Brooks Williams is one of the most consistently good musicians on the planet. If you’ve ever attended one of his shows, you’ll not only enjoy every song but you’ll learn a lot about the history of the blues. Brooks engages the audience with his charming and interesting stories about the blues legends and talks about how much of an influence they had on his guitar playing and his songwriting. Brooks grew up in Georgia but soon became a staple in the greater Boston folk / blues scene; he’s gone on to tour the world and resides in Cambridge now…the other Cambridge….in England.
To learn more about Brooks, check out his website.
Here’s a taste of Brooks playing “Darkness” at Blue Rock Studios in Texas.
Your bio states that your music is “blues-icana.” I kind of like that description of your music. It gives the fan a taste of what they’ll hear when they go to see you in concert… a mix of blues and Americana. As your career has progressed, have you always felt the blues pulsing through your veins? Or was there ever a time when you started to veer your course a bit more into some other genre?
“Bluesicana” is a good description of what I do because both blues and Americana inform my writing, arranging and performing. Even when I’ve experimented with other genres, the sound beneath whatever I’ve been experimenting with has been the blues. It’s only been since 2008, when The Time I Spend With You was released, that I realised this with such clarity so it’s taking center stage bit by bit.
Your blues heroes are not necessarily commonly known names to the average music fan. What are some important facts you would like your fans to know about these musicians:
Blind Willie McTell
He wrote Statesboro Blues, putting Statesboro Georgia on the blues map. I was born in Statesboro and I love country blues music so he’s huge in my world. I feel weirdly connected to that world even by birth. Maybe there is something in the water!
Big Bill Broonzy
Very cool way of fingerpicking! Instead of moving the thumb back and forth between a couple strings, like Chet Atkins or 99.9% of the folky fingerpickers out there, he pulsed the beat with his thumb on one bass string. This had a huge impact on the English folk guitarists who set the acoustic guitar world on fire in the 1960s. They especially influenced a young Paul Simon, who lived in London at the time.
Unlike his name, he didn’t actually play like Lightning. He played it slow and soulful and represented the Texas influence on the blues. His blues is something other than Delta or Chicago, the two most well-known blues styles. It has a definite “Texas” feel – even the Texas singer-songwriters have that feel – which in later years influenced not only Jimi Hendrix but also a young Stevie Ray Vaughn.
He wrote one of the greatest songs about humility, “Mother Earth.” It’s as relevant today as it was when he first wrote it. People with money, power, influence, who think they are untouchable and above the law and all else will, in the end, share the same fate as those with literally little to no money, power and influence. It remains relevant. Timely. If I could program a two-song radio show the first song would be “Mother Earth” and the second would be Lori McKenna’s “Humble And Kind.” They spoon nicely!
You’ve given a musical nod to a couple of other types of heroes by lending songs to tribute recordings for Cole Porter and Bert Jansch. Can you tell us how these two giants have influenced your playing?
Cole Porter wrote witty, compact songs, full of irony and humour. A real one-off! Bert Jansch represents that first wave of acoustic guitarists who came out of the Big Bill Broonzy-influenced era, but he also had a head for songs and a love of British folk music. A heady combination that continues to thrive in the UK.
You’ve collaborated on projects with some UK / European artists: Boo Hewerdine, Sally Barker, and Hans Theessink. Tell us about those musicians and what you did with them.
I formed a duo with UK songwriting legend Boo Hewerdine. We call ourselves State of the Union. We made a couple records for Reveal Records and toured as a duo for a couple of years. We write songs together and perform together on the tour. It’s an interesting collaboration because of the Anglo-Americana thing. After a few years off we announced we were making a new album and were touring for two months beginning in September and the tour was booked up in less than two weeks. Pretty cool.
Sally Barker possesses one of the most beautiful voices on the planet. I asked her to sing on my last studio record, My Turn Now, and there was an immediate musical chemistry. She has a thriving solo career and sings in a band, but we’ve put together a show that tours in May-June of the two of us. I’m looking forward to it. Some of her songs, some of mine. This is a little more Americana and a little less blues.
My tour with Hans Theessink is the second in a series of blues tours that I put together with my UK agent last autumn. The first was a month-long blues tour with Guy Davis. It was so successful the venues asked if we could do it again with a different guest and I am so pleased that my good friend Hans Theessink agreed to be a part of the tour. It’s a “blues only” show. We do songs together – at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the concert – and we each do a solo set as well. It’s a lot of fun and we especially focus on songs “in the tradition,” either old ones or new ones. There’s lots of singing and slide guitar and foot stomping’. It’s becoming one of my favourite tours of the year!
And what’s this about your Lightning Express band? How did that come about?
In 2013 I was asked to play Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival. It’s a huge outdoor festival in the UK. It sells out every year, which means around 20,000 people in a big field. It’s a huge rock and roll stage with TV screens and all. My producer, the British folk wunderkind, Andy Bell, suggested that I do some of the festival set solo, and some with a second guitarist, but that I end the set with a band. He had introduced me to Keith Angel and Andy Seward, both UK music legends who have gigged with Martin Simpson, Kate Rusby and Eddie Reader, to name but a few. Kind of scary that our first real gig was before 20,000 people, but it was and we liked it. Since then, when we have the opportunity, we do shows as we are able. I named them Lightning Express after that Everly Borthers song. Right now we’re on a two-week tour of Holland and Belgium. It’s slightly different show. Obviously, louder, but also rootsier with a touch of rockabilly. Andy’s great at slapping that double bass around. Keith knows his percussion moves but also has a real feel for the Memphis blues drum grooves. It’s a great racket for three people, drums, bass, guitar and my vocal. I wish I could bring it to America, but costs so far have been prohibitive.
You’ve been playing music professionally since you were a teenager just starting out in Boston and New York. Have you ever given thought to what you’d be doing if you didn’t follow the music path?
Probably teaching. Or Arctic explorer!
Your latest album is Brooks’ Blues. What do you love about this album?
I recorded Brooks’ Blues to celebrate the first of my blues series tours. It was recorded in three days and was, as they say, like falling off a log. Perhaps one of the easiest recordings I’ve ever made. Old school – me in a creaky chair with my guitars just playing whatever came into my head. Like a conversation. If you like country blues then you’d like this recording. I ended up playing the songs on the recording on the tour so fans really liked it and it sold out after one month of touring. Nice!
Do you have any memorable moments that occurred during the recording of the album that stick out to you as pivotal points in determining the final sense and tone of the project?
I didn’t think about it at all other than just playing what I love and what I know. Funny how “easy” can take so long to figure out!
Let’s talk touring. How many shows do you generally perform each year?
I love touring. I don’t know how many shows I do a year. Let’s say LOTS! I’m happiest when playing and with all these collaborations my itinerary does get a little jammed up. For example, when my current band tour in Holland is over (on Tuesday) I catch a ferry boat back to England and fly out of London on Wednesday for a two week US tour. Then when I get back to the UK I being a UK tour the following week with Sally Barker. That’s kind of how it rolls. I’m one lucky hombre!
Do you ever get tired of all the travel?
You never seem to be at a loss for upcoming projects … so what’s on the horizon?
I know so many wonderful musicians and songwriters, I would love to make a recording and do a tour celebrating that. Also, in terms of the blues, so many blues conversations, songs, recordings, etc., are about and by men. I’ve recently been immersing myself in the women of the blues and am finding the songs very different and very powerful, so that may be something coming eventually. I’d also like to do a recording with a Gospel choir. My wife would also like us to take a holiday. So that might be a cool project too!