January 7, 2010

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Blues recruits
Catfish Howl mixes and matches
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

“We need a drummer and a bass player — any volunteers?”

Guitarist Bryan Nutter is only joking, as Laura Jean Graham straps on her bass and Lee Sevigny settles in behind the drum kit to start the second set of the weekly jam session hosted by his Manchester blues band Catfish Howl.

There are plenty of musicians in the crowd at Moe Joe’s ready to step in if the moment demanded, however. It’s the blues, after all, where a few simple ingredients can get any song in gear: choose a key, find a groove, and pick a moment to solo — otherwise, just keep the beat.

June Vallincourt strums a six-string guitar, as the band backs her for a few Hank Williams tunes. She ends with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” Gary Calderon and Wayne Howell take her place. Calderon plays a bit on harmonica, then switches to saxophone for a soulful version of “Into the Mystic,” with Howell singing lead and playing rhythm guitar. 

Meanwhile, a goateed man in a leather fisherman’s hat lugs a small amp and a guitar case across the dance floor to a table near the stage, where he sits down and waits his turn to play.

This evening, the penultimate Wednesday of 2009, is typical of many nights at the Candia Road restaurant since Catfish Howl began doing the jams in September. 

“We’ve built it up from nothing,” says keyboard player Glen Robertson. “There were maybe five people here the first night.”

According to Nutter, the appeal of these sessions and others like it at Fratello’s in Manchester (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.) and Village Trestle in Goffstown (Sundays at 4 p.m.) is simple.

“People are tired of classic rock,” he said between sets. “But blues is different, people can go out and hear real musicians interacting with each other, and kind of sticking their necks out and taking chances on the kind of music that’s got a universal appeal.”

The so-called “open rehearsals” are popular with players who, due to time restrictions or other factors, otherwise don’t have a chance to play out.

“It’s awfully hard to keep a band together in this economy,” said Nutter, who joined Catfish Howl two years ago,  “but people can come out on a Wednesday night or a Saturday night and have a band back them, and do their thing, and feel free to fly without a net and make mistakes, check out new things and if it does go off the rails it’s OK.  The band is usually competent enough to be able to cover and make it a good time for everybody.”

Catfish Howl’s new album, Midnight Mojo, draws from this collaborative spirit. Joining them on the record’s nine original songs are a few well-known members of the New Hampshire music scene: sax player Steve Roberge (Common Knowledge) and Danny Irizarry, known for his harmonica work with Kan-Tu (now Wan-Tu) Blues Band, B.B. King’s daughter Shirley King and others. 

“Everybody knows Danny,” Robertson said.

Blues chanteuse Lisa Marie (Lisa Marie and the All Shook Up) shares lead vocals on the naughty “Leather Girl” and “Used By You,” a clever reworking of the Muddy Waters classic “I Just Want To Make Love To You.” 

The choice of “Catfish” in the band’s name is a nod to New Orleans (“Howl” refers to Howlin’ Wolf); Robertson’s accordion playing does add a unique element to a traditional blues sound. However, Nutter said, “Zydeco is one aspect of the band. For the album … we didn’t want to do just the typical 12-bar shuffle stuff. It was very important that every song was different. Some are jazzy, some are kind of Bo Diddley-ish, one’s a mambo (“My Marianne”), there’s a traditional slow blues and there’s a couple rockers.” 

The Wednesday night sessions will be moving after the first of the year.

“We’re working on a new place, we’ve got about three clubs that we’re in negotiations with” in the greater Manchester area, Nutter said, adding that the band hopes to continue the camaraderie they’ve had at Moe Joe’s.

“It’s been a nice place for the band to have a home base and develop relationships with musicians we normally don’t get to play with like Gary Calderon,” Nutter said. “It’s a good chance to mix and match, and you can’t always do that on regular gigs.”


Catfish Howl Blues Band
When: Saturday, Jan. 9, at 9 p.m.
Where: Shenanigans, 586 Nashua St. in Milford
Info: 672-2060, www.catfishhowl.com