New Music from the Old School: Bob Eike, Billy Thompson and Soul Stew Records
There’s an art to being an independent label, but the heart of the art isn’t exactly what most people might think. It’s not so much the ability to discover, produce and promote that makes a great independent record label. It’s more a talent for appreciation. When you find an indie label that you want to follow, that you would want to hear more from, it’s often because the people there not only appreciate the music they bring you, they also appreciate how good it is for for everybody who loves that music when that music can be heard.
There’s a new label like that just outside of D.C. They call themselves Soul Stew Records, and they started releasing music last year, bringing a promising new touch to an old idea: find great music, and bring it to the people who love it. “We deliver blues, soul, roots, jazz, gospel, Americana and any other genre that is real and moves us,” is the way they describe themselves, and Soul Stew’s first two releases (both of them what most people would call the Blues) deliver a lot.
These are two albums that spotlight two very different sides of the Blues, though. Bob Eike’s CD happy little songs about futility and despair showcases the acoustic side of the art’s oldest traditions, although Eike’s songwriting is so rich with forward-leaning imagination that he makes a familiar style feel like it’s new right now. With a very different approach and a very different sound, Billy Thompson’snew release Friend is a such a road ready, crowd driving, blues-rock jam that you could almost forget to tell your friends how accomplished the musicianship on it is.
This is new music for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not old school. Brightly creative, yet true to the best of two richly different blues traditions, both albums sound classic and proud of it. Both Thompson and Eike go back far enough to have seen plenty of what’s real in music, and between them they’ve shared stages and studios with a roll call of great players. They’re also old friends, and as artists they have a lot in common. Perhaps the most important quality they share is an unspoken understanding, an understated conviction, that whatever music you most love to play, that’s the music that people will most love to hear.
He saw a lot of Blues around Houston, and once watched Lightnin’ Hopkins tear the roof off a club that was so packed some of the audience (including a young Bob Eike) had to sit next to him on the stage. “Seeing him just own the joint, him, his guitar, the audience, was a magical thing,” Eike recalls. Right in the middle of one of his songs, Hopkins stopped and pointed to Eike. “You ever see someone that you immediately liked the first time you see them?” he said to the packed house. “I really like this cat here, this man is cool.” Eike says he went out and bought every Lightnin’ Hopkins record he could find, and started trying to play like him. “To this day,” he says, “It’s the image of what I want to be. Just me and my guitar, trying to tell my story and own the joint.”
A lot of people would call what Eike plays ‘Delta Blues’ (“I just call it bangin’ on the guitar,” he says), but the more you hear his music, the less you want to classify it, because you start to hear that what he loves about music includes so much that’s so different. “I’m an avid listener to all kinds of guitar players, Ry Cooder, Marc Ribot, Frank Zappa, Flamenco, African, and all sorts of Latin Players,” he says. “There are a couple of Indian slide players that I know God has got turned up loud all the time.” It gives you an idea of why he’s able to layer so much music into one guitar, played in real time.
It’s an unusual title for an album, happy little songs about futility and despair, and even more remarkable is how well it captures what’s on the record. It’s true that the songs aren’t long, and the instrumentation couldn’t be more straightforward (one voice, one guitar), but that only makes it more intriguing that every song looms so large. They aren’t exactly about ‘futility and despair’ either, although Eike’s poetry often leans to the darker side of realism. “Nobody’s got an answer, nobody’s got a clue” he sings in ‘That’s Just Not Right’, “and if you never wonder, you know you’re bound to get fooled.”
Somehow, though, despite it’s often scorching take on a world full of trouble, happy little songs about futility and despair plays like a defiant affirmation of something much brighter, probably because of Eike’s remarkable musicianship. He can pull melody and rhythm out of a guitar like he’s conducting a six string symphony orchestra, and there’s such a brightness in just being able to do that (or in hearing somebody who can) that his album makes you feel like somewhere, something must be alright.
If all of that makes you wonder where he’s been, there’s a story about it, but it’s not really a complicated one. After what he calls “a brush with the big time” (a feature in Guitar Player magazine as “an undiscovered great”, a strong and well-produced independent album that was never released, and much more), Eike eventually began to live his life like his music was his own business. Why that changed, and how he came to put together an album as impressive as happy little songs about futility and despair is also a story, and that one has a lot to do with his friend Billy Thompson.
Thompson’s talent as a performer has been in a lot of spotlights, on a lot of big stages, and for a lot of years. Besides an almost uncountable list of performances with his own band, he’s played in hit broadway shows, at the 2002 Superbowl celebration, on big network TV shows, with the San Diego Symphony and with legends like Little Milton, Albert King, Earl King and Art Neville. He can find all kinds of different shades and colors in a guitar, and he and his band drive their way through a live performance as if playing great and meaning it is just the beginning of what they showed up to do.
His album Friend manages to include all of that, and something more. Thompson’s guitar playing always finds just the right expression, just the right feeling, to paint the pictures his songs imagine, but taken together, the songs on Friend add another dimension to his musicianship. True to the album’s title, there’s a determined sense of good will that runs through the album. “While the worlds winding down, Days may seem dark as night,” he sings, “We’ve got to do all we can to make each other feel alright”. It’s a theme that runs throughout much of the album, and in songs like “While the World’s Winding Down”, “Many Faces”, and the title cut “Friend”, you get a good idea of who it really is that’s playing that guitar.
Thompson and Eike go way back. They met in Southern California years ago, although Eike doesn’t really remember exactly how. “I think he was doing sound at a jazz club in La Jolla that used to have a blues night, and I was playing it,” he says. When Eike was picked up to do a full production spec album, he insisted on playing with Thompson. “I had my pick of guitarists, and I insisted on Billy because I respected his work and depth,” he says.
Years later and still good friends, Eike took an active interest in introducing Billy to audiences in Chicago, where Eike had settled, and got the Billy Thompson Band booked at the city’s legendary Blues venue, Rosa’s. “Thinking of seeing Billy, and not having a new song, I started banging on the guitar again,” Eike recalls, ” and when he showed up I showed him what I was working on.” Thompson had recently signed with Soul Stew, and when the label’s founder, Eric Selby, heard Eike’s music he immediately knew that more people would want to hear it too. “Eric seemed to like the songs,” Eike says, “and he was nice enough to put them on his label. Its a great label, and a great relationship.”
There’s an art to being an independent label, as much as there is to playing a guitar or making a record, and the heart of the art is even more than just finding good music and releasing good records. As important as that part will always be, it may be even more important to be able to appreciate how worthwhile it is to make it so that all that music can be heard. That’s why, If you give a good listen to these two records, to Bob Eike’s happy little songs about futility and despair, and to Billy Thompson’s Friend, it just might make you want to hear some of the music that Soul Stew Records will probably be finding for years to come.