The Steve Power Sessions (1): Working the Jelly with Matthew Robinson & the Jelly Kings
by JOSEP PEDRO
Based in Austin since 2003, Steve Power is a widely experienced musician whose extensive trajectory spans over more than forty years, including intense periods in different states and countries both in the U.S. and in Europe. A thoughtful observer and meticulous storyteller, Steve continues to prove that he is a restless singer-songwriter, blues harmonica player and band coordinator, capable of moving coherently within roots and blues music.
His dedication and attentive character has led to the project Matthew Robinson & The Jelly Kings, where he joins forces with one of the most unique bluesmen in Austin and a select group of backing musicians looking to extend the legacy of Texas blues. Together, while keeping in synch at their residency at Opals Divine’s Penn Field restaurant (South Congress), Steve and Matthew have been working hard on their upcoming album Work that Jelly!, whose advance samples showcase impressive performances within convincing, groovy frameworks. This will be Matthew Robinson’s third album as a leader (after Bad Habits [Fedora, 1998] and Matthew Robinson & The Texas Blues Band [Dialtone, 2003]), and features special guest W.C. Clark –the “Godfather of Austin’s Blues”, and photography by Ricardo Acevedo (Diverse Arts Culture Works, etc.). In the meantime, Matthew Robinson continues to play with Eastside Blues Syndicate which, founded by bassist Harold McMillan, aspires to maintain the African-American-based cultural programming in the midst of the area’s gentrification.
A member of the Austin Music Foundation and the Austin Blues Society, and an endorser of well-known harmonica equipment brands (Seydel Harmonicas, Sonny Jr. Harp Amps, Blows Me Away Harp Mics, 16:23 Custom Harmonicas), Steve Power’s career includes several awards and albums both as sideman and leader –his last solo project was The Austin Chronicles (2013), as well as significant accomplishments like playing harmonica with John Lee Hooker, singing with Joe Cocker or standing as onstage bodyguard to Little Richard. In the first of three interview-sessions Steve, who was immersed in the record preparation process at the time, discusses his relationship with bluesman Matthew Robinson and the band as well as his approach and expectations of Work That Jelly!
How would you describe the experience of being involved in this project and, particularly, of playing with Austin native Matthew Robinson?
Matt is a throwback to the great days of blues. From the first time I played with him it has been an honor and a genuine treat to share the stage but especially with The Jelly Kings. Matt and I are on the same page and almost finish each other’s sentences even though we’ve only known each other a few months, but that was the case right from the beginning. We both like to laugh a lot.
I more or less started in blues bands, getting serious when I moved to Wales. Had some success on a regional basis and in Europe but after several years drifted into the singer/songwriter Americana thing. I produced three albums of original material all of which had very good critical success and there was always some harmonica and some straight up blues in there somewhere. Thing was, leading a band is something that happened by default. I never really liked the role. I often said if I could get a gig as a harmonica sideman again I’d be one happy camper. That opportunity arose when Matt and I got together.
Matt has done 5 or 6 albums but had been working mostly in other people’s projects the last few years, occasionally working with pickup bands. I always thought he deserved a better band. When I was offered a residency [at Opal Divine’s Penn Field] to do with whatever I wanted I immediately thought of Matt and putting together a band for him.
When did your collaboration actually start?
I’d been invited to play harp with the Austin Blues All-Stars, which was a project that someone else had put together. Matt was playing guitar with that band but not fronting it as such. We were a sort of backing band for other blues artists, a different one every week. Little Johnny B. Good, Bobby Mack, folks like that. It only lasted about five weeks when the kind of bi-polar owner threw a wobbly over nothing and chucked the bass player out of the place. Pretty stupid really as we were getting folks into a place that was usually stone empty. Anyway, that’s the first time I got to play with Matt and hang out. I just immediately was having such a great time just being on the same stage with the man and he’s such a great singer.
Why do you think you get along so well?
Although we grew up in very different circumstances and locations we’re almost the same age. Matt is just two months younger than me. We can call on those similar points of experience. We both have an uncomplicated sense of how one should go about handling your business. And we both can see the humor in most any situation.
What is your approach to the recording?
