Aim to Please
For Luther and the Healers, every show can be radically different from the last. This isn't because of inconsistencies with sound or the band's lineup. The biggest switch from night to night is the venue, which has ranged from sports bars to swanky downtown lounges to character-packed blues haunts.
Equally diverse are the band's audiences. Depending on the venue, onlookers can include stogie-chomping yuppies, college kids, hard-core blues folk or soccer moms on a girls' night out.
Despite an ever-changing work milieu, the savvy Luther (who uses his first name only) is quick to adapt, which ensures the Healers are welcomed back time and again.
"You play a restaurant or wedding reception, and your approach is totally different than if you play at an icehouse or some juke joint," he says. "Then sometimes you end up playing a sports bar, where the whole scene has 20 TVs, video games and all of that stuff. Then you become a sideshow as opposed to the main attraction."
Such is the life of some local musicians. One night, you're a star, and the next, you're competing with the televised feats of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt.
During a recent gig at the Big Easy, the Healers were recording tracks for an upcoming live CD. The house was packed with fans. Jeans and T-shirts seemed to be the outfit of choice. Luther, by contrast, looked sharp, decked out in black with his short blond hair slicked back. After a quick tune-up, he and the band jumped into a jazzy instrumental to warm up the crowd. Soon familiar favorites entered the mix, and the audience ate up every note. Typical blues standards were rendered as well as more recent works like Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Cold Shot." The dance floor filled early and stayed that way all night.
About a week later, the Healers played a gig in the upstairs bar at Woodrow's. The scene was quite different from the one at the Big Easy. It was a whiter crowd. A lot of guys were dressed in golf shirts, Dockers and loafers. They wielded personalized pool cues. There were also a few groups of single women, whooping it up and knocking back pitchers of beer.
The band offered no experimentation here. Instead, it instantly dived into a bevy of soul hits to get everyone off their asses. Toward the end of the second set, the band rendered a pristine version of Al Green's "Love and Happiness." Throughout, Luther exhibited on guitar a delicate balance of clean tones and bluesy fuzz. Bassist Magic (another first-name-only guy) and drummer Paul Valdez provided funky backbeats as gifted keyboardist Skip Nallia substituted tight organ grooves for the song's famous horn line. By this time, a cluster of Corona-sipping women were dancing and laughing in a circle, a hippie chick was grooving by herself, and a dapper couple was twirling each other around.
"We do a certain amount of stuff for the audience. 'Mustang Sally,' 'Respect' and stuff like that reaches a lot of audiences," Luther says, unconcerned about Dallas blues DJ Don O.'s "No Stormy Monday, No Mustang Sally" campaign. "I learned early on that if you do a handful of those types of tunes, they'll accept anything you give them You make the connection first with the women because wherever they go, the men are gonna go."
At the more blues-oriented venues, Luther digs deep into the repertories of Albert King and B.B. King. Likewise, he offers folks a small dose of his own material, which he hopes to record soon after the release of the live record.
"Our original sound pays respect to blues masters as well as guys like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Al Green," he says. "I hope that people hear our stuff as 21st-century blues, because I don't want to be a museum piece. When B.B King got going or when Muddy Waters started his electric band, those guys were cutting-edge. That's what I'm interested in."
Although Luther cites fellow southpaw Jimi Hendrix as a prime influence, he refrains from inundating the crowd with long-winded homages to the icon. "We're not going after the Hendrix 'Star Spangled Banner' type of thing or the blues-rock approach," he says. "We include Stevie Ray Vaughan [songs] in our show and it sells, but I try to do a lot of tunes that I don't mind doing. I'm not going to do ZZ Top or anything like that. I'm not a blues rocker. When you mix rock with the blues, it becomes diluted and loses a lot of its sexiness. I like the sensuality of real blues and R&B."
Having grown up in Chicago during the '50s and '60s, Luther's no stranger to the real deal. Early blues exposure aside, however, his career also is benefiting from his days as a business major at the University of Illinois in the '70s. His marketing skills have kept the Healers busy for the better part of the last decade. And with his calendar cards floating around town and a performance hot line, he makes it easy for fans to know when and where he's playing.
Following college, Luther came with a girlfriend to Houston in 1980 and never left. After toiling as a bartender and bar manager, he played his first gig in 1990 and has maintained a presence on the scene ever since. Early on, he was able to share bills with an assortment of legends. Among those were Albert Collins and another fellow lefty by the name of Albert King.
"I had studied his style so much, it was a thrill to meet him," says Luther. "He watched us from the side of the stage. I'd hit one of his licks, and he'd lower his glasses and look at me, smoking his pipe, you know? Then he invited me to go to Europe with him, but he passed away not long after that, so it never happened."
Soon after the release of his live CD, Luther will lay bare his artistic vision with a studio CD. This project fills him with excitement. "I want to maintain the integrity of the blues masters, but take the sound completely forward. Kind of like Robert Cray, although I don't see myself sounding like him." he says.
For now, he's doing his best to make sure the band remains gainfully employed. Never an easy task in this town. But Luther knows the secret to success.
"I know the formula," he says. "A lot of bandleaders don't understand it. The bottom line is, a lot of times it doesn't matter how good your band is. If that cash register is filled by the end of the night, you're gonna get another gig. I just have to make sure it happens every time we play."
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