NEIL BARNES
Hyde And Seek
(Neil Barnes Music)

 

Veteran blues harpist and producer Neil Barnes released Hyde And Seek on CD in 2015. The 9 track CD is an all star blues-rock album featuring the cream of the crop of San Francisco Bay Area blues greats including singer Earl Thomas, Lady Bianca (piano, vocals) Rev. Paul Smith (organ), Ron Thompson (guitars) and much more, all backing up Barnes on his wailing harmonica. For the most part, Hyde And Seek is mostly a hard hitting blues rock set but a heartfelt cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (subtitled here as “A Song For Jill”) adds another dimension to the album. There’s just one original here, written by singer Earl Thomas, with the CD mostly featuring tracks penned by Oris Mays, Allen Toussaint and the above mentioned Earl Thomas. Speaking about Hyde And Seek, Barnes explains, “I wanted to move forward with a gospel blues release because these particular songs resonate with me. I can only begin to tell you how excited we are to share Hyde & Seek with the world. This is a unique collaboration of world class musicians.” Music fans take note: Hyde And Seek is one of the coolest blues-rock albums of the decade. www.NeilBarnesMusic.com

 




mwe3 presents an interview with
NEIL BARNES



mwe3: How did the Hyde And Seek album take shape and how did you decide on what music you wanted to include on the release? And how did you come up with the title Hyde And Seek?

Neil Barnes: It had been quite a long time since my last project and with this one, I wanted to lean more heavily towards a gospel feel and approach both in musical content and with the instrumentation.

The “Hyde” in Hyde And Seek, comes from Hyde Street Studios. This iconic San Francisco studio has seen been the home of great sessions by James Brown, Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, Green Day, to name a few. Plus, Hyde Street Studio A could accommodate both the piano, B3 and everyone in the same room. I wanted to record live as much as possible.

The “Seek” comes from the fact that I really wanted to take a gospel/more spiritual approach to the majority of the material.

My intent was gospel, with the piano and B3 combination, but with a distinct blues edge, with the harp and Ron’s slide and his grit. Not too churchly, but still deliver the message.

I wanted to break away from straight ahead Chicago blues and go after a few of my favorites, which includes a lot of New Orleans influence. I also wanted to make sure that the vocals were a key focus.

I have no personal originals on this session, Earl brought in one of his. These songs I chose just move me or have personal meaning to me. “Heart Like A Locomotive” is a Joe Droukas song. This is my tribute to Paul Butterfield. When I first heard it years ago, I passed over it. Then I heard it again years later on a bootleg. He absolutely owned the vocals and phasing. And there is no harp on the studio or bootleg versions, so I had a clean slate to work from for the harp solo. Not having to worry about copying a lick or phrase.

The song I took a chance on was “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” by Cage The Elephant. It was a rock radio hit, But I could hear it “Gospelized” in my head. I could hear Ron’s guitar work and room for harp in there. It is a very quick song vocally, and it would take Earl Thomas to articulate it and pull the blues out it.

I have to say, this was probably the worst way to go into the studio. A sure recipe for disaster. The musicians did not know each other, this combination had never played together, we could not rehearse all together, and we had only two days to record 9 songs because of peoples schedules. But, I had absolute trust and confidence in the musicians and in the material. No one, no one, called it in. No one balked at any of the song choices. Each and every musician came in prepared and ready to go. Everyone wanted to make sure things were right and that I was getting what sound I had bouncing around in my head. The worst outcome would be that it would be good.


mwe3: How many albums have you released and worked on as a solo artist as well as a producer / session musician over the years? Where are you from originally and where are you based now and how does that influence your sound and music?

Neil Barnes: Let’s see… a 45, a 4 song EP, a compilation CD, including the studio cuts plus a lot of live material; and now the Hyde And Seek CD. I also played harp on children’s music album, which was actually a lot of fun.

I’m a harp player who doesn’t sing. So I need to surround myself with good musicians. If I do have a strength, I think I am pretty good at putting together musicians that haven’t played or recorded together, but I know in my head would sound good together and then put new or different material in front of them. My first record was 1980, a 45, yep, an actual 45. Two of my original songs, “Blues For Breakfast” and “Close Call”. It featured Ron Thompson on slide and vocals, along with Junior Watson (guitar), Bill Stuve (bass), Robert Montes (drums) and the great Little Willie Littlefield on piano.

The second endeavor was a 4 song EP in 1981, again on vinyl, three more original songs and one traditional blues. I produced that session. This session included Mark Naftalin on piano, Bob Gomes (Hammond B3), and again Junior Watson, Bill Stuve, Robert Montes. In addition, we had Hap Scott there for vocals and my friend, Oakland guitarist Sonny Lane. The traditional blues was a duo with myself and Greg Hartman (vocals and “Piedmont” finger-picking style guitar).

