Aaron Loesch Vies to Become the Guitar Center King of the Blues

True story: I have dreamed I have played only three pieces of music. Each time, the experience was as exhilarating and as much a dream I'll never see as the ones in which I could fly or had scored with Donna Summer (1984 version), Kim Basinger (1989) or Norah Jones (uh, more recently).

Back on point, one time I dreamed I was pounding a piano to Chopin's Nocturne #1 in F, Opus 15, andante cantabile. Another time, Townes Van Zandt was teaching me a song that doesn't really exist called "Midnight Raven Blues." (Eerily, after Van Zandt died, a previously unreleased Townes song I didn't know of would emerge called "Black Crow Blues.")


guitar-playing competitions

The third dream, which followed the stressful and traumatic month two years ago that brought us Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, featured Jug O' Lightnin's "Ohio," a vacuum-tight, syncopated boogie highlighted by Aaron Loesch's towering vocals, snarling guitar and his kazoo. (Yeah, his kazoo.)

Some people who have never heard Loesch's music might wonder what he, his ramshackle guitars and his rack kazoo are doing in anybody's dreams with the likes of Van Zandt and Chopin. But that's just it — those people are the ones who haven't heard him. Those who have know he's one of the finest musicians this city has ever produced, a true composer as well as a guy who can play Earl Scruggs banjo licks on a homemade guitar and convincingly cover everyone from Robert Johnson and Booker White to Van Halen and Black Sabbath. I once saw him defy an icehouse crowd to stump him with their requests. The beery throng had watched him play Delta blues for an hour, and they had him pegged as some blues nazi purist. Wrong. He trumped every one of them and their requests for Boston, Def Leppard and Michael Jackson.

Loesch makes old music sound new and new music sound old. He can shred, but he's not a shredder. He's less a guitarist than he is what he calls a "guitar-ologist," a guy who "finds new tones and sounds, not fast stuff."

And now there's a good chance he will be spreading his guitar-ology far beyond his old strongholds of Rudyard's, Dan Electros, West Alabama Ice House and the Last Concert Cafe. Over the course of this spring, Loesch has bested over 4,000 other contestants in Guitar Center's nationwide King of the Blues guitar competition, and now he only has to defeat three more regional champs at the finals in Hollywood on June 16.

Loesch says he entered the competition thinking he might have a crack at winning "a strap and a pack of strings." Up against legions of blooze shredders — all those guitar-geek teenaged Speedy Ray Vaughans (Loesch's term) and Blondy McPentatonics (mine that I stole from some guy on a message board) — he didn't think he stood a chance. "If you put a muffin in front of their amp speakers, it would microwave because those sonic waves are coming out so fast," he says. "I can't do that. I mean, Randy Rhoads was fast, but it didn't have that speed that people have today, those crazy chords and scales."

Instead, he has already racked up prizes including more SoBe energy drink than he could possibly imbibe in a year, two Gibson guitars and two amps, a laptop and roughly a cargo container of Levi's gear. Should he win the final, he will also get five grand in cash, a 2007 Ford Mustang, yet another Gibson guitar (this one a '59 Les Paul reissue), another amp, an endorsement deal with Gibson, a write-up in Guitar World magazine, a week in the studio with Pete Anderson, a computer, $2,000 more in Levi's apparel and a slot on the bill at the Crossroads Blues Festival in Chicago alongside Eric Clapton. (Don't know if Loesch will have much use for the car or the guitars — he builds his own cars and instruments.)

So yeah, this is pretty tall cotton for the part-time Jaguar mechanic from Chappell Hill. In Los Angeles, he will be backed by the band of Grammy-winning producer and former Dwight Yoakam bandleader/guitarist Pete Anderson, and all the contestants will be followed onstage by the Black Crowes and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, who is accompanying former Howlin' Wolf guitarist and unique stylist Hubert Sumlin.

Back in December's year-ender, we wrote, "don't be surprised if you hear from Aaron Loesch...in a big way." We had no idea it would be this big, this fast.

