“I ran as quickly as I could honestly,” Brandon Santini started, recalling his trips back home for the holidays. “Of course I miss my Mom, but there wasn’t that much scene for what I needed to do. The guitarist from my band at the time, Delta Highway, had the idea to move to Memphis to pursue our careers in music. I’m so glad he did because there weren’t very many opportunities there for me. A few bar gigs here and there, but mostly just a whole lot of trouble to get into.”
Having lived in the great city of Memphis for over eleven years, he still finds himself returning home for the holidays where he gets to see his mother and the rest of his family.
“My wife and I go back most years for Christmas,” he said, explaining the split deal between hers and his family when they do go home, his in Burlington and hers in Charlotte. “It’s always nice to get back to see the loved ones and spend time with them. It always goes by so quickly though.”
A powerful harp player now living in Memphis, Brandon Santini began his ascent in the Piedmont region of North Carolina to become a prominent harmonica powerhouse. His sound is reminiscent of the colorful tones of James Cotton, one of his many idols, and he brings a new and youthful vigor to traditional blues and makes it his own — but he didn’t grow up on the blues.
“I wasn’t really subjected to a lot of black music,” he said. “We didn’t have guitars or harmonicas or anything like that. I was fifteen, you know that was back in 1997, and Blues Traveler was on top 40 radio, which is what most teenagers listened to. I remember the harmonica and the way it was being played by Blues Traveler stuck out to me.”
“Of course then I learned about blues, and the Blues Traveler band really wasn’t a blues band at all! I’ve accepted the fact that he isn’t a blues player in a blues band, but you know, I wouldn’t be here talking to you, giving this interview if it wasn’t for him, but I felt the blues was more natural. I could play it a lot more naturally and I could relate to it a lot more.”
Memphis was what he needed. There are stories about musicians who have a voice and a talent, so they venture to a bigger city, one that fits their particular taste in music and their style to pursue their passion, and this is what Santini did. Memphis opened up a whole new world to him.
So I’m gonna throw a list of great harmonica players at you.
What do you think of Little Walter?
You know, he was an innovator of the instrument. He got to play big sounds on harmonica and amplifying them, and you know, he’s often credited as possibly being the first guy to amplify his harmonica, which I don’t believe is true, but his tone and what he was doing was very advanced and very refined for that time period.
Yeah, I love Big Pete. There’s this great new rave of incredible blues harmonica players right now. Big Pete’s one of those guys that plays heck out of the harmonica and plays it the way I like it to be played, and he’s out of Europe, but yeah man, watch out for that guy.
I know you’re a big fan of Paul Butterfield.
He was really the first Blue’s Harp player I got into, you know, after the John Hopper route. I remember going to the music store, an actual record store, when I was first getting into music, and of course there were CDs, and the guy who worked there knew what I was looking for. He’s like, ‘Hey, you should check out Paul Butterfield’, and I remember hearing “Born in Chicago” on the Blues Brothers soundtrack, of all things. I thought that was really cool. He was very prominent back in the 60’s, was a part of that revolution right there, and you know, I don’t listen to him now as I did when I was younger, but he’s definitely a big influence.
He was the first harmonica I ran across when I moved to Memphis. You know, he used to play the Rum Boogie Café, which I play at quite a bit now. He had a more progressive approach, not as progressive as a guy like Jason Ricci, but he plays the traditional aspects as well. His jazz, he blends those really well with a modern approach. You know, I got to know him pretty well and I consider him a friend now. He taught me a lot of stuff without actually having to teach me. I’d just sit back and watch and learn.
Gary Smith was one of the great West Coast Player. He plays in a traditional tone. I’m a big fan of amplified tone, and he’s one of the best examples of really great tone and smart intelligent playing.
What about James Cotton?
I love James Cotton! I especially love his older stuff. That stuff is incredible. The way he plays harmonica was with a lot of reckless abandon, but he makes it work. He has a lot of energy to it, he blows hard, he has a great tone, and I love his energy!
And tell me about Kim Wilson.
I’d say Kim was one of the greatest true living harp players today. Of course, everything I say is arguable. Everyone’s going to have their own opinion, but I think Kim Wilson captures Little Walter to a T. He’s one of my favorite players, I think he’s one of the best today, but it’s rare with Little Walter. And I give him a lot of credit because he brought the blues harmonica semi-mainstream with The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
“There is so much great stuff out right now,” Brandon laughs. “There’s a lot of great talent. Victor Wainright and JP Soars, all those guys. I like what they’re doing right now. They’re doing a great job getting music out, and as far as harmonica players, Dennis Gruenling is definitely one of my favorites.”
For the day, Santini was traveling through Indianapolis on a tour, and that night he and the band would be performing at Buddy Guy’s Legends, and then afterward, they were heading to Wisconsin. “The years shaping up,” he said optimistically. “We have a 3 week tour down in Florida in March and a handful of festivals coming up. 2013 was an incredible year; the album was released, the radio play, the Blues Blast Award Nomination, and the album was on the Living Blues charts for three months in a row! But this year is shaping up to be really good. Hoping that we can pick up a music award victory!”
Santini’s second album, This Time Another Year has been very successful. “A lot of people are asking when the next record is coming out,” he says. “I’m hoping to focus on that a little bit more soon.”
Having nominations for two blues Music Awards this year, the Contemporary blues Album and Harmonica Player of the Year, it’s amazing to know that the moment his career took a step forward was when, after he saw the kind of harmonica John Hopper was playing, he asked his mom to go the music store so he could buy a harmonica.