We recorded at Parvin Studios in Pacifica and mixed by Pete Kaukonen (Jorma’s brother).

I was born in San Jose, California and grew up in Santa Clara, the South Bay. The San Francisco Bay Area music scene was on fire. A wonderful melting pot of different styles. It was the Sixties, man! Being so close to Oakland and San Francisco, many blues and R&B, funk and rock artists either came through touring or took up residence. Looking back, I took so much for granted… I thought that was the way it would always be.


mwe3: What can you tell us about the players on the Hyde And Seek CD and how and why you chose them to play on the album? The album has a great musical ESP and sonic chemistry. How long did the Hyde And Seek sessions take and what else was involved in your production?

Neil Barnes: The Hyde And Seek crew consist of:

Earl Thomas: Earl is the modern day bluesman. Incredible vocalist. Earl tours regularly on the international stage. He’s also a proficient songwriter and has written songs for Etta James and Solomon Burke. The material I wanted to do required a very strong vocalist in order to even come close to doing it justice. Earl is the only person I know of who could have handled this material in the way it needed to be done.

Lady Bianca: Music treasure. Three-time Grammy nominee. Lady Bianca actually did stints with Sly Stone, Frank Zappa and did backup vocals and vocal arranging on a number of Van Morrison albums. Lady Bianca is a star in her own right, is very active in the area, performing, writing, producing and running her own record label.

Ron Thompson: Band leader of many years for John Lee Hooker. Played and recorded with Chris Isaac, was a featured member of Mick Fleetwood’s Blue Whale band. He was responsible for bringing Jimmy Reed to the Bay Area, as well as The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Ron is actively touring and playing regularly.

Rev. Paul Smith: Played on Ike & Tina Turner’s classic Nutbush City Limits album, played on a couple of Bill Withers’ albums and worked with Natalie Cole for a while.

Oshmin Oden: Bay Area premier gospel, blues, funk bass player. Oshmin is Lady Bianca and Henry Oden’s son (Henry Oden is famed Bay Area bass man). Oshmin kept us honest with the groove and changes!

Winfred Williams: Gets around the Bay Area, has played in a number of well known bands. Winfred and have played together for a number of years and I wanted him by my side.

Tia Carroll: Singer! Tours internationally, just returned from South America. Plays regularly with her own band. Tia had not worked with Lady Bianca, but together, and with Earl, they created an entire choir.

Charlie Beutter: was the chief engineer at Hyde Street and has quite a resume. He is also a master on Hyde Street’s NEVE console. If you’re an audiophile, the NEVE analogue mixing console is one of a very few left of these handmade masterpieces. There is just something magical about what you get out of them. Charlie was key to the success of the live mix I was after.

Joe Tarantino: from the famed Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California. Joe did the complete re-mastering of the Stax catalog, Speciality catalog, as well as mastering on Isaac Hayes and a plethora of jazz greats.

Earl was such a big help. The Bay Area has a very deep bench of talent, and I had folks in mind for the B3 and piano, but it was Earl who suggested Lady Bianca, Rev. Paul Smith and Tia. They all come from a church background and it would be second, really first, nature to them. And it was. Lady Bianca and Rev. Paul Smith did not know each other, but because of that connection, they fell right in sync. I have to say right now that Lady Bianca is a blessing. Not only did she bring incredible skill on the piano, vocals, and background vocal arranging, she is such a wonderful, “calming” presence. …and helped keep the atmosphere light. You don’t spend more than five minutes with Lady Bianca without getting a laugh out of something she says.

As to my producing style, I have certain ideas that I want included. Be it an idea for an intro, an ending, one or two specific parts, but then I get out of the way. I’m not going to tell Ron Thompson how to play guitar, Earl how to sing, or Lady Bianca how to play piano. And I leave room to incorporate their ideas.

The engineer, Charlie Beutter, was crucial to the success of the project.

I also have to mention Nick Kasimatis from Blackbird Films. His production of the video was as important as that of the CD.

mwe3: What were your early music studies like and long have you played and studied the harp and harmonica as your main instrument? I remember Charlie Musselwhite and John Mayall were great blues harpists and you have a great style of your own. I read about Musselwhite’s influence on your harp playing.

Neil Barnes: Thank you Robert. Once I got the spark from hearing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, I flipped from being an appreciative listener to wanting to be able to play. I became obsessed with the music and wanting to learn the harmonica. Butterfield took me backwards, so that I could go forward.

