Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, May 6, 1999

Ross Bon, left, on stage with the Kings.

May brings heavy
dose of the blues

By Burl Burlingame


A good time for the blues may seem like a contradiction, but May is like that this year. There are plenty of blues artists visiting Honolulu for the next month:

Bullet Tonight and tomorrow it's the Mighty Blue Kings at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
Bullet May 21 it's the third annual Hawaiian Islands Rhythm & Blues Mele '99 at the Honolulu Zoo, starring John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, B.B. Shawn and Bluzilla.
Bullet May 22 it's "An Evening of Chicago Blues" at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, hosted by guitarist Dave Specter and backed by Chris Planas and Third Degree.
Bullet And for good measure, it's Blue Oyster Cult Saturday through Monday at Gussie L'Amour's (8:30 p.m., tickets $15-$20).

The Mighty Blue Kings, who actually kicked off their Honolulu sets last night at The Warehouse, are a natty line-up of jump-blues fiends who, once they get their teeth into a groove, shake it for all its worth. They've been lumped in with pseudo-swing bands, primarily because their music has that big-band, dig-that-crazy-beat, finger-poppin' syncopation, but there's a crucial distinction, according to frontman Ross Bon: The Mighty Blue Kings are all about the music, while the "swing" bands are just the groove du jour.

"It's surface, man," said Bon. "It ain't nothing but attitude and clothes. It's like break-dancing. You know any break-dancers today?"

Bon was on the phone from St. Louis, freshly showered after tearing the house down in a sold-out show. The Mighty Blue Kings are riding a hot streak, just signed with Sony's WORK Group after selling something like 100,000 privately pressed albums in a couple of years, promoted solely by the sweat of their brows. On their recent "Live From Chicago" album, the crowd of a thousand or so fans sing along on every tune, ranging from Jimmy Witherspoon's "Money's Getting Cheaper" to Louis Jordan's "Buzz Me" and "Green Grass Grows All Around" to a saxophone duel on Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression."

Not your parent's swing band, nor your kids' swing band.

Bon, whose assured, lunky baritone anchors the band -- people are often surprised to discover he's young and white -- grew up listening to his brother's Led Zeppelin albums and wondering whatever possessed Robert Plant to howl like that. "Man, I wanted to find THEIR influences, which led me to the masters, like T-Bone Walker and Howling Wolf and Jimmy Witherspoon and Gatemouth Brown, all those Midwest cats. Those are my influences. I like swing as well as the next guy, but we're playing rhythm and blues, blues with rhythm. It's our sole job -- Yeah! Our 'soul' job."

Bon said the Kings seek to be as "organic" as possible, "no bells and whistles, just good music and energy. 'Course, somebody's sound is entirely up to them, but something like a synthesizer in a blues band just don't cut it, man. I'm not out to invent the next new sound. Count Basie, he was interpreting, not inventing. It's takes perseverance and continuity."

The Mighty Blue Kings are famous for their live shows, which often occur six nights a week. "It's a blessing and a curse and a challenge to be consistent six nights in a row. Usually the house provides the sound so we don't have to travel with a PA. I always bring my own microphone. But when you're in a different place and a different set-up every night, getting top sound quality is one of the biggest challenges."

The road gives Bon an excuse to haunt used-record stores. "It's an absolute hunt for cool old songs. You know it when you hear it. Wow! We HAVE to do this song!"

As for interpretation, do you have to be a grown-up to play the blues?

"I became an adult at an early age, I guess," mused Bon, who's in his late 20s (but sounds like he's in his 30s). "Playing blues isn't really about feeling bad and hard times, it's about being in touch with the soulful side of yourself. I'm a white kid from New Jersey and Chicago -- I CAN'T sing truthfully 'bout my home on the delta. But I can still say something."

The band's making a living at it, part of a burgeoning blues infestation in always blues-rich Chicago, its home base. "A lotta work going on," said Bon. "Everyone's jumpin' on it. The range of artists is really good in Chicago. Some boys put on the hats and glasses and play the role of bluesman, but you know it's gotta come from inside. Can't be an act. Blues is blues is blues. The real bluesmen are still a fairly small community, and we go see each other and support the scene. As for myself, I relate to and am geared toward the audience, 'cause I'm a fan too."


Hearing that Specter is also playing Honolulu, Bon shouts, "I used to play with Dave! Hell of a guitar-man."

Ross is also playing Honolulu? "My, my," laughed Specter, home in Chicago. "That boy gets around."

Specter, a masterly guitar technician who slides easily from gritty funk to cerebral jazz, was also led to the blues by a brother. "My parents listened to Howling Wolf and Leadbelly, and my brother was a harmonica player. When I was 16 or 17, he'd sneak me into blues clubs to hear live music."

Now 36, Specter didn't even pick up a guitar until he was 18. "Yeah, I started late, but I was always listening, to jazz and to classic Chicago-style and T-Bone Walker and Albert Collins and Otis Rush. Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery.

"The blues is going good! It's more popular than ever, and there are more festival and more clubs and more listeners. There are teen-age kids who call themselves blues artists, but I think you gotta pay some dues. Blues is about life, and you have to experience it first-hand."

Though Specter started out with a Fender Stratocaster -- "I have a '57 that's my pride and joy" -- lately he's been playing Gibsons and the occasional Epiphone. "The Gibson hollow body is warmer and louder, jazzier. The Strats are good for that traditional blues wail, that stinging electric buzz."

He also swears by antique tube amplifiers for their rich, fat sound. "I think they're extremely reliable. I've NEVER had trouble," said Specter, though he's heard the guitarist horror stories of buying tubes out of Soviet warehouses. "Actually, there are plenty of old Sylvania tubes left in the United States."

Specter is playing here with a pick-up band, relying on the international 12-bar chord of blues brotherhood to ease the way. "That's one of the nice things about the blues -- it's an interpretive form. You can play someone else's music and make it your own. ... I just got back from gigging with an Israeli blues band, playing the blues hangouts in Tel Aviv. I've played with Swiss blues bands, with Brazilian blues bands. If there's a musician anywhere in the world who knows the blues, we can play together anytime. And that's a fact."

Mighty Blue Kings

Bullet In concert: 8:30-10:30 p.m.
Bullet Venue: Shell Bar, Hilton Hawaiian Village
Bullet Admission: One-drink minimum
Bullet Call:947-7877

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