Roomful Of Blues has been with us for 45 years now. That’s 45 years of sharing their unique blend of blues and swing, and bringing their love for this music to three generations of blues lovers all over the world. In every genre of music, there are those who would be considered “keepers of the flame.” Brian Setzer keeps the rockabilly flame burning bright. Rory Block certainly keeps the country blues flame strong and steady. Buddy Guy and B.B. King are keeping the blues infused with life and vigor, helping younger artists bring the blues into the future.
Roomful Of Blues are an institution in the blues, always animated and energetic; their performances are always fresh, alive, and inspiring. Their love of the blues shows in everything they do, from getting a sound check to recording a live album.
Since joining Roomful Of Blues in the early nineties, Chris Vachon has grown immensely as a musician, engineer, producer, guitarist, and band member. We were fortunate to catch up with Vachon recently. We discussed his influences, working as a producer, Roomful’s love of blues, and of course, the new album, 45 Live.
When American Blues Scene asked how he went from playing “Last Train To Clarksville” (one of the first songs he played in public), to playing Gatemouth Brown, Vachon chuckles. “I was a kid back then. Actually, my first real wish to be a musician was when my sister brought in Meet The Beatles, you know? So, that was my first exposure to rock and roll. I got into all of that, got a guitar… Then The Monkees came along; I mean we were practicing our guitars and stuff, and and we had a little group. So, we got into a little talent show, and that was one of the tunes we did when we were kids, [laughs] with very high voices, screeching you know, the song.
“When I turned about 14, I got a friend of mine, we were playing together, and he gave me Live At The Regal, the B.B. King record. That kinda set me in that path of wanting to learn more about blues. So I still played different stuff with people growing up, and did a lot of different sort of gigs, with different kinds of music; but I always… the blues thing always stuck with me ’cause I thought it was an emotional kind of music. You didn’t have to copy it per se, you could just interpret it the way you did it, you felt it, and I just kind of took off from there.”
Vachon continues to discuss his influences, before bringing up Live At The Regal, an album far-and-away loved by blues fans. “I think I definitely wore that out!” He gets nostalgic as he remembers. “I mean, I played that one summer everyday at least two or three times. So, um, that’s one of the very classic albums, [pauses] blues albums I think.” We tell Vachon that supposedly, B.B. King has said that he really didn’t like that album, and he is a little surprised. “Well there you go! You never know what the guy’s thinking.” As he speaks, you can hear the sense of gratitude and respect in Vachon’s voice. “But for me, it was a huge influence on wanting to do that kind of music, and I couldn’t thank him enough [pauses] …for that.”
In discussing other influences, Vachon offers “Well, you know, as a guitar player, obviously it would be like Albert King… ” Vachon is almost stymied for a moment, and then continues “I really, you know, there’s so many guys, it’s, you know… Freddy King, Guitar Slim, you know, God – there’s a lot of them! So, it’s a whole big list, you know what I mean? I couldn’t tell you all of them. You know, all the guys that just had, you know, [still thinking] Albert Collins, just that sound that nobody else could really cop, I mean, ’cause it’s their thing.”
There’s a wide range of artists that various band members have said they enjoy, including jazz, blues, swing, and rock musicians. Does this influence what the band plays? Does it influence how they play it? After thinking for a moment, Vachon decides. “Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we do originals, but we also do a lot of cover stuff that would probably be more obscure, and we’ll listen to the horn arrangements. Obviously, you know, we have three horns, so we have to voice it, we’ll have to change the voicing a little bit on some of these things. The guys in the band are all big fans of the stuff that we do, so, everybody’s got that background and they listen to that stuff. I think we try to keep it pretty true to the way it was, and that’s how we end up sounding the way we do!”
As a listener takes in Roomful, they hear these influences in the music. Again, Vachon agrees. “Yeah, that’s important to us too, that we like to do a mix of stuff in the blues genre so it keeps it interesting, and it keeps us interested in it too so we’re not doing the same thing, shuffle after shuffle, the same type of thing. We’ve been doing it for a long time, so we like to kind of play for each other too, as well as entertaining the audience, and giving them a show that they might not see all the time. We do a mixed bag of stuff, you know?”
It’s a trait that Roomful does very well, and as a result, their music becomes elegant without being pretentious. Vachon seems to approve and chuckles at the “elegant without pretentiousness” notion. “Well, that’s a nice compliment, and I’m glad you get that. I mean, we are very conscious of trying to do it the right way, you know? I think we put in the extra effort. When we pick up a song to do, we want it to be as authentic as we can make it, so that it stays to the idea of what the song was about, and how it sounded originally.” He continues for a moment, “Unless it’s an original song we were writing; but even at that, we have the background that kind of dictates how even our originals sound.”
