Blues, etcetera

Blues, etcetera
March 5, 2009
By Dean Bonzani
Flagstaff Live!

Howlin’ Houndog’s got some foot stompin’ to do, and some lowdown blues to shake off.
This blues whirlwind from Seattle, Wash., is the alter ego/superhero persona of longtime Seattle musician Erik 4-A, who was spontaneously possessed one day by the spirit of all the great ragged-voiced bluesmen to come before him. As he tells it in the liner notes of his 2006 debut album:
“Howlin’ Houndog was born in 1990 when I decided to write the song ‘Disfigured’ for a class I was in at Evergreen (State College, in Olympia, Wash.), then record it at Egg Studios with Conrad Uno and Jon Auer. I wrote it in about 5 minutes and didn’t think much of it at the time. I also decided to use my ‘Gravelvoice’ for fun when I recorded it and do a lot of insane Blues muttering on a lark at the beginning and end of the song. It stuck, and almost 16 years later Howlin’ Houndog would slowly take over my life.”
The self-titled debut album is a compilation of remixed tunes culled from Erik 4-A’s recording archives, and represents a colorful spectrum of influences and styles, from psychedelic, early roots blues and Everly Brothers, to surf, folk-rock and country. Owning up to his Captain Beefheart resemblances, 4-A covers two Beefheart tunes, “Frying Pan” and “Sho’ Nuff Yes I Do.” Bob Dylan gets a romping Houndog treatment in a cover of “Tell Me Momma,” and there’s a mesquite-flavored rendition of filmmaker John Carpenter’s country sci-fi song “Benson Arizona,” from the enduring cult classic, “Dark Star” (see end note).
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4-A owns and operates Seattle’s Vagrant Records and Studio V, and since the 1980s has appeared in local groups Bassics/MonGrells, the Surrealists, the Long Faces, Pistol Pete and Monkeys With Machine Guns. His well spent time in these bands allows him to bring a host of influences to bear as he takes the form of the mumble-mouthed guitar slinger Howlin’ Houndog. With harmonica in hand and a revolving cast of supporting musicians backing him up, the Houndog has logged countless miles bringing his rotgut blues, etc., to adoring crowds across the U.S., on tours like his “Rubber Tramping America Indi Solo Tour,” and the “Left Coast Summer Tour.” Lately, he’s promoting his latest offering, 2007’s “Loud & Live (in the studio),” a studio album cut “live”—sans overdubs—that exemplifies what the Dog does best: yowl like a lye-brazed hound with a paw caught in a porch crack.
Known for crazed live covers of tunes as diverse as Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” and the Village People’s “YMCA,” Houndog and company turn in inspired interpretations of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter’s “Midnight Special,” Lou Reed’s “Venus In Furs,” (or, as it appears on the album, “Venus in Spurs”) and Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights/No Problems.” For good measure, there’s the occasional Houndog-penned, angst-ridden number about injuring oneself on random Japanese playroom accoutrement and being viciously stung by wasps, themes revisited endlessly in blues standards since the very beginning, and given fresh life by the Dog.
Double H and the Loosers really shine on their version of Robert Johnson’s “32/20 Blues.” First recorded in 1936, Houndog’s version takes wild liberty with Johnson’s lyrics, an act which might seem like sacrilege to some, and poetic license to others. A classic tale of infidelity met with firepower, Clayton Park’s demonic fiddle adds a delightfully dark and disturbing counterpoint to Houndog’s Tom Waits-esque growl. The result is a remarkably engaging update of the original, one that bears endless replay and epitomizes just what Howlin’ Houndog is all about: manic, sweaty, heaving (and ultimately loving) interpretations of epic songs.
It’s obvious that Houndog is first and foremost a huge fan of whatever music he pays homage to. Whether bashing an open-tuned acoustic guitar or picking smoky leads on an electric, he’s faithful to the spirit of the originals, while adding generous amounts of his own grainy spice to the mix. There’s the ever-present danger of veering into caricature and cliché, and the “mumbling bluesman” shtick was notably played into the ground by Tempe’s “Mumblin’ Jim Fletcher” in the early ’80s. But Houndog’s sheer enthusiasm and chops dust aside any doubts once the backbeat starts and the howlin’ begins.
Catch Howlin’ Houndog and the Infamous Loosers at the Monte Vista Lounge, 100 N. San Francisco, Wed, March 11. The show will start ay 10 p.m. and is free. For more info, call 774-2403 or see

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