Make No Mistake, GA-20 Plays the Blues

Boston bluesmeisters GA-20 (Pat Faherty, Tim Carman, and Matt Stubbs) will perform on Friday, January 6, at the University of Houston Clear Lake's Bayou Theater in support of their new album Crackdown.
Boston bluesmeisters GA-20 (Pat Faherty, Tim Carman, and Matt Stubbs) will perform on Friday, January 6, at the University of Houston Clear Lake's Bayou Theater in support of their new album Crackdown. Photo by Fancey Pansen.
It’s been quite a year for GA-20. After making a big splash with 2021's GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor: Try It…You Might Like It!, the Boston trio of blues primitivists is back with a new album of original material, Crackdown. GA-20 will introduce Houston fans to the new songs with a show on Friday, January 6, at the University of Houston Clear Lake’s Bayou Theater.

Actually, “new” is something of a misnomer. In point of fact, Crackdown was finished and ready to go when COVID hit. A decision was made to hold off on releasing the record until the band could tour behind it and properly promote the album. Speaking from his home in Boston, GA-20 guitarist Matt Stubbs says that the self-imposed delay did initially produce some frustration.

Album Cover
“At first it was hard,” Stubbs says. “But we had some other stuff recorded that we were able to release in the meantime, so that we could stay busy. The Hound Dog project happened fairly quick into COVID. Bruce [Iglauer], the president of Alligator Records, reached out in July of 2020 about working together.” After some brainstorming, Stubbs came up with the idea of recording the Hound Dog Taylor tribute album to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alligator and its first release, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers.  “And that took my mind off [the delay], because we were in the studio by November, recording it,” Stubbs says.

“I’m excited that Crackdown came out and people dug it,” he continues. “So now it’s all about touring, promoting, and getting the word out.” Yes, people definitely dug it. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard blues album chart, the band’s third time in a row to accomplish that feat.

Stubbs and vocalist / guitarist Pat Faherty write GA-20’s songs, and Stubbs serves as producer for their albums. Since he’s doing three jobs (performing / writing / producing), does Stubbs find it necessary to compartmentalize his responsibilities? “No, it’s all me,” he says. “I probably have more of a concept going into the recording sessions than the other guys, because I’m thinking of the end result all the time, whether that means song sequence or the way I want it to sound or the performances. Whereas I feel that when the other guys [Faherty and drummer Tim Carman] come in, they’re just concentrating on the performances. I have to do double, triple duty. But I don’t separate it. It’s all always there.”

Though the new album is blues-centric, a variety of influences show up, including country, surf, and garage rock. In fact, some have detected a punk sensibility lurking in the grooves. Do the band members have a punk background? “I never went through a punk phase,” Stubbs says. “I’ve always just really been into blues music and roots music. Pat and Tim, growing up, were into punk rock.

“I just think we play with a lot of energy,” Stubbs explains. “It’s raw, it’s a lot of energy live. I think a lot of times blues bands don’t have all that much energy these days. Some do, but not all. Sometimes it’s kind of sleepy. I consider us a traditional blues band, but when you see us live, it’s a rock and roll show.”

"I consider us a traditional blues band, but when you see us live, it’s a rock and roll show.”

tweet this
GA-20 is known for its use of vintage gear (the band is named after a Gibson amplifier from the ‘50s), but the album still has relatively contemporary sonics. Stubbs’ production manages to walk the line between slavish dedication to “authentic” sounds and an embrace of modern technology in the interest of accurately capturing the grit. “We wanted to sound timeless and vintage, in a way, but it doesn’t have to be extreme,” Stubbs says.

Case in point: analog versus digital recording. Some purists maintain that the best old-school tones can only be properly captured with analog tape, the medium used on historical blues recordings. Stubbs considered going down that road instead of using Pro Tools digital recording software, but practical considerations helped make the decision for him.
“We were going to attempt to do tape,” he recalls. “I wanted to experiment, so I had the engineer rig up the tape machine and the Pro Tools so we could record at the same time and I could A-B them. The tape machine was being a pain in the butt, and it took like eight hours to get it going right. And then the tape machine just died halfway through the first song. So we just put that it the corner, and it was Pro Tools again on this album.”

In the end, the recording medium made not a whit of difference in the finished product. “For me, it’s more about the performance in the room and getting the instruments to sound the way you want them to sound. So if you have vintage guitars and vintage amps and you’re playing vintage-inspired music, it’s going to be – hopefully - in the neighborhood of sounding that way.”

Stubbs uses the term “traditional blues” to describe GA-20’s sound, but within the tangle of musical semantics, what does it really mean? Stubbs takes a moment to reflect. “I don’t know exactly how I would define ‘traditional blues.’ What I don’t think we are is modern blues. Or what modern blues is these days, for the most part. I’ve played with Charlie Musselwhite for many years – 15 years – and so I’ve done most of the blues festivals you can do. And when I go to these festivals, rarely do I hear what sounds like traditional blues to me. There might be one act out of 15.
“Usually you get there, and it’s full-on blues rock, where it almost sounds like southern rock or something. Classic rock. To my ear, the whole song is a platform to get you to the guitar solo. Lyrics are secondary, the story is secondary, it’s all this guitar hero shredding thing. Which is fine. But that’s not what we do. We’re inspired by blues from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s. We just try to take that as inspiration and influence and write our own songs.”

“I think blues in general has a bad PR problem,” Stubbs continues, noting that some younger listeners seems put off by the label. “For whatever reason, it’s not attractive to them. If they were to walk into a club and see Magic Sam from the ‘60s, and someone said, ‘This is blues,’ I think they would like blues. It’s a scary word, I think. When you say ‘blues,’ their mind goes to that modern guitar shredding thing. It’s not going to J.B. Lenoir or Otis Rush. If they heard blues on TV, in the background, they would probably like it.”

Did GA-20 ever consider the option of soft-pedaling its blues identity? “A lot of people told us when we started this band, ‘Oh, just call it rock and roll, it will be a lot easier for you.’ And we made a big effort not to do that,” Stubbs says. “It’s OK if it’s harder. I want to call it blues because we’re a blues band.”

GA-20 will perform at the University of Houston Clear Lake’s Bayou Theater, 2700 Bay Area Boulevard, on Friday, January 6, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $35. More information is available online here or at 281-283-3024.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Contributor Tom Richards is a broadcaster, writer, and musician. He has an unseemly fondness for the Rolling Stones and bands of their ilk.
Contact: Tom Richards