Tony Vega is beginning a new chapter in his career. His band is hosting a release party for their first new studio record in six years (and seventh overall), Black Magic Box, Saturday night at The Big Easy (following last weekend's “South Side” launch at Katie's in Bacliff), and Vega is taking a brave step indeed for any musician: acting as his own publicist.
“This is a brand-new journey for me,” says Vega, a fixture on the Houston music scene since 1997. “I have to really try to work to get this out and get it charted on the Living Blues chart and things like that, all the things that make a record matter. From an industry standpoint, speaking of it as competition, I think it stands up to a lot of stuff that's been charting well and winning blues [award] nominations. So I'd like to at least give it a shot and know that I tried to get it to as many ears as possible.”
Luckily, Vega has no need for any hard-sell tactics on Black Magic Box, because the music speaks for itself just fine. The most prominent voice belongs to the custom black Gibson 1947 ES-150 guitar whose nickname gave the album its title, a relatively recent acquisition that, Vega explains, changed his entire sound almost overnight. It proved to be such an inspiration that once the songs were written, Vega headed over to Austin and cut the record in just a few days, working with respected ATX musicians Guy Forsyth, Johnny Moeller and Eric Przygocki. (The band's longtime bassist, Larry “Lownote” Johnson, graciously agreed to slide into the executive-producer role for the album.)
“Funny thing is, I am and always will be a Fender guy,” Vega explains. “I've disliked every Gibson I had played, owned and encountered, except for this one vintage Gibson hollow-body I had tried years ago; it was amazing in every way, but beyond my grasp.”
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Then, about a year ago, Vega says he walked into Houston's Rockin' Robin and saw that guitar's identical twin. “I'm in there every week, so it must have just gotten in there, but I walked in one day and saw this hollow-body and immediately asked to play it,” he recounts. “I have literally not put it down since. That day I took it home, and I never brought it back.”
Vega's friend and Rockin' Robin owner Bart Wittrock told Vega that he was only the instrument's second owner, he recalls. When it came time to close the sale, Wittrock also quoted him a fair price, although, Vega laughs, “He's always got to hold the upper hand in negotiating.”
“It looked like it had had a repair done somewhere on the back of the neck, so you know that always makes it more affordable, too,” adds Vega. “For someone like myself to get ahold of [the guitar] versus a collector that's able to spend five grand on a guitar, it completely changed everything.”
The black Gibson made a perfect passport for Vega, now in his mid-forties, to at long last make a “blues record.” Whereas his earlier albums were closer in spirit to the roadhouse-rock sound of groups like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Black Magic allows him to explore various mid-century R&B styles like the jump-blues of the '40s (“Drinking Beer”); the deliberate, hard-edged Chess-style electric blues of the '50s and '60s on “Little Black Dress” and “I'm Leaving You” (a vintage Bob Reed tune); the tough, Texas-style guitar-flogging of “Frisco”; and even early rock and roll on the pounding “Lo-Fi Betty.” The very last song, the swingin' “Begin the Blues,” takes it all the way back to some of the artists who inspired the album, great jazz guitarists of the 1930s and '40s like Texas-born Charlie Christian and Oklahoma native Barney Kessel.
Helping the album keep one toe in modern times are a cucumber-cool cover of Lyle Lovett's “Penguins” and “Moody Park,” an evocative, “singer-songwriter” number (Vega's words) about the near northside neighborhood where Vega spent a key part of his childhood. (He was born in Chicago, and his family eventually settled in the Greenspoint area; these days, he lives in the Heights.) Floating by in his memory parade are Holy Name Catholic Church, Poppa Burger, “'chucos and their rucas,” and kung-fu afternoons at the Majestic Metro theater downtown. Even Vega admits the song is an “outlier” on Black Magic Box, though it may be more of a piece with his career as a whole.
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“The kind of strange thing I've had not necessarily working for me the rest of my career is I've never been blues-rock enough for the blues-rock crowd, and I've never been blues enough for the blues crowd,” he says. "I've liked to see it as I'm just doing my own thing, kind of like a Lyle Lovett or Dwight Yoakam, where you can't really pigeonhole 'em as full-on genre artists.”
Some of us may not see that as necessarily a bad thing, of course. Just not enough.
“In the blues, it's pretty tricky,” Vega admits. “It's like the old Mr. Miyagi thing – if you're not on one side of the road, you're right down the middle, and that's when you get run over.”
Tony Vega releases Black Magic Box 8 p.m. Saturday night at The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby. Cover is $5. Vega also plays a free in-store at 1 p.m. Saturday at Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth.