The Blues Don’t Care If You’re Black or White

April 8, 2009

blancospic6_04_300dpiLos Blancos, as the Spanish name suggests, is a group of white guys who play the blues. Formed twelve years ago, the successful Syracuse quartet tours nationally and still packs the house at local haunts like Al’s, Empire Brewery, and Shifty’s.

“I think that people get stuck in a cultural vortex where you have to be, you know, a black guy to sing blues music,” said lead Singer and guitarist Colin Aberdeen. “I think that blues music, in the same way as great literature, is universal. It speaks to all people and all times.”

In a denim shirt and tan Stetson, Aberdeen looks like a slimmer John Popper of Blues Traveler. Both on stage and off, Aberdeen’s got an easy smile, and an even easier demeanor. He’s friendly, open, willing to share. Sometimes he shares too much and tenses up. After a lengthy interview for this article, he politely asked that certain anecdotes, stories from his past, be stricken from the record. I obliged. These are events that happened during his teenage years and early twenties. At 43, Aberdeen is older and wiser, a self-proclaimed graduate of “the school of hard knocks.” Like any honest bluesman, he’s done things he isn’t proud of. Like any good bluesman, he sings about them with brutal honesty.

“It spoke to me as a young guy,” said Aberdeen. “The blues is a great vehicle to write about your life and experiences.”

Born in London, England to an American expat mother and an Australian father, Aberdeen moved to Philadelphia with his family when he was five years old. He’s traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, and Australia, where his two older sisters live. “A down soccer player” as a child, Aberdeen didn’t feel like he had much aptitude for music growing up.  He learned a little piano and saxophone but firmly planted himself on the soccer field until his family moved to Syracuse when he was fifteen.

“I ended up playing music with a bunch of rednecks I met out in Manlius who lived on a dairy farm,” said Aberdeen. “They all played. Nobody sang…it’s like the hardest thing in the world to do for a young person—let their voice out. So, I wound up being the de facto singer.”

Aberdeen began learning guitar when he suggested songs for the repertoire that the rest of the band didn’t know. They played mainly rock: Grateful Dead and Neil Young covers. “I always gravitated towards the bluesier stuff,” he said. “Eventually I got into ‘Where’d that come from?’ and chasing it on down the line.” By the time he was 19, Aberdeen was listening exclusively to records made in the 1920s’ and 30s’.

He launched his own project, The Westcott Jugsuckers, soon after.  A band that played ragtime and old jug band music, The Jugsuckers were a regular fixture at Westcott’s favorite dive bar, Taps.

Aberdeen remembers when Syracuse had a heavy blues scene back in the late 80’s and 90s’. Local bands like the Kingsnakes, who eventually toured with legend John Lee Hooker, and beloved Syracuse icons, Roosevelt Dean and the Spellbinders, played weekly. Guitarist Robert Cray and The Fabulous Thunderbirds were at the top of the charts. “It was a great time because a lot of the progenitors were still playing,” he said. “You could see, like, ten really good blues bands any Friday or Saturday night.  There was tons of work for musicians.”

Los Blancos evolved from an open mike held at the Inn Complete on South Campus in the mid-nineties. Aberdeen was jamming with current Los Blancos bassist, Steve Winston, and a young guitar prodigy from Mexico City named Jose Alvarez.

Alvarez and Aberdeen had met a few years previously at the National Guitar Solo Workshop, a kind of guitar summer camp based in Milford, Connecticut. Aberdeen was on the faculty; Alvarez was a participant. They struck up a friendship when Aberdeen noticed Alvarez’s Gibson Les Paul—a classic blues guitar. “He took me under his wing,” Alvarez said in a phone interview. “If you were friends with Colin then you were cool, especially as a kid. Colin was the first blues player I was really exposed to. He knew all the roots of it.”

After graduating from high school in Mexico, Alvarez moved to Syracuse at Aberdeen’s urging to play with Roosevelt Dean and the Spellbinders. He was only 17 but showed huge promise. “He was a galvanizing force,” said Alvarez. “Had I not met him, my life would have been completely different.”

Today, at 32, Alvarez is a Grammy award-winning guitarist who plays with Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience. Currently based in San Antonio, Texas which he refers to as the “safest neighborhood in Mexico City,” Alvarez is on the road six to eight months a year. Terrence Simien and the Zydeco Experience won a Grammy last year for their album, “Live! Worldwide” in the new category they helped establish, “Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album.

Alvarez and Aberdeen remain close friends. “Colin is like a brother to me,” Alvarez said. “He is definitely the guy to call if you have something going on. He will immediately drop what he’s doing and come help.”

True to form, our interview was interrupted several times by calls to Aberdeen’s cell phone from a friend going through a rough patch. “Sometimes I feel like I’m part of the clergy,” he said with a sigh. “It’s crazy. Trust me. I wouldn’t be asking me for advice.”

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Los Blancos’ latest album, Just This Once, released in 2007 is the band’s ninth.  Recorded at the Subcat studios in Skaneateles, Just This Once is an independent release available for purchase at live shows or via the band website (www.casablancos.com).  Polished and professional, Just This Once, is an eclectic mix of blues styles and zydeco, a traditional Creole music that features accordion and washboard.  The current lineup consists of Aberdeen on lead vocals and guitar, Steven T. Winston on vocals and bass, Mark Nanni on keyboards and accordion, and Mark Tiffault on Drums and percussion.

For the most part, the band records live in the studio. “We do as much live as possible because we’re a live band,” said Steven  T. Wintston. “The studio is kind of an alien thing.”

All the tracks are originals except for the blues standard, Memphis Women and Fried Chicken. Aberdeen’s vocals are rough and rocking; Nanni’s riffs on the Hammond organ are funky and inspired; the band is tight. There’s a strong Southern rock/blues influence in this disk, a la ZZ Top. The band plans to record a new album sometime this year. “We play over 200 gigs a year,” said Winston. “So sometimes it’s hard to get everyone into the studio.”

The audience at a Los Blancos show is diverse: white, black, young, old, even Native American. “We get everybody from little hippie music heads to old school New Orleans music and R&B fans,” said Aberdeen. “We play country music. We play funk. We’ll go from a Merle Haggard tune to an original song to a James Brown tune.”

Los Blancos went on their first major tour last year: ten dates across the South. All members of the band are professionals, who have long since quite their day jobs. However, the current economic crisis has hit smaller bands hard. “It’s a very difficult time fiscally right now,” he said. “A lot of clubs are shutting down or doing no live music at all.”

Aberdeen has a lot of reasons to sing the blues. Along with weathering a tough recession, he’s going through a divorce and caring for his 20-month daughter, Marley, who was born with cerebral palsy. Much like the players before him, the music keeps him going. “I think the highest praise is when somebody requests a song that you wrote,” he said. “When somebody can relate to what you are saying and it helped them get through the day…either through sadness or joy.”

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One Response to “The Blues Don’t Care If You’re Black or White”

  1. Colin Aberdeen said

    Hey Jennifer,

    Thanks for the nice article. I hope you are doing well. Please stop out to a gig if you find the time.

    Colin

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