Something Borrowed

Can the Valley's most spectacular blues guitarist forge his own style?

Carvin Jones likes Stevie Ray Vaughan.
No, you don't understand. I mean he really, really likes him.
You can see it in the Phoenix bluesman's stage wardrobe, replete with snakeskin boots and wide-brimmed black hat. You can sense it in the Vaughanlike way he hunches his shoulders whenever he digs into a hot solo. But, most important, you can hear it in his music.

Even when Jones rips into a tune like "Little Wing," by another of his big heroes, Jimi Hendrix, he does it as a moody instrumental, just like Vaughan. If he plays the Beatles' "Taxman," it's got the funky groove that Vaughan brought to his version.

"He played all the stuff that I liked," Jones explains, during a brief break in his nonstop performing schedule. "He did Hendrix, bluesy stuff and even a little jazz."

Fortunately, the result of all this musical admiration is that Jones may be one of the few mortals on this planet who can rampage across the fretboard of an electric guitar with the same ferocity and virtuosity that Vaughan possessed.

Jones' frenzied brilliance on his Stratocaster hasn't escaped the attention of local blues enthusiasts, who tend to cluster around the stage after his sets and tell him that he really rocks, or he's the greatest guitarist they've ever heard. It's probably akin to seeing Brett Favre walk through a Wisconsin sports bar while guys let him know he can really chunk the pigskin, just in case he needed to know.

Vaughan may be his most obvious musical mentor, but it was B.B. King who first tweaked the ears of a young, impressionable Jones while growing up in the small, east Texas town of Lufkin. At age 11, he picked up a guitar for the first time, and, without lessons, quickly and intuitively unlocked the mysteries of the six-string.

Eight years ago, he impulsively left Lufkin for Phoenix. "I just wanted to change the scenery," he says. "You can't keep playing the same one club in the same small town forever."

So Jones found an environment where he could literally play seven nights a week at various Valley clubs, as he's done during the past five years, with scarcely a night off. Everywhere he goes, people go nuts for him. Hell, he's even got Dallas Cowboy lineman--and former Arizona State University standout--Shante Carver trying to set up gigs for him. Nobody doubts he can play, but does he have something original to offer as a musical artist?

Well, as a singer, he's passable, but no great shakes. The first time I heard him perform, I thought he was suffering from a sore throat. The second time, I realized that he's just perpetually hoarse. As for his choice of material, he leans quite a bit on predictable blues and R&B standards like "Sweet Home Chicago," "The Sky Is Crying," "Mustang Sally" and "Born Under a Bad Sign." The jury's still out on his songwriting, which will be on rare display in a couple of months when he releases his first--as yet untitled--CD.

So, in a way, Jones finds himself in the same tender trap as many blues artists, tentatively trying to forge his own style in an idiom--unlike rock--that measures its health by how well it resists change, how stubbornly it stays connected to its heritage.

His artistic growth may be tentative, but onstage Jones never fails to take charge. Taking the show to the crowd--both literally and figuratively--he peels off one blistering solo after another, borrowing Vaughan's Texas-blues style and applying his own solid improvisational instincts. He's so supremely confident with his ax strapped on that he often looks like he could do his taxes or floss his teeth while he's bending a note.

And all his hard work just might be paying off. He recently videotaped a gig at Electric Ballroom for what he says will be a TV special on a local network affiliate. Early next year, he's planning his first extensive tour, including a jaunt through Europe.

Jones says record labels have shown interest in the past, but either they've asked him to change his sound or change his band lineup, neither of which he's willing to do. But, without some kind of evolution into a more individual sound, he may continue toiling in the shadows of giants, earning difficult comparisons with departed legends. Either way, Jones says he's getting all the positive feedback he needs.

"I used to think, 'How long do we have to kick ass before someone takes note?'" he says. "Then, about a year ago, I realized the most important people have already taken note. The fans."

Release Me:
It just seems to be that time of year when tons of enterprising local bands are getting around to releasing CDs. Fred Green went one better than the usual route by throwing not one but two CD-release shows for its sophomore effort, Groover. The first was an all-ages bash at Hollywood Alley, July 11, followed up the next night by an appropriately festive gathering at the new Mill Avenue Sport Rock Cafe.

The eclectic funk-rock trio--which is currently drawing nibbles from a couple of major labels--has taken Groover on the road with two months of shows in places like New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and California. Its Western swing will be interrupted only by a local show Tuesday, July 29, opening for Phish at Desert Sky Pavilion.

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