In addition to playing guitar in Roomful, Vachon has produced several of their albums now, including the new 45 Live. These days, with a fairly stable line-up, how easy is it to bring the band together and record? “It’s really easy. We really like what we’re doing. So, the process is, usually when we’re gonna do a record, I’ll just say ‘Well bring in some stuff. If you got something written, let me know, and then any kind of stuff you think we might wanna cover.’ Everybody chips in, and then usually we’ll just hang out, have a food party or whatever we’re gonna have. We’ll try to knock it down to a manageable list, and that’s how we do it. The group is always involved in that. Then we’ll rehearse for a while, a couple of times. Then we’ll go in the studio, pretty prepared, and just cut the stuff live.”
As to his role as guitarist within the context of the band, Vachon has said in the past that he’s not one to showboat. If anything, he sees his role as playing what he thinks fits in there with everyone else. Basically, he plays for the song, and doesn’t want to stand out so much. “I really believe that the song is first. We try to pick the best songs that we can find, that will show what we can do. You know, one of the joys of being in the band is that there are so many great soloists. So, when I joined the band, you know, for a while, I was really like, trying to learn how to back people up and get behind what they’re doing. So, I learned that, and I enjoy that too. That’s as much fun to me as, as playing a solo. So, it’s just my … that’s the way I think. There’s always somebody that’s gonna play a great solo, so we don’t have to have guitar solos all night long.”
So, even after all these years, Vachon finds this educational, and he is still learning. “Well, yeah. I mean, you learn stuff every time … I definitely learn stuff every time we make a record. That’s something you always have to concentrate on, and you know [pauses, thinking] and bring the best out of the guys, and try to, um, bring the best out of yourself too. I mean, we listen pretty hard, you know, um, about what was done before us. So, you’re always wondering that kind of stuff.”
Vachon continues, “There’s always stuff to learn! Some people would say ‘Oh, blues is a simple thing,’ but it’s really not. There’s a lot to it. There’s a lot of guys out there, doing it different ways. So you’re always learning something. If you’re not, then you’re probably…” Vachon pauses searching for the right word. “Well, I don’t know how to put that, but, you should always be trying to learn, I think. We’ve been playing with James Cotten lately. That’s been a huge amount of fun. I mean, because we are doing something with a guy that’s a legend. Just standing next to him, I mean, playing with him is just a great joy, you know? So, there’s always experiences coming up that I look forward to.”
So what is it exactly, that contributes to great playing, and recording an album? Are those the same? If not, what is it that’s different? “Like I’ve said, we’re predominantly a live band. We perform live a lot, so it’s important for us to just feel at ease in the studio, or doing a live show, and just play the way we play, and basically, that’s what I get from the guys. You know, they’re all pros, and they all know what they’re doing. So, it’s not hard for us. It’s fun to do. I think it kind of comes out that way on the records. There’s just little things that come through when you’re doing something live. I think that’s important to us. That’s the way we make records.”
Over the years, Roomful has backed and recorded with the likes of Jimmy Witherspoon, Jimmy McCracklin, Roy Brown, Joe Turner, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and Earl King. They also backed Stevie Ray Vaughan on his 1984 album, Live At Carnegie Hall. We asked Vachon if this was something else that helps keep the music fresh, and his chops at a high level? Was it something the band looks forward to? “Yeah, of course. It almost like, validates all the practice you do, and all that kind of stuff to be next to somebody that has just inspired you to begin with. It’s like, ‘Wow!’ – what an honor that is! It’d be nice to do as much of that as we could, but a lot of the fellas that were doing that are gone now. I guess that’s the answer to that, for me anyway.”
Having reviewed the new album, 45 Live (which is amazing), the way the music is presented to the listener is notable because the mix is so good, the music comes across as elegant without being schmaltzy. “Thanks. That’s a nice compliment. Yeah, we did three nights. Well, first off, we had a lot of material to go through. The idea was to try to pull as much as we could from each part of the career, you know, all the records that we did. There were a lot, a lot of songs, and in the end we knew we could only get a CD’s worth, so we basically just did three nights. We picked what came out the best, obviously, and the stuff we really wanted to get on there. I think we did good with it. I mean, it was a lot of fun to do. For me, I got to mix it, and all that stuff, so it was a lot of fun.”
Not everyone appreciates how important the mix and sound are to the production process. The micing on 45 Live is spot on and gave so much depth to the music. “Mike and I did all of that, all the micing and stuff. I had set up, (and) there was a monitoring room off the side of the stage. I brought in a separate board and recorded the band from that. So, yeah; all the micing we did; we did everything, really. We’ve been doing it for a while, so I figured it was gonna come out OK. It actually came out great. We didn’t have any problems so much with leakage, and stuff like that. It is live, so obviously, there is no overdubs on it. I was happy that we got the takes that we got.”
Of course, Roomful is out touring in support of the new album. “Doing well! We just got back. We did a run from New York, D.C., down into Virginia. We played with James Cotton again. We just got back yesterday. We’ve been in Canada, you know, Edminton, with James Cotton. We’ve got some stuff coming up in October, a tour out in the midwest. It’s going good!”
American Blues Scene thanked Vachon for generously giving his time to speak with us, and also for all the great blues Roomful has given blues lovers all these many years. “Well thank you. Thanks for listening.”