Right now it’s the songs we’re focused on. It always starts with the songs. I’ve been a songwriter for quite a long time but I don’t have much experience with collaborations. This project is collaboration between Matt and me. On the few occasions I’ve tried collaborating it just didn’t work out for one reason or another. I also got burned a couple of times. But with Matt it’s working pretty well. I’ve taken some lyrics of his and tried to do something with it and I’ve offered him some songs that I‘d already written. He’s picked a couple of those he’d like to do and some he didn’t and that’s the way it should be. At the end of the day Matt will make the choices and make the songs his own.
The process is something I really love, what the band does with the song when you hand it to them and how it changes when you gig it and then again when you record it. Ultimately, as a songwriter and a singer, I know that the singer must connect to a song both lyrically and musically. Singing is very personal and the blues is a vocal art form in its fundamentals and its history.
Matt is a truly great singer. He’s a church singer for a start so there’s always that gospel vibe going on but Matt wants something a bit different with at least a splash of something modern. But his other great skill is as a storyteller and performer so we look for songs that can highlight that part of what Matt does as well. Again it’s a process. You have to sift through a lot of songs to find what you want. Some seem like a good idea at the time but they you find out they don’t work and they get cut, others you might just change, messing about with the temp or the rhythm. You then pick what you want to record keeping in mind it all has to hang together coherently somehow. Then you record and cut again with some making the record and some not, so in the end you’ve produced your best material.
How important is the balance between writing original material and recording new interpretations of traditional blues?
When it comes to covers, I’d like at least half the album to be originals but we’ll be throwing in some things that are obscure and also a couple of songs done in a very different context than the original. But at the end of the day it’s a blues record. We may color outside the lines occasionally but there are traditional elements that have been laid down by the guys who developed all of this. There’s a reason why virtually all popular music owes something to the blues and why the popularity of the blues has peaks and valleys, but it’s always around and always will be.
How would you describe or how do you understand Texas blues?
Matt is a Texas bluesman to the bone but the definition of “Texas Blues” is as wide as Texas. That’s the nature of Texas music in general. It’s this melting pot where everything gets thrown into the gumbo blues, swing, country, jazz, or any variation that comes to mind. There are no limitations really. Like the judge said about porn, “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.” But there will never be any mistaking a Matthew Robinson record as anything other than blues.
What can you tell me about the other musicians?
The rhythm section of Pete “The Beat” Langhans and Jeff Hayes are always my first call when I’m putting any project together, and this was no exception. Ron D’Argenio is the keyboard player on the record, but he has kind of dropped out due to a heavy load of previous commitments. So for the time being we’ve been playing live with just the four of us [Matthew Robinson: guitar, vocals; Steve Power: harmonica; Jeff Hayes: bass; Pete Langhans: drums] adding Larry Eisenberg on keys only when the situation and the money allows. Larry Eisenberg’s a killer keyboard player, especially in blues. When I first spoke to him about the gig he told me: “I took up piano when I heard Otis Spann.” And he’s really got that off.
The rhythm section in particular was almost a revelation for Matt. Pete and Jeff are pros to the bone with decades of experience. They both have great awareness of what’s going on at any given moment and can either hold things together or sometimes just intuitively change it up, going to a swing rhythm in the middle of a slow blues and back again for example or throwing in stop breaks out of nowhere, which makes for great ensemble playing. They are also both well versed in the art of the hang. That thing we do when we’re not actually playing which is the vast majority of the time. And they’ve been good friends of mine for a few years now. They also have great respect and admiration for Matt.
As they said for Booker T. & the MG’s, although in a different context, Matthew Robinson & the Jelly Kings is an “integrated group.” How would you describe the interracial dynamics between band members?
What interracial dynamics? We’re all musicians with a deep respect for the blues. We’re all pros with an equal respect for what that means really. We’ve all played in integrated bands before and probably barely noticed even then. Ain’t no thing. Why I even publically worked with banjo players without shame.
Is your relationship “color blind” or does it take into consideration your “racial” and cultural differences as a basis to establish the rapport between you?
Matt and I have never discussed race. I can only remember the subject coming up once and that was in the context of the difference between how black people and white people sing a lyric. I’m very aware that Matt’s experience as a black male growing up in Texas in the 50s and 60s is something I can only barely imagine. The man picked cotton for Pete’s sake. I’ve read about such times. I’ve seen the movies and heard the songs but I didn’t live it, so what the hell do I know?
