While His Guitar Gently Smokes

Smokin' Joe Kubek and his band have terrific timing. Although Kubek and singer Bnois King are music-biz vets, their first album appeared only five years ago--just in time to surf the new wave of interest in blues.

"Thank God," Kubek says from his Dallas home. "Several years ago, I was playing gigs when people didn't want to hear it. Now you can drive all over the place and make recordings."

The story of Kubek's band is a classic rags-to-near-riches tale. The band was playing Huey's, a Memphis bar and grill, when Rounder Records owner Marian Leighton Levy stepped through the door. The result was the band's first U.S. release in 1991, Steppin' Out Texas Style, and a career that blossomed through four more recordings in as many years.

Kubek's success is no mystery. Smokin' Joe and company are peddling the heart of Saturday night. In full boogie mode, the band rocks the blues a la George Thorogood and fellow Texans ZZ Top. Some of the cuts on the band's latest album, Got My Mind Back, have a more contemplative jazz feel, but King is a shouter, not a crooner, and most of his and Kubek's songs have a party aesthetic. Take "Double or Nothing," an instrumental on the new album: Filled with tight, bouncy flourishes, it would work perfectly as a TV theme, say, "Have Guitar, Will Travel."

The band managed to cut the new album's tracks in a little more than a day. That's because the songs had been thoroughly road-tested, Kubek says. "I've seen people spend a week trying to get a particular guitar tone. I want to get as close as we can to sounding live, like when you come hear us perform. I look at the CD as a calling card that says, 'Come see us live,' and playing live as saying, 'Hey, check out our CD.' When I play live, I like to make it as fun as possible--like New Year's Eve every night."

Kubek, 39, has a career that represents nothing if not a triumph of will over circumstances. Growing up in a Dallas suburb, there were no other musicians in his family--but there was that other essential ingredient, an older brother who "brought real cool records home, like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream." Kubek started fooling around with a guitar when he was 9 and played his first shows at 14. "When I did go to school, I was coming home and running to get my guitar. And when I didn't have a guitar in my hand, I spent most of my time dreaming about it."

A moniker like "Smokin'" is a lot for a musician to live up to. It wasn't something he asked for, Kubek says; it fell on his 17-year-old head and he learned to live with it. "I got it by playing this itty-bitty club in Irving, Texas. They had asked me if I could put something together for the weekend at the last minute, so I threw together this band and when I pulled up at the club, it said 'Smokin' Joe and the Electric Tennis Shoes.' I said, 'What's going on here?' The next thing I knew, people were calling me 'Smokin' Joe.'"

In 1976, the guitarist snagged a brief stint playing behind blues master Freddie King. A pioneering guitarist, King died after a Christmas show that same year, just as Kubek was getting ready to go on the road with him. Thrust back on his own resources, Kubek honed his skills through the ensuing desert years, when you couldn't give the blues away. The first trickle of rain fell in 1987 when Bnois King sat in on Kubek's regular Monday spot at a Dallas nightclub.

It felt so comfortable that Kubek asked King, then 53, to do the gig with him. "When you get two guitarists onstage, a lot of times you have to work things out to keep from stepping on each other," says Kubek, "but Bnois and I never had that problem. It just flowed."

A veteran of jazz fusion, King trades guitar leads with Kubek in addition to his vocal chores. "Bnois is a monster," Kubek says. "He's like a sleeper in jazz--you let him loose on a jazz song, he could scare a guitar player to death."

A big man with a little goatee, Kubek remains adamantly close-mouthed onstage, although he's voluble on the telephone. "When you got somebody who sings as good as Bnois, why would I want to sing?" he says. "I don't think I could focus on playing as good as I could if I was trying to get both of those things happening."

Although the band and the genre may be gaining fans, contemporary blues is still relegated to the radio ghetto--in most cities, there's just an hour or two of the music each week on public radio or a college station.

Kubek says that rankles him. "I would love to see blues as a mainstream. It's so funny: People love it and they love it more than anything else. God, wouldn't it be nice, like you have MTV, to have blues TV? Or like, having blues awards on TV like they do country music? I think people are very much ready for something like that. I can see it happening."

Meanwhile, his band is happily ensconced on Bullseye, the blues subsidiary of Rounder Records. It's not a major label, but it's the biggest of the independents, a netherworld status that mirrors the band's poised-to-break-through status.

"Rounder is growing constantly--it gets bigger as we sit here and speak. And the kind of deal I've got is like Bob Dylan or Jeff Beck, who was on Epic Records from day one and still is. In other words, what I'm saying is, I've got a home--as long as I keep selling records."

The Smokin' Joe Kubek Band featuring Bnois King is scheduled to perform on Thursday, January 16, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.


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