By that I mean Butterfield took me to Muddy, Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boys x2, Cotton, Willie Dixon, and into the whole world of Chess, Chicago Blues, then Excello blues, the entire blues world. I bought my first harmonica at Campi’s Music Store in San Jose. I think it cost me about $2.50. I spent hours in my room trying to pick out things from records. I finally approached Gary Smith. Gary is the “Godfather Of Bay Area Blues”. Gary took the time to show me the how-to’s and the don’t-do’s; along with the approach to the music. From Gary, I learned the foundations. A few years later, I was still trying to expand my knowledge and I was getting wrapped up on learning some of the playing positions… playing different keyed harmonicas to a piece of music. Charlie Musselwhite was living in San Jose and playing everywhere around the area. Charlie was killer at playing different positions. I was focused on learning “3rd” position- very minor sounding; some refer to it as “Dorian Mode” or scale. Just know that you have to play the harp differently to make it work. I approached Charlie. He come over to my folks house and we spent hours... Charlie patiently playing guitar while I caterwauled away trying to play in that scale. The approach was a “I’m-not-going-to-play-it-for-you, keep-blowing-until-it-makes-sense-and- you-won’t-forget it”. True That.

So, I’ve been playing harmonica since I was about 16. I spent years listening and trying to emulate the masters. No detail was/is too trivial. Then, during the late ‘80’s and early 90’s, I stepped away from actively playing. I was disenchanted with the music scene at that time and I was focused on starting a family, finishing college, and nailing down the corporate salary. I still kept my ears open though….

The Forward Part, I strive at keeping both feet firmly planted in, and with careful respect, to the blues, but now I look to pepper it with a strong gospel message and song structures not limited to the 12-bar.

Robert: note that “harps” and “harmonicas” are the same thing.

“Harp” or “ Blues Harp” is just slang for the harmonica, short for “mouth-harp”. Not sure of the origin.


mwe3: How would you compare the harp and harmonica and who were some of your other music heroes? Were you influenced by rock and pop as well or mostly blues and blues rock? What are your favorite harps and harmonicas to play and how many instruments do you have? What about any other instruments that you play?

Neil Barnes: My other music influences are pretty eclectic. The Band had a profound impact on me. It’s hard to put into words exactly. Later, I was influenced by the RCO Allstars. This was literally my dream team band. Levon Helm (drummer, vocalist from The Band), Paul Butterfield (harp), Booker T. (organ), Dr. John (piano), Duck Dunn (bass) , Fed Carter Jr. (guitar), Steve Cropper (guitar).

Then there is WAR with Lee Oskar on harp. I loved the harmonica and sax combination, with the harmonica playing horn lines. Latin with congas, the music itself was undeniably cool. Lady Bianca would call it “real people music”. And when Lee Oskar went solo, I was never exposed to the harmonica being played with a focus on beautiful melodies.

Then there’s Paul DeLay, bluesman from Portland, Oregon. He had a very unique playing style, a very effective vocalist and his song writing was, more often than not, doused in humor that most every-man could identify with.

I’m actually a big fan of Los Lobos, Hank Williams and the western swing of Asleep At The Wheel.

Charlie Musselwhite continues to amaze me. His playing is better than ever and he keeps trying different things with different people. The work he did with the Blind Boys Of Alabama on the Spirit Of The Century album was a true inspiration to me and my direction.

Current bands and songwriters I pay close attention to are Paul Thorn and also the California Honey Drops.

My Harmonicas: I prefer out-of-the-box Marine Band Crossover’s and Seydel 1847’s.

And, of course, I have boxes of harmonicas. I have some harps with different tunings and different models that I keep in mind to use at some point. Not as a gimmick or trick, but to serve the song. I have an old Marine Band Octave Harp that really sounds cool on Cajun or Mexican music. I’ve also been working out more and more on the chromatic harmonica. There is so much I need to explore and learn on that.

As to what other instruments do I play?.... GAHHH!… that question is like a knife in the heart to any harmonica player. A big-rig trucker friend once told me, “Just because you can drive a truck, it doesn’t make you a truck driver”. It’s the exact same thing for a harmonica player; there are a lot of guys out there who play at the harmonica, it doesn’t make them a harmonica player. There is a lot of nuance. To my non-musician friends, I usually use the golf analogy. When you start out golfing, you can progress fairly quickly. But then if you decide to take it serious and improve your game, you’re in for a lifetime of frustration and continuous learning. Clubs, types of clubs, a myriad of swing techniques, different skills for different phase of the game, etc. and so on. It’s the same with the harmonica. Sometimes I feel like the more I learn, the less I know.

I am studying some piano, to up my music theory and enhance my song writing. But, at heart, I still want to be a harmonica player.

mwe3: The Hyde And Seek cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is superb. How did you end up covering that track and why do you call it “A Song For Jill”? Also, how did you decide on the Allen Toussaint covers? Tell us about those tracks and something about Toussaint for those who don’t know him. He must be among the most underrated musical influences in the world. Any other favorite Toussaint songs?

