Lonesome Shack's Blues Rooted in the Desert
You could easily be forgiven for mistaking More Primitive, the new LP by Seattle-based blues trio Lonesome Shack, for a mid-'70s recording from the North Mississippi hill country, the fertile blues scene that gave listeners artists like R.L. Burnside, Fred McDowell, Jesse Mae Hemphill, and more. But no, singer/guitarist Ben Todd's lineage isn't southern in origin. Growing up in Bellingham, Washington, he departed for the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, where he built a shack next to his travel trailer. For four years he dedicated his time to the blues, a passion that continued when he moved to Phoenix.
Todd says his stop at the Lost Leaf in downtown Phoenix feels like something of a homecoming. He attended the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, playing solo blues at spots like Carly's Bistro, Trunk Space, Yucca Tap Room and Rhythm Room. "I played solo," he explains, which changed when he moved to Seattle. There he hooked up with drummer Kristian Garrard and bassist Luke Bergman. The power trio format changed the way Todd approached his songs. The interplay with the rhythm section made his songs "more dance-focused," Todd explains. "Just playing off a drummer made me change my approach."
While bombastic indie blues is in vogue right now thanks to the Black Keys' chart-topping status -- and indeed Lonesome Shack is signed to the Black Key's first home, the venerable Alive Naturalsound Records -- Lonesome Shack favors a nimbler approach. Todd's droning blues figures display the influence of guitarists like Junior Kimbrough and John Lee Hooker, players whose playing could be described as raw, but display a powerful elegance. Not exactly "primitive," Todd says, but that's not what he was going for with the album title.
"I wasn't thinking of [the word primitive] as a descriptor of the whole style," Todd says. "It's more about a desire to get to a really basic practice. Working with my hands, and simplifying things. I think that reflects in my songwriting."
Lonesome Shack's music clearly has roots in the South, but Todd experienced it in the Southwest. Hanging out in his shack in New Mexico, listening to collections like Georgia Blues Today and "Texas stuff, like Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and...Blind Lemon Jefferson," Todd says the music seemed to resonate with the landscape.
"I built a little shack on the side of my travel trailer and called that the 'lonesome shack,'" Todd says. "It was a pretty isolated situation. That's where I started getting into blues and boogie music heavily, and learning how to play it. I had a lot of time to focus. I think just being in a rural area, where it was pretty quiet most of the time. Just being out on the land, the music felt right out there."
Lonesome Shack is scheduled to perform Wednesday, June 11, at Lost Leaf.
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