Still Howlin'

"Omar" Kent Dykes felt the blues once. At a Mississippi VFW hall more than a quarter of a century ago, a teenage Dykes was performing with his band, all dressed in the appropriate gear -- white turtleneck and black sport coat -- when a big, drunk bruiser stomped in. The gorilla pulled Dykes from the stage and began raining punches on him, apparently for no reason. Dykes didn't even know his attacker. "Then his girlfriend came in and said, "Foozy, that's not Bill,' " recalls Dykes, now 50 years old. "Man, I wish she could have said that a little earlier." Dykes pulled himself up from the floor and performed the rest of his band's set, blood-stained turtleneck and all.

You could say Dykes has earned his right to perform the blues. Not because of his problems -- of which there are plenty, including a battle with the bottle (which he won about a decade ago) and a frustrating late-1980s Columbia/CBS deal that soured after two releases. Dykes plays the blues because he can.

Since the gold-certified Hard Times in the Land of Plenty in 1987, Dykes and his ever-changing band of Howlers have released ten albums of hard-driving boogie blues. Never one to shirk a studio stint (or a tour), Dykes always has an eye toward his next album. "About the time I finish one, I'm already feeling out the next one," he says. "Maybe it's just a theme, like I'll go back and listen to all my old Jimmy Reed records again and start writing in that vein or something like that. I figure if we got the money together and the studio time, let's put one out. If people want it, they'll buy it, and if they don't, they'll leave it sittin' there."

True to form, Dykes has put out two offerings for 2000: Live at the Opera House, recorded back in the late 1980s during his major-label days, and The Screamin' Cat, a disc of fresh studio material. Released on the Dutch Provogue label, Cat is an atmospheric blast of brawny yet tasteful blues-rock, produced and picked on by ex-Killer Bees guitarist/singer Malcolm "Papa Mali" Welbourne and beat on by ace session drummer B.E. "Frosty" Smith.

Growing up in McComb, Mississippi (where, Dykes says, even the segregated high school band marched to the beat of the town's favorite son, Bo Diddley), Dykes was exposed to musical crosswinds from the delta and Memphis to the north and from New Orleans to the south. For the young Dykes, a quick twiddle of the AM dial would reveal rockabilly, country, Big Easy and Memphis variants of R&B, and down-home blues. And then came rock and roll. "I grew up on Jimmy Reed, and I always liked Carl Perkins and the rockabilly guys," he says. "Then I heard CCR, who really blew my mind. For a while I used to call 'em the American Beatles. I've tried to meld all that into my own style."

As a teenager Dykes would slip across the tracks to pick the blues in McComb's juke joints. The blues there, Dykes recalls, was like Hound Dog Taylor's white-lightning boogie, "but even more primitive." After a year or two in the jukes, Dykes fronted his own band, which was when Foozy so forcefully and abruptly entered and exited his life. After several years of touring the delta and the Southeast, Dykes relocated to Austin in 1976. There he came across the Vaughan brothers, Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli and Marcia Ball, part of the second wave of the Austin blues boom.

Dykes is a bluesman of a slightly different breed. In spite of his menacing mien and hulking presence, Dykes is a cerebral and mellow guy. He works on his evocative vocal style and pens intriguing lyrics. When writing tunes, Dykes realizes the guitar solo should be subservient to the song, a lesson sadly lost on many contemporary blues-rockers. "I love songs, and I hate guitar wanking," he says. "Guitar licks are meant to embellish the song, and when I hear somebody just wig out on a guitar, it starts to sound like math to me. Just solo for a round or two and get back into the song, you know?"

Another way Dykes keeps it real, so to speak, is by, paradoxically, keeping it new. Most white bluesmen fall into one of two camps: the young guns who believe the blues popped out of SRV's fancy hat, or the purist zealots who hold that the "real" blues died when Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker went electric in the mid- to late '40s, or at the very latest when B.B. King released The Thrill Is Gone. Dykes adheres to neither philosophy.

"People here have the concept that if you're not authentic, you're not really blues," he says. "I love Muddy Waters, I love Jimmy Reed, I love me all my heroes, but I can't do it like they did it. I know guys that go in the studio and punch holes in their speakers so they could sound like Hubert Sumlin. The reason those guys sounded like they had blown-up amplifiers was because they had blown-up amplifiers. If you consciously try to do that, it never works."

Dykes spends a good chunk of time overseas. One advantage is Europe's compact geography. "You play five clubs in Holland, and you've pretty much covered the whole country," he says. "Playing five clubs in the United States is like urinating in the ocean." Another is that, in general, European fans are more accepting of Omar's Howler-brew of swamp blues, rock and rockabilly than Americans are. "I don't think they have such strict guidelines there," he says. "Blues-rock is still very popular there. Over here, it's out of mode."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax