That is the question that comes to mind when first encountering the Boston-based blues band GA-20, a trio comprised of two guitars and drums. No piano. No organ. No bass.
Speaking via Zoom, GA-20 guitarist Matthew Stubbs explains that the band’s minimalist approach has its roots in Chess Records blues sides from the ‘50s and ‘60s. “There’s lots of Little Walter tunes and other recordings from Chess where you don’t notice that there’s no bass when you listen to it. When we started the band, the whole idea was to keep it a trio, keep it stripped down, keep it super simple.”
After a pandemic-mandated absence from the road, GA-20 is back on tour, appearing at the Continental Club on January 14 on a bill with fellow blues purist JD Simo.
Taking their name from a Gibson guitar amplifier from the ‘50s that is beloved by connoisseurs of tone, GA-20 began gigging in 2018 and released their first album, Lonely Soul, the following year. In Stubbs’ mind, the band fills a void in the current musical climate.
“There hasn’t been a revival of traditional blues for a long, long time,” Stubbs says. “These days, when you say you play blues, everyone thinks ‘blues rock’ – guitar shredding, 10-minute solos. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when I’m looking at my record player, I’m thinking, ‘I don’t have any of those style records.’ Hendrix maybe, but all my blues records are from the ‘50s and ‘60s. A lot of modern blues sounds to me like classic rock or southern rock. They don’t sound like a Magic Sam record to me.”
Stubbs can speak with authority on the subject, having spent the past 14 years backing iconic blues harmonicist Charlie Musselwhite, not to mention appearing with James Cotton, another harmonica player who is no slouch on the Mississippi saxophone himself.
Like most artists, the members of GA-20 were forced off the road in 2020. As luck would have it, an opportunity to fill the down time presented itself when Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer approached Stubbs about recording an album. The band was already signed to Colemine Records, but Stubbs came up with the idea of the two labels doing a co-release, an album of songs by blues legend Hound Dog Taylor, perhaps best known for the song “Give Me Back My Wig.”
The concept made sense, as Taylor was Alligator’s first signing in 1971. Not to mention the fact that Taylor’s band was also sans bass.
“We’ve been compared to him a lot, because we’re two guitars and drums and we play Chicago blues. I never really thought about doing a tribute record for anybody, but it just seemed fitting.”
At the time of his signing with Alligator, Taylor had been gigging around Chicago for years, creating a reputation as an entertaining but sometimes unpredictable performer. It is worth noting that Taylor was polydactyl, having an extra digit on each hand. The spare appendages did not aid his guitar playing, though, as they were non-functional. So much so that Taylor cut off his extra right digit with a straight razor one night while drunk, because it was bothering him.
GA-20 is Matthew Stubbs (guitar), Tim Carman (drums), and Pat Faherty (guitar, vocals).
Photo by Fancey Pansen
Taylor was never considered a virtuoso, nor did he want to be. Asked how he would like to be remembered, Taylor remarked that he hoped people would say, “He couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good.”
The album GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor…Try It, You Might Like It! was an unqualified success upon its release a few months ago, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard blues chart.
The band does an admirable job of capturing Taylor’s sound, an edgy take on the blues infused with a sense of wild abandon. As Stubbs says, “It’s off the rails. It sounds like it could fall apart at any moment.”
The production is outstanding, using a combination of modern technology and vintage equipment to create a sound that would probably suit Taylor just fine if he were around today. “I like vintage gear," Stubbs says. "I have yet to find a new amplifier that I like the sound of more than a vintage one.”
As for the guitars used on the record, Stubbs and bandmate Pat Faherty (guitar and vocals) sought out the same types of guitars that Taylor used, including those made by Teisco, a budget brand that was popular in the ‘60s. “We scoured the internet and we bought four or five of them. I mean, they’re cheap.”
While Chicago musicians have always loomed large in the blues pantheon, many would argue that bluesmen from Texas cast equally long shadows. That being the case, how does Stubbs compare Chicago blues to Texas blues? “Texas blues? I think of guys like Freddie King or T-Bone Walker or Gatemouth Brown. And Chicago, I love Buddy Guy and Earl Hooker. You listen to it, it has a different vibe. The lope on the shuffle is different to me when I hear a Texas shuffle compared to a Chicago shuffle. With Chicago blues, the instruments interact a little bit more. When I listen to a Texas shuffle, it’s a big, fat backbeat.”
GA-20 and JD Simo will perform at the Continental Club, 3700 Main, on Friday, January 14, at 9 p.m. For information, call 713-529-9899 or visit continentalclub.com. $15 - $25.
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