues Picnics) quite a few years before I met him and (as mentioned previously) as beat writer in the early 90s for the regional blues scene, I was submitting articles to Maryland Musician, now the Music Monthly. But as long as he stayed north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I couldn’t really regard him as a local artist. But as the decade wore on, he was appearing more frequently in my neck of the woods, beginning with the first annual Mid-Atlantic Blues Festival which was held at the Varsity Grill in downtown Wilmington, DE, on May 7, 1994. Despite the torrential rains which threatened to inundate the makeshift main tent, the event went on as planned, showcasing the “best of” area acts, including Delaware’s native sons, Jim McCarthy and Gary Cogdell & the Hambone Sweets, Philadelphia’s Debbie Pein ( a rockabilly exponent), and Washington D.C.’s Charlie Donelan and Bobby Parker (who headlined). Undoubtedly, the biggest surprise for me, outside of the unexpected healthy turnout, was this other homegrown product of the City of Brotherly Love, Steve Guyger, who, despite going on first, stole the show, presenting a veritable clinic in the amplified blues harp styles of all the Chicago mastersSonny Boy Williamson, Little and Big Walter, and Snooky Pryor.
After his scintillating set, I was determined to book him in Baltimore and eventually did so at the Cat’s Eye Pub and Café Tattoo. The money was never that great but Steve never refused to travel the 200 mile round trip (and pay the tolls as well).
Moreover, he would often drive down on his own accord on a Wednesday night to sit in with blues belter, Big Jesse Yawn, who would normally be holding court at the New Haven Lounge. And sometimes he’d invite another colorful Chicago legend, Big Guitar Red (Walter William Smith), who had relocated to Philadelphia in 1991 after his new wife had been accepted into medical school there. “I had met Guitar Red back in Chicago when he was a member of Homesick James’s band,” said Steve. It was evident that there was quite a bit of chemistry between Steve and this great blues raconteur and they remained inseparable for quite a few years until Red’s illness precluded accepting any further engagements.
When considering the length of his career, Steve would be the first to admit that his first album was long overdue. “About 1994, I did finally record a cassette with Paul Oscher in a Brooklyn club, Live at the Five Burros Café [a pun on Five Boroughs], which I used mainly for promotion, like handy calling card,” he said. And later in 1996, he (with Mudcat Ward on bass and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums) assisted Paul on one of his own CDs, Knockin’ on the Devil’s Door on the Vice Roots label. But over the last decade or so, Steve has more than made up for lost time, releasing a whole host of worthwhile undertakings which amply demonstrate his ease in a variety of blues settings. In fact they came so fast and furiously, it is difficult to chronologically separate them.
Steve first received top billing on the CD, Live at the Dinosaur, which captured a typically rousing performance of his at the venerable Syracuse blues club, rib joint, and popular biker magnet. His own sidemen, including longtime bassist, Steve Gomes, are aided by the great but unheralded keyboardist Dave Maxwell, who also lent a hand to Jesse Yawn and Tino Gonzales in their own ventures on this short lived label, HorsePlay.
By the way, the Latin flavored blues guitarist, Tino, who appeared many times at Baltimore’s now recently defunct Full Moon Saloon and who actually shared a double bill with Steve that magical night, produced the CD, perhaps acknowledging the support Steve supplied on his own 1994 Remedy records package, Double Feature. Not long after recording his own Live at the Dinosaur 2, Tino moved to Toulouse, France, where he now resides. By the way, Tom Cullen, who penned the liner notes to Steve’s initial release, gives it a ringing endorsement. And why not? It’s definitely a keeper.
Close on the heels of Dinosaur came Steve Guyger: Last Train to Dover on the Blues Leaf label, and it marks his first studio endeavor, recorded at Showplace Studios in Dover, NJ (thus the title). Rich Yescalis, back on board as his lead guitarist, really shines throughout and Steve aptly illustrates his versatility with the harp, tackling no less than a good half-dozen extended instrumentals.
During the late 90s, Steve often utilized David Earl, a stellar Baltimore-based guitarist in his band and this association led to Steve’s breakthrough CD, Past Life Blues in 1999, on Severn records, a label that Earl founded the same year. I remembered at the time, that despite the high quality of the album, no one thought that the label was going to endure much past the initial efforts of its charter members like Steve, drummer Big Joe Maher (who both played on and produced the endeavor), and Ola Dixon. But here we are a decade later and the logo, based in Davidsonville, MD, has become one of the most prestigious of this genre of music with a roster chock full of blues and soul luminaries---Mike Morgan & the Crawl, Darrell Nulisch, Tad Robinson, Sugar Ray Norcia, Louisiana Red, Lou Pride, Roy Carrier, and Roy Gaines, the latter who himself was aided by Steve on his 2000 Severn release, New Frontier Lover. Yes, after a modest beginning, Severn records has become a major player in the field, managing to stay afloat in the midst of the shipwreck that has become the CD market in general. And just this month, I received a review copy of its newest member in the fold, Clarence Spady.
Indeed, it was the highly regarded Past Life Blues (Sev 0002) which put Steve Guyger on the blues map, so to speak. Recorded by Peter Bonta at Wally Cleavers’s Studio in Fredricksburg, VA, it’s a masterpiece, revealing a bluesman at the apex of his craft, both as composer and player. In fact, Earl thought so highly of this project that he not only kept it in his catalogue but also reissued it in 2003, fully remixed and remastered with three additional tracks.
