Written Exclusively for Southland Blues Magazine
by Joseph Jordan
For a state as huge as Texas, and with a guitar-slinger legacy as big as the open sky, it takes enormous talent to make a noise the blues world can hear above the massive echoes left behind by the brilliant, late masters of the instrument, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Freddie King. Add to that list the legacy left by such players as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sam "Lightin'" Hopkins, Aaron "T-Bone" Walker and the on-going tradition of the still very-much-alive Johnny Copeland, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Lowell Fulson, Clarence Hollimon and Jimmie Vaughan, and a band's got to really have it going on to make a dent in the public's perception.
The Dallas-based Smokin' Joe Kubek Band featuring B'nois King has all that and more. Together, Kubek and King form the best one-two punch in the blues business Since 1990, these largely un-sung blues heroes have been making some of the most memorable and beautiful music in the genre. Their growth as artists and songwriters on recordings and as players and performers on stage can be measured with each successive album and each new tour. In every venue they play, in every state and every country they visit, their performances are lauded and applauded. They are loved everywhere they play.
Yet like many artists, they're still not satisfied and both men look forward to taking their music to more people and their careers to the next level. Hopefully, for world-wide blues audience, too often subjected to one or two-shot wonders, the band's new recording, their fifth for Bullseye Blues, "Got My Mind Back," and consisting of all original material, will get them to that higher ground. Kubek says, "I'm excited about this album There's definitely some boogie for your ass in this album. This was a lot of fun and we've been having a lot of fun playing this stuff live and I can't wait for it to come out." King relates, "I like this new record a whole lot. I think its probably the best thing we ever did. There's a certain thing that runs through all of them and that's the groove. You know we got to have that groove, and what we got on tape is pretty damn good." The CD is due for release August 20th.
Kubek's new CD, demonstrates his amazing gift of music and consummate instrumental skills to all lovers of electric blues. It's been written that Kubek was among Stevie Ray Vaughan's favorite guitarists (they were close friends until SRV's tragic death in 1990) and he is among the most powerful and compelling of all blues-based guitar slingers.
Kubek's quartet prominently features the remarkable lead vocals and jazz-inspired guitar work of frontman B'nois King who is a gifted musician and lyricist from Monroe, Louisiana. The tasteful blues and jazz guitar runs of the richly-imaginative King, always sharp and inventive, are a great counter-point to Kubek's slashing, stinging, power and drive. B'nois's sensitive guitar licks and sublime, honey-dripped, uniquely-distinctive vocals can sink into lonely sorrow and deep blues, or revel in the joy of being alive, King completely and continually captures the essence and heart of his memorable song. Astoundingly, the 53-year old King had never sung with any regularity before hooking up with Kubek in Dallas around 1989. He had also never written a song before or been a frontman. Now he does both with a confidence that bears on the truly courageous. He can write anguished songs with the best of them, but he also writes with humor, truth and flat-out wisdom. Along with Kubek's penchant for melody, their repertoire is among the most impressive in the blues.
The band has been through a succession of rhythm sections, all of whom have provided the bottom for Joe's amazing fire and grace, impeccable guitar-fills, wondrous solos and soaring pyrotechnics. Lately the band is propelled with more than able support from the marvelous new rhythm section of beat-perfect bassist Paul Jenkins and the vibrant and crisp drumming of Mark Hays. And although Bullseye Blues wizard Ron Levy has produced each and played Hammond B-3 on most all of their five domestic releases, (their first album, "The Axe Man" was recorded in Dallas in1990 and released only in Europe) the band has no plans to change its size. As Kubek has decided, "The actual sound of adding a keyboard would be really cool, and at times horns would be really cool. But we've invited people up on stage before and it's a cool sound and everything, but it changes you to where you have to play a certain way to make it right. We kind of like keeping it the way we've been doing it."
Their friendship and musically-intuitive partnership began in a long-forgotten Dallas backstage dressing room at someone else's gig. Hellos were said, invites to jam were accepted and a band was formed fairly soon after. They don't have a lot of rules or strategies. As their fairly new drummer, Mark Hays said recently, "When those two get together, a spark just happens and things click." Kubek says, One thing about it (his partnership with Bnois) its real effortless. We never really have to sit down and say well you play this and I'll play this. It's kind of like we just get together and do it. That's one good thing about me and Bnois, You know a lot of time when you have a situation with two guitarists you do have to sit and work things out. And that's never been the case with me and Bnois. It's been effortless. We compliment each other. When he solos, I like to play behind him and give him something to stand on rather than pullin' out your guns and drawing, to see who's going to be the most bad-ass. I like to make it as tasteful as I can and he does too.