Neil Barnes: I wanted to do “Bridge Over Troubled Water” for my wife Jill. This was “our song” in high school. Yep, we’ve been married for 33 years. As a harp player, if you can find a woman who likes, or even tolerates, harmonica, you’d be a fool to let her get away.

The song has also come to mean more to me over the years with everything we’ve been through together.

Besides a lot of my original songs were about nagging women, being trapped by marriage, and women troubles in general. I think she might have started to take it a little personal... I owed her.

It was also the one song that Earl, Bianca and Oshmin went “Whoa! This is a “serious” song, we have to do this one right. We can’t mess this one up! It carries a lot of weight. It was also a stretch for me to have the harp fit, but not be obtrusive.

Allen Toussaint has to be one of the most prolific American songwriters and the scope of his work, from the funkiest to his beautiful ballads, is incredible. Most any, and I mean any, song coming out New Orleans, either Allen wrote it or plays on it or both. I’m really fond of the Lee Dorsey catalog, but I didn’t want to do his big hits, “Working In A Mine” or “Holy Cow”. Lee’s songs I chose on the CD are “When Can I Come Home” and “Tears, Tears and More Tears”, both written by Allen Toussaint.

I’ve learned that if I like a song, I go directly to find out who wrote the song. It turns out that you’ll probably like their other material. Other songwriters I favor, other than Willie Dixon of course, are Bobby Charles, Henry Glover and Jesse Winchester.


mwe3: How did you come to work with Mark Naftalin, from the Paul Butterfield band? Naftalin has also worked with the guitarist on the Hyde And Seek album called Ron Thompson. Ron also has a number of albums to his credit. Tell us about Ron’s guitar work on Hyde And Seek.

Neil Barnes: In the late 1960’s, Mark Naftalin put down roots in the Bay Area and in the ‘70’s ran his “Blue Monday Parties” which would include Charlie Musselwhite, Francis Clay, Luther Tucker, Lowell Fulson, Percy Mayfield, Ron Thompson and many more. “Blues For Breakfast” was getting some good regional airplay and my band was actively playing.

Ron Thompson was on that 45 and Mark and Ron were good friends. When I decided to do the Parvin Studio sessions, I decided to just reach out and ask him. Mark knew of the musicians I was putting together. He knew Junior Watson and Bill Stuve by their work with Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, and Sonny Lane as one of the Oakland regulars. It sounded like an interesting project so when he accepted, I was thrilled. Mark and I have remained friends. When we reconnected a few years back, I bent his ear over the trials and tribulations of putting together another session. He was very supportive and provided me with some good insights. A quick aside: we recently returned from the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in Cleveland. I was so proud and honored that Mark invited my wife and I to attend as his guests. Life is so wonderfully weird. I started playing because of these guys; they were my heroes as a teenager; then being able to play and record with Mark as a musician, and now, close to 50 years later, being invited to witness one of his and the Paul Butterfield Band’s lifetime events.

Ron and I have been friends for many years. I’m always in awe of Ron’s musical abilities. Ron was an integral part of that Bay Area Blues scene. As a side note, Ron learned slide techniques from Robert Lockwood Jr., while Ron was driving for him and some of the other blues greats coming through the Bay Area from Chicago. Robert Lockwood Jr. actually learned guitar from his “step dad” Robert Johnson. So, if you do the math, it’s Robert Johnson-> Robert Lockwood Jr. -> RonThompson. That’s a pretty remarkable lineage. Ron played on my first 45, and I would not have done Hyde And Seek unless he was going to be on it.


mwe3: What other plans do you have for the Hyde And Seek album and how about other plans as far as new music, live shows and other new and interesting music news you could share with the readers?

Neil Barnes: I would have loved to have done a series of live shows with the Hyde And Seek group. It’s been difficult to make it happen due to everyone’s touring schedules and they all have their own working bands. That group on stage would really be something to hear and see. There is still opportunity. Hyde and Seek has been well received with the blues crowd and Americana crowd. I’d like to get more attention from the traditional gospel folks with a few of the songs. They’re a finicky group... I have an uphill battle professing no synthesizer and more harmonica and gritty guitar!

I’ve already been noodling the next project. Hopefully, it won’t be too long. I’ve got a couple of original songs almost ready to go. There’s a couple of other songs I’d like to rework. I’d definitely like to pursue more “Gospel-Blues” material. Rev. Paul Smith has a couple of gospel tunes that he approached me with that I’m pretty excited about.

I have some folks in mind to play, to tap on the shoulder to collaborate, and hopefully they’d be willing to take a chance with me.

 

Thanks to Neil Barnes @ Neil Barnes Music





 

 
   
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