White Boy Blues

With his international debut, One Step Ahead, Vince Converse has attracted a crowd of music lovers and musicians.

All it took was a smile to let Vince Converse know he could really play the blues.

It happened one night about eight years ago when Converse was 17 and was playing the Matinee Ballroom in downtown Houston with his band Sunset Heights. The group was opening for a couple homegrown blues acts, most of whom were sitting in the first couple rows of the club taking in this young white-boy outfit and especially its Stevie Ray Vaughan-looking guitarist with the quick fingers and trenchant timing. After Converse ripped off a melodic, transforming solo, he looked up into the crowd and just happened to make eye contact with one of the bluesmen in the first row, Johnny "Clyde" Copeland.

That's when Converse saw that smile.

And it was at that moment that Converse felt all those years practicing the pentatonic scale, all those nights lugging around his what-felt-like-300-pound guitar case, all those club gigs on school nights, had come to fruition. He had gotten approval from a true bluesman. And that's all Converse needed to know.

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"I just looked up into the audience to get some feedback," says Converse. "And I saw one of my idols sitting there, and he just smiled. That's when I knew I didn't want to go [rock and roll]."

And he hasn't. Contemporary blues is what Converse specializes in now. He has just released his second solo record, his first worldwide debut, One Step Ahead (Mystic), and is promoting the new record with a national tour. He has already been to Houston but plans to return before the end of the year.

By that time Converse might be more well known than he already is around these parts. His former band Sunset Heights is still together and is a perennial good draw locally. And a lot of Houstonians remember Converse and his particular loud, clear-but-crunchy style. The only thing different about Converse's playing today is that it's much more centered and structured around classic blues -- even if the music that surrounds it has blues-rock vibes.

The record itself is a mix of blues-rock, vintage covers and well-written contemporary material. But technically it all could be categorized as blues. Each song has something about it -- aside from the numerous bluesy solos -- that hearkens to old-time blues songwriting. There's the stop-time backbeat of "She Thing," in which Converse tears off a couple solo lines, the band behind him stops on the beat, Converse plays another couple lines, the band picks up again, and then every musician comes together right on cue. There's the repetitive verse of the gospel-ish standard, "Drown Yourself in the River," in which Converse jams with a slide in double-time while repeating the phrase, "Go down to that river / Go out and drown yourself," over and over. (The way these words are sung, through some sort of vocal distortion device, makes Converse actually sound like a 73-year-old black man from Mississippi.) And there's also the calls-and-responses of B.B. King's "Come Back to Baby," in which Converse sings the title line and is echoed by a corps of backup singers.

What gives every track a contemporary and even popular appeal is Converse's musicianship. His singing doesn't say very much, but his playing and songwriting are excellent. He has achieved this level of proficiency by working hard and being patient.

"I haven't written as much lately," says Converse. "I wait for songs to come to me. That's the easy stuff. The best stuff. Anything you try and force on yourself, I don't feel good about. Kinda like women."

As for his guitar work, Converse says he still hasn't figured out how to "play" in the studio. Or at least he hasn't figured out how to perform in the studio. Standing in a ten-foot-by-ten-foot room and playing to oneself is a lot different from standing on a stage at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge and performing in front of hundreds. For Converse, the two are worlds apart.

"Live, it's energetic, soulful," says Converse. "I don't have to try. It just comes that way. It's better than any record I've ever put my hands on. It's a weird thing, to be in the booth and try to be natural. But I guess the more I'm in there the more I can figure out how to come across."

Converse was born and raised in Houston. He went to Kempner High School and grew up in a Hispanic community. His first foray into the blues was when a friend from the neighborhood took him to see some local blues giants: Joe "Guitar" Hughes. Texas Johnny Brown. Johnny "Clyde" Copeland. It wasn't long after seeing those performers that Converse got the nod of approval from Copeland.

If anything, Converse has since learned how to "come across."

Now an international touring artist who has been across the country and back, Converse is getting approval from bigger blues icons. About three years ago at a show with Dale Hawkins, Converse got a couple words from a rock and roll and blues pioneer, Bo Didley.

"He said, 'Hey, white boy. You can play,' " says Converse. "And he asked me to jam with him. I mean, it was amazing. I was trying to get off the stage and he said, 'You stay up here, white boy.' And that makes me feel good. You know, I'm playing these people's musicŠ"

When you mention Vince Converse's name, you also indirectly refer to that growing list of white blues guitar whiz kids who are immensely popular and who can sell a couple hundred thousand records and sell out most venues with little or no promotion or airplay. Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd are two names that pop into mind. Both, like Converse, seem mature beyond their years, and both probably can recall moments when they too got smiles of approval from legendary bluesmen in the front row. But so what? Well, what all this says is that the blues -- contrary to popular belief -- is everybody's music. It always has been. And while approval may be wanted, even necessary, for white folk to play it, the great seal of authenticity has never sold records. Good music has.

"It's a people thing," says Converse. "You know, people say, 'You're not special' -- we're all special. We're humans. We're all special in our own ways. People say stuff, and they don't know you. They read the press on you, and that's it."

Before judgment is passed, Converse needs to be heard. Though he doesn't quite possess a signature sound yet, except for the unusually boisterous timbre of his Stratocaster (Converse is represented by Fender and is hardly ever pictured without the guitar draped over his shoulder, hung to his side or stapled across his chest), Converse knows what it takes to make "authentic" blues music. He concentrates on emotion and technique, and knows his history. His reverence for the genre may be what ultimately separates him from the rest of the white-boy-done-good pack, aside from the fact that he can probably hang with anyone note for note.

"There's a lot of natural ability involved," says Converse of soloing. "A lot of feel. I mean, everybody practices and everybody has to learn, but feel has a lot to do with it. Like Albert King doesn't know as many licks as Steve Vai, but plays just as good with feel. And I think even if he did know as many licks as Vai, it would all come out the same.

"I play what comes first. I'm not thinking about it. You get lost that way. I try to get both sides of it. I know it and I feel it, but I don't try and think about it."

But maybe it is this thinking that makes Converse so endearing to the ear. It could be the way Converse references Jimi Hendrix with only a couple wa-wa distorted lines on "Equality," the best (and best-crafted) song on One Step Ahead. Or it could be the way Converse conjures up visions of B.B. King, head bopping from side to side, by playing sharp notes one by one, stopping for a full count, playing a couple more sharp notes then stopping for a full count again, as he does on "Come Back to Baby." Or it could be the way Converse nods to Stevie Ray Vaughan by extending and bending a note for what feels like 30 seconds, as on "Someone Else Instead."

It's nice to imagine what Converse is going to sound like 30 years from now, when he's really admitted to the club.

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