New members or old, Roomful of Blues keeps it swingin'

New members or old, Roomful of Blues keeps it swingin'
February 18, 2011
By Rege Behe

Roomful of Blues has had more than 50 members since the Rhode Island band launched in 1967. There are no members left from the group's original incarnation, with sax player Rich Lataille, who joined in 1970, being the longest-tenured member.

Despite -- perhaps, because of -- the new blood that is regularly infused in Roomful's system, the blues band not only survives, but thrives.

"It just keeps going," says guitarist Chris Vachon in advance of the band's show Saturday at Diesel, South Side. "We always tried to keep the idea behind the band when it started. We've veered off in a couple of places, but we've always come back to the roots of where the band started. We're able to find people of the same background when someone leaves. We've been pretty lucky, definitely, to stick with the idea of what the band's about."

Roomful's new CD, "Hook, Line & Sinker" fits neatly in the continuum of the music that started when guitarist Duke Robillard and piano player Al Copley founded the group. Since then musicians including guitarist Ronnie Earl and vocalists Lou Ann Barton, Curtis Salgado and Sugar Ray Norcia have spent time in the group. Roomful has performed with Count Basie, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Pat Benatar and Jimmy Witherspoon.

The same formula reappears in every incarnation: a blend of jump, swing, blues, soul and rock, with a distinctive-but-indescribable Roomful texture. When it came time to record "Hook, Line, & Sinker," there was a simple winnowing process from the 88 songs suggested by band members.

"We listened to music for hours over the next couple of weeks, traded e-mails back and forth," says Vachon of the album comprised of cover tunes of artists including Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Little Richard and Floyd Dixon. "That's the thing about the blues and swing: a lot of people don't realize is there's so much stuff they've never heard of. You get a lot of people who have a preconceived notion about what blues is supposed to be, and they've not really heard the extent of it. And that's what we try to do in our shows, touch on a lot of different styles so people get hip to what they haven't heard before."

But is Roomful of Blues itself hip? It all depends on one's definition of the word.

If it's being the latest thing, definitely not. If it's having a long-standing legacy without much fanfare and continually making good music, definitely yes.

"You can stay with this music for a lot longer, " Vachon says. "Obviously, if you're in rock band, you start looking a little funny trying to jump around in spandex pants as you get older. With blues, you kind of mature along with the music. That's what's always attracted me to the music, and that's why I've stayed with it for so long."

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