"Somewhere around fourteen I knew music was what I wanted to be doing for a living. My Mom, bless her heart, she's not alive anymore, was very supportive. She was like a saint and was all love. She could see the love I had for this and that's all that mattered to her. It really wasn't important to her where it went, or where my career was going to go or anything. The most important thing was that she saw I had a love for it and she nurtured that love if she could."
"B.B. King was a person who encouraged me. I spent a couple of hours with him one night, when I was maybe eighteen or nineteen years old, and we were sitting down and passing the original 'Lucille' back and forth and he was like 'Show me something of yours.'" "And at that time, I was so much into B.B. King that I was trying to show him that I knew a lot of his licks. So I accidentally hit this real weird lick, I wasn't even trying for anything, and he goes, 'Yeah, that's what I'm talking about.'" "B.B. said," 'You know Joe, you remind me of somebody that came in here, just like you, years ago. You know who that person was? George Benson.'" "What B.B. was doing was comparing the enthusiasm, not comparing the caliber of players. B.B. then said 'I said to myself, that guy is going to be something one of these days.' "And I heard B.B. King compare me to that and that was like a big, big stroke for a young boy. But to be a young kid and to hear somebody that you idolize stroke you like that was like a lifetime of enthusiasm. B.B. helped me believe in myself, that's what I'm talking about."
When times were hard, I always had my guitar and not being educated, finishing school, going to college, I knew I wanted be a musician no matter what, you know. Times were sporadic and I went through a lifetime of living here and there. Kind of a rough life. And to have that voice in the back of your head, of the big boys telling you someday you're going be something, that's the only thing you've got to hold on to. And that really meant a lot to me. Especially now, I appreciate it so much."
Lead guitarist, non-vocalist, Pennsylvania-born, Dallas-raised, soon-to-be-the-big-40 Joe Kubek has paid his blues dues playing within the Texas bands of largely-forgotten R&B vocalist, Al "TNT" Braggs (1980-1984) and was in the last band ever of the great Freddie King (1976.) The band was scheduled to go on tour a few days after the enormously-gifted King died suddenly from heart-failure at age 42.
As King relates his story, "I must've been eight or nine years old, something like that, maybe earlier. I ended up messing around with a Gibson guitar my grandmother had bought but never learned to play, so I started messing with it. They (King's parents) really didn't encourage me, in fact, discouraged me because to be a musician was like a pretty bad deal, was like sinful (laughs.) It was a wayward...I mean my family looked on it like 'it's all right for a hobby but concentrate on something else for a real job.' I didn't have no encouragement that way. So my last year in school, which was I think about tenth grade, New Orleans band-leader, sax-player George Moody came to our school to form a school band. He heard me messing with the guitar and just kind of took me under the wing. I give him the credit for giving me the encouragement to go on. I knew in my mid-teens that I wanted to play music (for a living.) I knew it, but I didn't have no encouragement 'til he came along. Moody taught me about being a professional."
Kubek talks of his possible legacy, "I want to make records that I'm satisfied with it but at the same time, it's gotta move our fans. If they don't dig it, you don't have anything. (Big laugh.) I would like to cut stuff to where it's good enough to where many years from now you could blow the dust off of it and go, "That was happening." And not only feel good about it myself but have other people as well feel good about it from people that don't play music, from people that do play music. I would like people to feel good about it to where they say, well that's not just another blues album.." Where that (recording) really meant something. That's really hip that was cool, that meant a lot to me when I played it."
King adds, "The fondest days are right now. Yeah, they are. You know when you first start out you're glad you're doing it. You're glad you get the record deal and you have all the illusions about it and all, and you go through all that. But finally, all that crap fall away and the real stuff show up. If you can still like it, when all the crap (is) out of your head and you can see stuff like it really is and still say you're having fun, (laughs) those are your best days and I can still say I'm having fun. I have expectations, but they're not ridiculous, and I'm looking at it one day at a time. I do see potential for this band. But if I fell dead right now, I would feel like I been hittin' a home run and the world doesn't owe me a thing. I really can say that. I had a ball and I'm still having a ball"