Making a Scene Presents an Interview with Rob Stone
Long renowned as a hard-hitting blues harmonica wailer and forceful vocalist, Rob Stone combines tough Chicago blues tradition with a swinging West Coast rhythmic drive. He’s made a series of widely acclaimed albums over the last two decades-plus showcasing his singular approach to the idiom, the first several cut with his Windy City-based band, the C-Notes. Now based in Los Angeles, Rob has widened his stylistic scope considerably in recent years.
Trio in Tokyo, Stone’s new CD for the Blue Heart label, provides electrifying testimony along those lines. The album takes the veteran harpist in a direction that he hasn’t previously explored on disc: an all-acoustic set cut with a stripped-down combo consisting of two world-class Japanese musicians, pianist Elena Kato and bassist Hiroshi Eguchi. The sound is subtler than on past triumphs, yet jumps just as gracefully and gets every bit as lowdown when the tempo slows. Rob chose sagely when choosing material, digging deep for obscure postwar gems by Johnny Ace, Willie Mabon, Amos Milburn, and Louis Jordan. There’s also room for Chuck Willis’ classic blues ballad “What Am I Living For,” a heartfelt tribute to Big Jay McNeely’s “There Is Something On Your Mind,” and the hard-driving original instrumental “Blow Fish Blow.”
Stone cut his musical teeth in the gritty clubs of Chicago’s north, south and west sides, learning from certified blues masters. Since then, he has headlined international tours, playing clubs, concerts, and festivals throughout Europe and Japan. He landed an endorsement from Seydel harmonicas (he was previously endorsed by Hohner) and opened major shows for B.B. King, Etta James, Robert Cray, James Cotton, Los Lobos, Jose Feliciano, Sheryl Crow and others, as well performing with Chicago blues heroes like Robert Jr. Lockwood, Hubert Sumlin, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Pinetop Perkins, Jimmy Rogers, Koko Taylor, David Myers, Henry Gray, and Jody Williams to name a handful.
Since relocating to Los Angeles a few years ago, Rob’s been a busy man. He recorded and performed regularly with the late R&B saxophone honker supreme Big Jay McNeely and continues to work with piano legend Barry Goldberg. He’s gigged with Arthur Adams, Benny Turner, Jimmy Vivino, and Robert Randolph. Rob was featured as a vocalist and harmonica player in the Electric Flag Reunion Band with Goldberg, Harvey Mandel and Nick Gravenites and has split bills with Charlie Musselwhite, Junior Watson, and James Harman. And he’s branched out, performing alongside rock royalty including Nancy Wilson of Heart, Billy Gibbons, and Slash.
Stone began his harmonica-blowing odyssey at age 18. He slipped into a blues joint in his native Boston to check out harp legend Charlie Musselwhite and was instantly transfixed. Rob bought his first harp the next day and immediately began emulating classic recordings, later studying with ex-Muddy Waters harmonica man Jerry Portnoy and playing regularly with rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef. Relocating to Colorado for college in 1990, Stone honed his technique on bandstands around Denver and Colorado Springs, learning to tame riotous crowds on the Southwest biker bar circuit.
Then in 1993, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer Sam Lay––the mighty engine that powered the Paul Butterfield Blues Band during their mid-‘60s heyday––rolled into town with his own combo. After they met at KRCC Radio, where Sam was being interviewed, the blues legend invited the young harpist to sit in and dug what he heard, hiring Rob the next year.
Touring with Lay’s band introduced Stone to blues fans worldwide, and allowed him to refine his approach to the harmonica and music in general. Lay’s experience with Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and other luminaries instilled a strong emphasis on the tight Chicago ensemble sound stressing musical interplay, responsive improvisation, dynamics, intensity, and inventive arrangements. Lay has since said of Stone’s playing: “I have worked with many harmonica players, and he turned out to be the best. That cat is a monster harmonica player and musician!”
In addition to continued work with Sam Lay, Stone became a “go to” player on the competitive Chicago blues scene, performing and recording with many of the genre’s legendary acts. Learning to play Chicago blues directly from the masters who created it was a profound apprenticeship. “Every facet of my approach to music is to some extent influenced by playing alongside my heroes. These experiences were enormously important to my development,” says Stone.
Soon, Rob stepped up to form his own band, the C-Notes, with veteran players Chris James, Patrick Rynn and Willie “The Touch” Hayes. Their self-produced debut CD, No Worries, earned considerable critical acclaim. In 2003, Rob and the C-Notes signed with the Earwig Music Company label to release Just My Luck, which was nominated for a Chicago Music Award in the Best Album category. That same year, Rob appeared in the Martin Scorsese-produced “Godfathers and Sons” episode of The Blues series that aired nationwide on PBS-TV.
In 2010, Stone returned to the CD racks with Back Around Here, again for Earwig. The album, featuring Sam Lay, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Aaron Moore, David Maxwell, and remained on the Roots Music Radio Charts for 54 weeks and was named in Living Blues’ Top 50 Albums of 2010. Since then, Rob has also been featured in the documentary Sam Lay in Bluesland, as well as Six Generations of the Blues from Mississippi to Chicago alongside Honeyboy Edwards, John Primer, Aron Burton and Big Jack Johnson. Gotta Keep Rollin’, Stone’s 2014 release on the VizzTone label, featured appearances by Eddie Shaw, Henry Gray, and John Primer. The album racked up sterling reviews and sailed high on the International Blues Radio Charts and Roots Music Report Radio Charts, peaking at #2.
Don’t worry about Rob Stone’s music going Hollywood––the blues is too deeply ingrained in his soul for that to happen. Besides, his mesmerizing brand of blues travels extraordinarily well, as Trio in Tokyo so eloquently testifies. As long as Rob has a harmonica in his hands, blistering traditional blues will continue to blast—even if there isn’t an amplifier in sight!
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