We have some shared experience economically to a point. I was raised by a single mother and a grandmother who was married to a Navy enlisted man until he died early. She tended bar in sailor town. So we were broke. Matt was broke but maybe broker than we were and he was a black kid in Texas. So I guess he wins that one. The point is it shapes you in certain ways. You think about certain things in similar ways.
I think our strongest bond is the challenge to make the best music possible and to put on the best show possible. For me it’s the constant thought of: How can I get Matt more recognition? How can we make the band better? What’s best for Matt?
What are your expectations of the upcoming record Work That Jelly?
At the end of the day we want to produce the best record possible at this place in time. Live is for the moment. Recording is forever. Like Matt said to me just the other day: “People will like it and become fans. Or some won’t, but then we won’t have to worry about those people anymore.” I’m here to tell you though, you’ll know we like it or it won’t be out there with Matt’s and my name on it. We figure our fans have got pretty good taste and should agree.
What type of audiences are you exposing blues to in Austin?
Our audiences are not exactly blues virgins. Some are blues fans others not so much. A lot of time the only exposure to the blues may have been a garage band they came across or all the 70s/80s Clapton/SRV homage bands. When they hear the real deal like Matthew Robinson it is a revelation. I’ve actually had people say to me: “I don’t think I ever actually heard the blues before. Not like this.” What they hadn’t heard was that commitment to the song and the music, the artist getting inside of it and inside themselves and then putting it out there for all to see. Matt plays from the heart each and every time.
Matt and I both have the same philosophy about performing. The gig you’re doing right then may well be the last one you ever do. When you’re leaving the gig and that number 9 bus is bearing down you don’t want your last thought to be, “Shit, I wish I would have put more into it tonight.” And from the audiences perspective it may be the only time they ever see you. You want to give them with something they will never forget.
What are the main challenges of playing blues music?
Blues is often times criticized by the uninformed as being simple music, but therein lies its difficulty and its strength. It’s difficult to play something which is so simple in its structure but is incredibly nuanced in its execution. To the uninitiated player all they hear is three chords and a lot of volume and think: “Oh, I can do that.” They don’t realize that often the real statement is in the silence. The one long drawn out note bending up and then resolving, sometimes ahead of the beat, sometimes behind it, sometimes right on the money. Tension and release, and that takes dynamics and intuition.
I was doing a gig in a bar in Holland quite a few years ago. Pete Matheson was playing guitar with me at the time. Pete has been a full time pro for decades. He spent several years as Ray Davies guitar player on the Storyteller tours, when Pete was the only other musician on stage. But Pete is a bluesman at heart and always will be. Anyway, we’re doing this slow blues in G and Pete’s into his solo. He hits this one note and sustains it, just holding on to that one note. He holds it and holds it, and the longer he held it the more incredible it became. At one point he just looked up and gave me this tiny little bit of smile, and held it a while longer. It went on it seemed forever. And the audience was just so drawn in you could hear a pin drop. When he finally broke out of it and finished off the solo the place just exploded. To this day if you say to anyone who was there, “Hey, remember the Note?” They will just smile and give a nod of the head. Every single person remembers it and will remember it for as long as they live. One note, folks. One note.
I knew some terrific Dutch blues players, Ted Oberg, Will Sophie, Ronald Orr and others. But in Holland the government will pay for you to go to music collage. So kids wanting to pursue music by in large go that route. It’s great to know all that theory and the rest, but they teach things in a very technical way concentrating on jazz and to some extent classical. This led a Dutch musician friend to tell me: “The problem with Dutch musicians is they know where to put their fingers, they just don’t know how to feel.” I don’t think that is something which is exclusive to Dutch players.
Bearing in mind its predominantly reduced commercial success, what satisfactions does playing music, particularly blues, provide?
It’s being as close as I can get to the source of whatever combination of physics and neuroscience that triggers the appreciation of what the other guy is doing, that great fill, the cool bass line, the sound of a voice. And at the same time being really conscious of where and when and what am I going to contribute to work my jelly. At its best it can be a Zen thing. You’re always looking for that moment. They are very rare but you hit them often enough that it keeps you looking for the next one. It keeps me alive and with a modicum of sanity. And it ain’t like I have a choice in the matter.
Matthew Robinson & The Jelly Kings, official website. Listen to sample songs here