Roomful of Blues keeps the door open

Roomful of Blues is at Club Helsinki on Saturday May 15

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 11, 2004) – One thing has remained constant in the 37 years since Roomful of Blues was first formed in Westerly, R.I., by guitarist Duke Robillard and keyboardist Al Copley: the group’s devotion to pre-rock swing, r&b and jump blues.

“It’s never been about money,” said Chris Vachon, the group’s current guitarist and bandleader, in a recent phone interview from his Rhode Island home. “We’ve had about fifty-five guys in the band over the years, and most of the guys do it for the love of the music – the love of blues and r&b.”

Roomful of Blues brings its horn-heavy blend of swing, blues and r&b to Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) for the first time on Saturday at 9.

In addition to Robillard and Copley, over the years Roomful of Blues has been home to such well-known musicians as guitarist Ronnie Earl, harpist/vocalist Sugar Ray Norcia, keyboardist Ron Levy, and vocalist Lou Ann Barton. The group has backed legendary musicians including Count Basie, Jimmy Witherspoon, Joe Turner, Jimmy McCracklin, Roy Brown and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, as well as contemporary stars including Stevie Ray Vaughan and Pat Benatar.

Over the years the group has earned four Grammy Award nominations and won several W.C. Handy Blues Awards, including a recent one for Best Blues Band. And twice, DownBeat magazine’s International Critics Poll selected Roomful of Blues as Best Blues Band.

As heard on the group’s most recent CD, “That’s Right!” (Alligator), the band still sticks to its winning formula of jump blues, swing, r&b and a little soul. The album revives classics of the genre, including Joe Turner’s “Lipstick, Powder and Paint” and T-Bone Walker’s “I Know Your Wig Is Gone,” with saxophones and trumpets sailing around Mark DuFresne’s bluesy vocals and harmonica. Over the years the group has ranged in size from eight to 10 members; these days the band includes Mark Stevens on organ, Rich Lataille and Mark Earley on saxophones, and Bob Enos on trumpet. Bassist Brad Hallen and drummer Jason Corbiere keep the rhythms tight.

Vachon says the group’s longevity is probably due to the variety of material the band plays in concert. “Because of the size of the band and the different styles we cover, it makes it more interesting from the standpoint of watching a show,” he said. “We’re not just stuck in a march or doing the same thing all night long. It’s good for us as musicians, too; we get to mix it up and everyone gets a piece of what they like.”

For Vachon, playing guitar in the band makes him something of the point man, having to fill the big shoes of Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl. But he says the variety of the music and the size of the band work in his favor, too.

“It’s nice being in a horn band,” he said. “You get that big sound. As a guitar player, I like it because I get to not always have to be the guitar god guy. I can just pick my spots to play solos, but not all the time. It’s especially good when you get a little older and you like to hear other stuff going on.”

Vachon is well aware that people sometimes are watching him and thinking about his predecessors in the band. “Their names come up,” he said. “You can’t help that. But we’ve gotten our own nominations and stuff after they left. The band’s always good. One thing we really try to do is keep the quality up.”

Vachon said he took a liking to the blues when he was young and was hooked. “Something I liked off the bat was not having to copy what was happening,” he said. “I like the fact that I can play a little different every night and let the style evolve a little bit.”

Before joining Roomful, Vachon played in a Connecticut-based band called Eight to the Bar. He played in other local blues bands and Top 40 bands. “It took a while for me to get into the band,” he said. “I first had an audition when Ronnie Earl was going to leave, and then he didn’t leave.”

During his time in Roomful, he’s seen the mainstream popularity of the type of the music the group plays ebb and flow. “Since I’ve been in the band there was one big swing resurgence,” said Vachon. “It was really a fad-type thing -- cigars and martinis. But I kind of figured it wasn’t going to last too long.

“All I can say for us is that people enjoy dancing to it. Even if they’re not doing strict swing dancing, it has a very danceable-type appeal to people. Even if they’re not dancing, they’re bopping to it.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 13, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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