Guitarist Brian Lupo was born on the Northwest side of Chicago on November 18, 1976. A graduate of Notre Dame High School, Lupo (who had always been a fan of Rock and Roll – especially, The Allman Brothers Band) was a late bloomer when it came to playing Blues guitar. In fact, he did not pick up the instrument until 1996 (at the age of 20). Once he picked up his first Fender Stratocaster, he rarely would be seen without it. He spent the next 5 years intensely wood-shedding and honing his unique sound. He immersed himself in the classic recordings of artists such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King.
When he finally came up for air, he found himself as a much sought after sideman for some of the most popular singers on Chicago’s hard-scrabble West Side. In 2002, he accepted a regular weekly gig with the indomitable Willie D. & The All Stars – performing every Friday and Sunday night at The 290 Sport & Juice Bar. It was during this period that Lupo cut his teeth in a live setting and learned how to play within the context of an ensemble. Over the course of the next 3 years, he played behind Willie D. and a parade of the West Side’s finest Blues and Soul vocalists. One of those vocalists, Nora Jean Wallace, hired Lupo to play behind her on various festival dates across both the U.S. And Canada. His guitar playing which is heavily influenced by Albert Collins, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and Albert King can be heard on Nora Jean’s first two recordings.
In 2006, Lupo, became disillusioned with the Chicago music scene and relocated to Las Vegas, NV. It was there, in the desert, that he would almost inconceivably reinvent himself (and support his young family) as a professional poker player. In 2014, family obligations brought Lupo back to his Chicago roots and the Blues music he so deeply loved. Brian Lupo and his band currently perform in and around Chicago at top Blues clubs including Rosa’s Lounge and the Harlem Ave Lounge.
You picked up the guitar at twenty. Can you talk about this?
I went to Eastern Illinois and in the dorm area there were two guys living next to me and they had guitars. They played all the time and I was always a music lover. Nobody in my family played music and I always played sports growing up. My mom and dad were big music lovers but as far as taking guitar lessons I didn’t do that. I was in the school band in fourth grade for two weeks. I always talked and the band teacher wanted to kill me so I stopped. I really didn’t have much musical experience besides listening. I asked the dorm guys if they would show me some things on the guitar and they agreed.
I went home for the weekend and bought a guitar at a pawn shop on Belmont and Sheffield in Chicago. The guys put strings on it for me. When they started showing me the chords, I had a strange feeling that at some point I was going to play music professionally. I remember calling my mom and telling her I knew what I wanted to do. I told her I was going to play guitar. Since picking it up, I’ve dedicated every day to learning the guitar. At college, I was listening to The Allman Brothers, Rolling Stones, and Muddy Waters. In high school, I heard Blues but I was mainly listening to Rock music.
When I started learning to play the guitar I went backwards; Eddie Vedder liked the Rolling Stones and The Rolling Stones are named after a Muddy Waters song. I started listening to Blues and it made sense to learn it. After college, I moved home and Blues is a huge thing in Chicago. If you want to play music, you go to a Blues jam. It all lined up for me.
How is music going for you during these pandemic times?
It has been rough. Back in March as everything was unfolding, I did a gig with Nora Jean at Rosa’s in Chicago. After that, I did two more gigs. One was at the Chicago Yacht club and the other was a benefit gig at Jazz Upfront in Bloomington. I have a livestream Rosa’s show coming up soon. I have had to postpone my record release party twice. It has been very tough especially mentally coming to the realization that everything is gone. I am not usually a depressed person but it has been depressing.
Is your new record finished?
The title of the record is called ‘Into the Sun’ and that is also one of the song titles. It’s made up of all originals. It’s a collection of songs. Let me go back in time. It’s crazy how all of this happened. I played music in Chicago from the early 2000’s to 2007. I discovered Texas Hold’em and I quit music to play poker full time in Vegas. Before I started playing poker and moved, I was making this same record. It was supposed to be recorded at Soto studios. His name was Jerry Soto. I had the songs down and the band was ready to record. The studio was in Arlington Heights. We were at the studio waiting and he didn’t show up.
Tony Mangiullo, the founder of Rosa’s Lounge, was with me as he was helping me with the album. We were on time and we were calling Jerry and we didn’t get an answer. We waited for four hours. It was weird and ultimately I went home without recording. Two days later I received a call from Arlington Heights Police because I had left messages on his machine. Long story short, he had a heart attack the night before recording and he passed away. The record was put on hold and Tony made some phone calls for me. He hooked me up with Delmark’s engineer Steve Wagner. I wasn’t recording for Delmark but we went to the studio to record.
During this time, I started to have some success with Texas Hold’em and there were some things going on in my personal life. I won a tournament and I was entered into a tournament in Aruba. I was in a big buy-in tournament. I met a guy who was ranked 5th in the world at the time and he offered me a place to stay in Las Vegas with some poker backing deals. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I went for it. I didn’t finish the record and I packed my things and moved to Vegas.
Some of the songs on this record were written twenty years ago. It’s a culmination. It is the record that will never come out. I know this probably sounds weird, but it is as if the cosmic forces are trying to hold it back. I have one final song that needs to be mastered. Everything else is done. This time around I recorded it in Logan Square at JoyRide Studios.
In retrospect, I am a much more mature musician and I am proud of some of the songs. I would rather have someone come and see me play and make their own decision but the messages to most the songs are about the ups and downs of life. That’s a common thread. They are tied to me and paint pretty clear pictures of an emotion and time. There is little ambiguity. It is very weird for me because I am putting my internal feelings out there. I am super open but not in this sense. I used to be hesitant because you are giving people a window into your thinking. It’s a strange thing. I am proud of the messages in the songs but I am not a person who can listen to my music. The record is about being positive and staying hopeful.
Can you talk about your Rosa’s history?
I have a long history with Rosa’s and Tony has really gone out of his way to help me. I know he was shocked when I picked up and moved to Vegas. At the time I was playing a lot and getting some decent gigs. I have been a sideman and backed up many Blues acts. Last year, I played all of the rhythm guitar on Big James and the Chicago Playboys album. I have been on two of Nora Jean’s records and was backing up the great singer/harmonica player Omar Coleman. Tony knew I was very dedicated. He paired me up with other musicians and helped get me some gigs.
Back in the early 2000’s I started by playing at the 290 Club twice a week. I was playing with Willie D and the Allstars. Tony started hiring that band at his club. I wasn’t managing the band but I was setting up all of the shows. Tony really liked the band. At the time, I was young and all my friends were going out so we had great groups of people coming out to the shows. It was a win for everyone.
Tony always went out of his way to help me out and I have never forgotten that. He was surprised when I left and didn’t finish the album (rightfully so). I was gone for eight years and when I came back to Chicago, Tony started getting me gigs. For a year straight, I had a Wednesday night gig at Rosa’s. He got me back up and running. We recently spoke about the live stream. The way it works is I will do the live stream at the end of January and it will be released in early February as some post production work will be done on it. It is not happening live but it will be available to stream. It’s an hour long and I plan on playing my material.
Can you talk about the West Side Chicago sound that people may not know of?
There are a bunch of great musicians that you might not see that often on the Northside. People like Wille White, Jo Jo Murray, and Joe Bar. There are so many. There is a really great sound and style that exists that you aren’t going to hear anywhere else in the world. It is based in Soul and Blues. There are some really great musicians and it is worth checking out. It is not only the sound but also the atmosphere.
I don’t know what is going to happen post-Covid but the Odyssey East Lounge, The Black Cat Lounge, and The Fifty Yard Line are all great places. New Orleans Beau is another great singer who comes to mind. There’s also great guitar players: Hollywood Scott’s the longtime musical director for Tyrone Davis, Randall Mathews who played in Albert King’s band, Jim Simms, Mike and June Mallory, and the list goes on and on. There is so much talent and many others I have not mentioned. I think with this pandemic some guys are going to be done with the scene and onto new jobs. The guys who are one hundred dollar gig musicians are not going to be working. It is scary. I think the gig volume is going to shrink.
What’s next for you?
I am never in competition with anyone but myself. I want to reach whatever my guitar playing potential is and if there is one positive to this pandemic, during the first six months, I was practicing six hours a day. My goal is to continue to improve and never stop learning. My second hope with the album is that there is a song or two that really connects. I hope the people who like my music will really connect to the new material.
*Feature image by Art Amol