Recorded in the same year as Past Life Blues, Steve with longtime friend, Paul Oscher, decided to go in an altogether different direction and issued another CD, the second on Blues Leaf, Living Legends Deep in the Blues. According to Steve, this collaboration was brewing for years before it finally came into fruition. In order to achieve a more intimate atmosphere as well as an unfettered, free form approach to the material, both artists agreed to dispense with the percussionist and only bassist, Mike Lampe, accompanied the two musicians. But there are also other surprises as well. The multi-faceted Paul, who normally is quite adept at the harmonica, bass harp, and guitar, also contributes a very creditable piano; while Steve, when called upon, delivers an outstanding chromatic harmonica; not a mean feat, as this instrument is most difficult to master. It’s no wonder then that Steve in the liner notes thinks that this album should be “a classic and an important part of any blues collection.”
2006 found Steve successfully attempting yet another configuration, a duo. And as any musician knows, the fewer the participants, the more pressure there is upon each to work as a unitjust ask some latter day artists who have excelled in this deft interplay of harp and guitar, perhaps originated by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee---John Cephas & Phil Wiggins, Paul Rishell & Little Annie Raines, and Jay Summerour and Warner Williams of Little Bit O’ Blues. It would just be a matter of time before two talented Bucks County denizens, Steve and guitarist Richard Ray Farrell (b. Niagra Falls, NY, 1958), with the same traditional tastes hooked up for this undertaking, Down Home Old School Country Blues (Blue Beet 10003). Although all the selections are covers of classic material---“Early in the Morning” by John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, “Baby Please Don’t Go” by Big Joe Williams, and “Diggin’ My Pototatoes” by Washboard Sam---the two manage to put their own personal stamp on each blues chestnut, giving each number another interpretation, a new spin. And both are more than up to the challenge of this subtle interaction of instrumentation, which demands a delicate, almost innate, sense of timing. In short, one has to know precisely the right moment to pick up where the other has left off.
It would be difficult for Steve to top his first release for Severn, Past Life Blues, but with his most recent album, Radio Blues (0044), he just might have pulled it off. As always, it is engineered and mixed flawlessly by David Earl himself at Severn Studios in Severn, MD, and contains no less than ten original tunes (of the fourteen) penned by Steve himself, who of late has become a blues songsmith to be reckoned with. As usual, Steve surrounds himself with the best sidemen available, including long time bassist, Steve Gomes. And newcomer Johnny Moeller on lead guitar is a revelation. Harp great Rick Estrin, who provides the liner notes, gives the venture his hearty stamp of approval and I’m with him all the way as to his recommendation.
Radio Blues no doubt refers to the Golden Age of the blues, the 50s, when at night you could tune into a clear channel 50,000 watt powerhouse like WLAC in Nashville and then buy the platters the DJs would play via mail order. The disks would be a sampling of all types of blues and their respective birth places. Thus, Steve Guyger’s Radio Blues is actually a blues odyssey, an excursion to all the seminal hotbeds of blues throughout the United States, all the regions which have contributed their own brand of blues to that body of work so uniquely American. And, believe me, few artists can even attempt such an ambitious undertaking. If it’s Louisiana blues that you crave, it is well represented by such numbers as the funky New Orleans parade beat of Smiley Lewis’s “Oh Red;” the Cajun flavored “Little Rita,” wherein Steve plays the harmonica like a zydeco accordion; and the classic E-flat, B-flat (with triplets) of Swamp Pop or Swamp Blues (my favorite) of “I Can See By Your Eyes.” In fact, I can imagine a Slim Harpo or Lazy Lester supplying the harp licks to this memorable number. Steve also tackles a couple of Piedmont blues inspired tunes, in which he plays in a country harp manner very reminiscent of Sonny Terry---the instrumental “Afghan Rumble” and “Hey Little Baby,” the latter with the hand jive rhythm of Bobby Bland’s “Chicken Hop.” And West Coast jump blues closes the CD with Steve’s instrumental take on Joe Liggins’s signature “Honeydripper.”
And, of course, there are quite a few nods to Chicago blues, be it the West Side rhumba variety of “School Is Over” which conjures up both Otis Rush’s “All Your Love” and Ike Turner’s “Box Top” or the straight ahead Delta slide guitar technique of Muddy Waters’s “Let Me Hang Around,” in which Steve’s vocal uncannily recalls that of the late Junior Wells. Regarding the blues of the Windy City, there is also another reason to appreciate Steve. As a traditionalist, he prefers the 12-bar variety with a repetitive rhythmic riff. Although apparently simple, it’s a framework within which he can do much maneuvering as an instrumentalist, an axiom all too well known to artists such as Howlin’ Wolf. In fact, Steve kicks off the album with such an example, “Lookie Here,” and soon follows it with the stark, brooding, “Cool in the Evening,” which is very evocative of the Tail Dragger’s modus operandi.
Outside of Steve’s rendition of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’” which is perhaps a little too laid back for my taste, Radio Blues can do nothing but enhance the reputation of one of America’s best kept secrets, both as writer and player, in bluesdom.
As this article goes to press, friend and fellow harp standout, Dennis Gruenling, has just completed a labor of love, a tribute album to Little Walter, who was recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And promoting the CD, I Just Keep Lovin’ Him, in which Steve figured prominently, will entail some heavy duty touring. And Steve has agreed to accompany him. For most men of Steve’s age, subjecting themselves to this daily abuse is a daunting prospect, but which doesn’t faze this seasoned road warrior in the least. If recognition eventually comes his way, so be it. In the meantime, as always, Steve’s just going to do his thingplay the blues---and let the chips fall where they may. The man is relentless, the proverbial rolling stone. And he’s just going to keep on keeping on for as long as he can.
---- Larry Benicewicz, B.B.S.
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