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Blues Highway

A bus full of blues pulls into the Springs



They're as American as Archie Bunker's easy chair. They've been around a little bit longer, but Roomful of Blues is not quite ready to hang their act on the Smithsonian walls, though they wouldn't turn down an invitation to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

The bus is back, and the band's on the bus, embarking on their 32nd year on the Underbelly of America tour.

Formed in Rhode Island in 1968, Roomful of Blues has since then been spreading the gospel of every variation of blues music in a virtual non-stop tour of roadhouses and juke joints, concert halls and festival stages.

"People still like the novelty of seeing a horn band," said guitarist and 10-year band veteran Chris Vachon, speaking from the band's latest stop in Fayetteville, Ark. "We try to keep moving on in progressing material, but we try to carry through a lot of the old things that we used to do, too. I think maybe that's some of the appeal."

Swing bands have made a comeback in recent years, but Roomful has been dedicated to playing swing music -- as well as jump blues, rhythm and blues, and roadhouse rock -- for decades, surviving and rejecting every musical trend of the last third of a century. "I noticed it about two years ago," Vachon said of the swing resurgence. "I started to see jeans commercials on TV. We noticed that people were coming to the gigs that had obviously taken [swing dance] lessons, which was kind of cool for us. People started smoking cigars and drinking martinis. I thought maybe some of it could have been the lifestyle-type thing as opposed to maybe people knowing a lot about the music. I think the music kind of went along with it."

Roomful wouldn't follow a trend if it was towing their tour bus. Sticking to their instincts has brought them to their fourth decade as a band, and despite numerous personnel changes and a dearth of mainstream commercial success, they're as good as it gets when you're looking for real blues.

They expect to cut a new album soon, but the recent release, There Goes the Neighborhood, gives you an idea of what's on their play list. The album features a blend of band originals that showcase their influence on contemporary musicians -- note the title track's Robert Cray-esque hooks and riffs and "Backseat Blues" and "Blue, Blue World" that evoke the raucous spirit of the Blues Brothers -- while covers of songs by Percy Mayfield, Duke Ellington and Memphis Slim pay homage to their roots. Vachon cites other influences ranging from Count Basie to Chuck Berry as musical godfathers guiding the band's direction. "We may not do a lot of those people's songs," he conceded, "but that approach and that sound is still with us."

They're respected by their peers -- Basie and Stevie Ray Vaughan were among their early fans, and Cray has joined them onstage in the past -- as well as by the critics, winning the Downbeat Critics Poll as Best Blues Band of the Year in '96 and '98 and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Album in '96.

Their legacy is assured, but Vachon agreed to pass on a few survival tips for any young bands hoping to follow Roomful's path on the blues highway. "Try to get some sleep," he cautioned. "And try to eat well, which is almost impossible."

"We all like playing music, so obviously that's why we're still at it," Vachon concluded, saving the best for last. "As far as commercial success, if it ever came, that'd be great, we'd love it to happen, but we're still going to be playing anyway. That's what we do; it's kind of our lives." -- Owen Perkins

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