MUSIC PROFILE: Steve Grills and the Roadmasters

MUSIC PROFILE: Steve Grills and the Roadmasters
May 20, 2009
By Frank De Blase
City Newspaper

Blues guitarist Steve Grills is about as low key as they come; a tres cool operator that wields a red-hot guitar. Parked stage left, he puts his band, The Roadmasters, through the paces as he gives the audience a tour of the blues - a sampler platter, if you will, or perhaps passages off yellowy pages ripped from an encyclopedia of the blues. Mixed in with Grills' referential and reverential treatment lies the man's own sound, one that weaves in and out with the ghosts he admires and conjures.

Grills is a tremendous guitar player who possesses an equal amount of humility. He could stand to brag a little, if he wanted, but Grills plays the blues more as an unassuming acolyte in awe of the genre rather than the standard six-string grandstanders who often get in the way of the music. It's as if the blues plays Grills. And it's been playing him since he was 10 years old.

"I got interested in playing guitar through my father's love of music," Grills says from his South Wedge crib. "He was a big fan of folk music and used to go to the Newport Folk Festival in the 60's."

Grills' dad owned The Nugget (now The King and I) on East Henrietta Road from 1969 to 1972. Artists like John Prine, Steve Goodman, Little Feat, Miles Davis, and Harry Chapin all came through town to play the joint. Little Grills got to hang sometimes.

"That really got me excited about music," he says. And like just about every other kid of his generation, he was all about The Fab Four. But Grills didn't stop there. "I remember being about 9 years old, and hearing some of the early Beatles records, primarily their Chuck Berry covers. I was really attracted to those. I saw on the record ‘C. Berry' so I went out and got Chuck Berry's greatest hits. I still have that record."

Records came across his father's desk that caught his eye, and then his ear. Stuff by Jimmy Reed and Lightning Hopkins, to name a couple. And let's not forget Freddie King.

"The main guy is Freddie King," Grills says. "I just sat down and listened to his records with my guitar. I would say that's how I learned to play guitar."

At that point Grills had become interested in the roots of rock n roll. And when listening to the music of the day, Grills dug artists like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, especially their bluesier stuff - you could say his tastes were running black and blue. It was a fertile time in Rochester, and a lot of the masters were still on the road.

"During the late 70's and 80's I was very fortunate to be able to see some great blues artists with some frequency," he says. "Folks like Albert Collins, Albert King, Tyrone Davis, Little Johnny Taylor, Johnny Taylor, Gatemouth Brown, and Big Joe Turner, right before he died." So Grills learned off the records he was accumulating, and by watching this parade of artists coming through town. And by the age of 19, it was all starting to make sense. However, he wasn't performing.

"I was just starting to get some of the pieces of the puzzle," says Grills. "But I wasn't really looking to play in a band. I remember bumping into my brother downtown, while I was waiting for the bus. He didn't really ask me, he just basically told me I had to be at this rehearsal for this band he was working with. ‘Be there' and I was like, ‘Oh, ok.'"

Grills' debuted on stage with Joe Likely, Al Holly, and Grills' big brother, Tom as The Midnight Blues Band. "We went down and did a little guest set between Joe Beard's sets at the K&T Tavern on Jefferson Ave," he says.

At this time, blues audiences were primarily in black clubs. Grills felt right at home. "My impression," he says, "was that black people appreciated and enjoyed seeing someone outside their sphere who appreciated their music enough to play it."

Throughout the 1980's Grills played in different outfits, including a stint with Buffalo harmonicat Shakin' Smith. Grills went solo, forming The Roadmasters in the early 90's.

Grills has worked with legends like Joe Beard and his idol, the late Robert "Junior" Lockwood - the only man Robert Johnson ever taught, as Johnson was married to Lockwood's mother. More recently Grills has played with Ernest Lane, who Grills met when he came to Rochester with Ike Turner.

Grills will play in Lane's band at this year's Chicago Blues Festival on June 14. For a bluesman of any age, this is quite a big deal. "Don't remind me," Grills says with a nervous laugh. "I try not to think about it too much."

Grills plans on releasing a record he did with Lane in the near future. Funny thing is, it's Grill's first record. "I think for me playing blues, as long as I've known blues... I've never really seen it as a commercial entity," he says. "It just never occurred to me as something I wanted to do. Obviously I realize it's something I need to do."

And as all the styles and heroes burn and melt into his soul, ultimately making their way to his fingers, one has to wonder: where is Grills in all of this? What is his signature?

"That's a good question," he says. "Maybe that hasn't even come yet. It's kind of an unconscious thing. I'm just playing what feels good to me."

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