"It couldn't happen to a better guitar player," says Carolyn Wonderland, whose former bassist Chris King served as Loesch's drummer in Jug O' Lightnin'. "He has such a beautiful passion, and he's so versatile — he can do all different genres and he can even compose movie themes. And if there's a roomful of guitar players he'll sing, and if there's a roomful of singers he will play guitar. I was just listening to the first demo I heard of his stuff the other day, and it still gives me chills."

"I first met him when we were in Bloodfart together," says Brad Moore, co-owner of the new Pearl Bar and a former musician and Rudyard's bartender. "Back then he had a Styx mullet and he was a metal dude. But he was so confident. We would cover Pat Benatar songs and he would pull out a banjo and just bust on it."

Moore also well remembers Jug O' Lightnin's long Sunday-night run at Rudz around the turn of the century. According to the GraceNotes database, Jug's genre is "unclassifiable," and for once that's accurate. Their music blended old-time/bluegrass, country, blues, classic rock, Danny Elfman-style modern classical and metal, while never sounding anything less than unique. Loesch once called it "AM radio with some Björk mixed in." So Moore has an easier time describing what they weren't. "They were refreshing, because they weren't four guys in Sub Pop T-shirts jumping around onstage trying to sound like whoever it was that copied Mudhoney and got famous," he says. "They were not post-Nirvana, and they were not post-Rage Against the Machine."

For Loesch, there's more than just a flashy prize package and a much-needed career boost on the line. There's also validation for the entire scene that produced him, the 1990s roots-rock milieu that whirled around Carolyn Wonderland, Horseshoe, Jesse Dayton and a host of other bands. Wonderland and Dayton have since gone to Austin, while those who stayed behind — people like Skinny G, Chris King, Eric Dane, and Teri Greene — have either left the scene completely or now toil on the fringes in front of sparse crowds, far from the Montrose haunts they once ruled.

"Skinny G drives a truck now," Loesch says. "Eric Dane's an electrician in Austin, Texas. Chris King is a father and works at a plant of some kind and he likes his job. But there really was something about Houston 12 or 15 years ago where it was really our scene, and now so many people have moved into Houston and bought all those condos in Montrose and Midtown and started complaining when the bands are too loud at the Alabama Ice House...It's just not the same Houston it was. Eric played a gig with me a couple of weeks ago, and he's still a fiery guitar player. Every once in a while, you see Teri Greene or Screamin' Kenny and they're still doing their thing. But still I sometimes wonder, where is everybody right now? Did we get lost in this big bowl of chili?"

Loesch remembers how these people helped him: "I've known them since I was a teenager," the 34-year-old remembers. "I was still into Randy Rhoads and shit when I met them." Now, he hopes he can win this contest and return the favor. "The winner of this contest is gonna go somewhere, and I'm gonna go as far as I can," he says. "So if Eric and Skinny G and others who are marginally interested in having a music life want to go, I want them to go with me. Because those are the guys that taught me, number one, and two, there's nothing I can't do musically with those guys."

Loesch always has a few irons in the fire, and now is no exception. He says he has a ton of unreleased studio material waiting to be fleshed out. He says this material was too commercial for Jug O' Lightnin', "more radio-friendly, marketable yet still rootsy country/blues songwriting."

"Southern songwriting," he calls it. "I'm never gonna be able to deny being a Southerner," he says. "It's funny, the other day I was trying to play classical, and somebody told me, ‘Hey, you're chicken-pickin' classical!' I can't help it — I swing. I swing everything, even my 64th note diminished runs with backing bass lines and stuff like that, all that Paganini stuff that I figured out how to do on guitar a few years ago, it doesn't matter. To this day, I still sound like a chicken-picker. So I realized I would just have to be a chicken-picker who knows a little bit of classical. But the new country stuff explores a little bit of that, a lot of arpeggios mixing classical with blues and all of that."

And even if he does accede to the King of the Blues's throne, don't expect that crown to rest easy on his head. "I'm not a blues player," he says. "I've never had to wake up at 5 a.m. and work hard all day. I'm not one of those people that was born 100 years ago and didn't have privileges. But I did learn the music. People have been asking me a lot lately about what the blues are, and I tell them, ‘The blues is something I don't want.'"

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