As a young man working in a genre that reveres tradition, blues guitarist-singer-songwriter David Jacobs-Strain could make it easy on himself.
“I could either try to be a blues revivalist and play old songs note for note, or write new songs that sound like old songs,” says the much-buzzed-about 25-year-old musician, speaking from Washington. “But I don’t have much interest in that.
“It’s important to know roots, but at some point you have to seek your own voice,” he elaborates. “One of the exciting artistic challenges is to continually wrestle with what is blues and how do you make it new and still respect where it came from.”
Jacobs-Strain’s tastes are unapologetically eclectic, and nowhere is this more apparent than the songs on “Liar’s Day,” his sixth and latest CD. “Some of them are blues, some aren’t,” he says. “My way of emoting may emulate the blues masters, but the songs, while in the tradition of the blues, are not of it.”
For example, the title track, which questions who bears the cost of war, is stoked by a reggae-funk jam-band rhythm.
“Rainbow Junkies,” a tribute to author Edward Abbey’s band of eco-warriors in “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” is built on a slowed-down Bo Diddley beat, while “Say It to My Face” could be garage-rockers the Fleshtones in deep blues mode.
Elsewhere, a jivey jazz vibe refracts “Black Glass Butterfly,” and Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” is immersed deliberately in a greasy New Orleans-style gumbo.
Jacobs-Strain, whose first gig was at the Oregon Country Fair when he was 12, has performed at virtually every major blues festival. His extensive time on the road has taught him that “there are a lot of audiences that do want their ears to be challenged. ... Most people who come to my shows listen to a lot of different music.”
Growing up in Eugene, Ore., the New Haven, Conn.-born musician admits he wasn’t always so open-minded, however. In middle school, when he was first starting to play, most of the kids were listening to Nirvana or grunge. Jacobs-Strain didn’t care for either.
“The impetus for me playing country blues was that it was a way of identifying myself as different from everybody else,” he says. “It was the alternative to alternative.
Nirvana, that was a band that you just couldn’t escape. But that is music I’ve come to love. Tom Petty’s (1994) album ‘Wildflowers,’ everybody had that. But I didn’t like it at all at the time. Now it’s one of my favorites.”
Unlike many a young guitar whiz, Jacobs-Strain opted for acoustic over electric. “I don’t know if I really chose it,” he says. “My mom (Carolyn Jacobs, a potter) bought me my first (acoustic) guitar at a garage sale when I was 9. I think she paid about $10. I made terrible noises on it for a year before I started taking lessons.”
Asked if he been agitating for a guitar, Jacobs-Strain answers, “No. When I was a little kid, I had a desire to play the banjo. I must have seen somebody play one, probably at the Willamette Valley Folk Festival, which was only two blocks from my parents’ house. I saw a lot of greats there, hot instrumentalists and songwriters such as Richie Havens and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. But the guy who really knocked me out was Taj Mahal, who I saw at a club in town.”
Veteran blues slide guitarist and songwriter Walker T. Ryan became his mentor when he was 11, a move supported by both of Jacobs-Strain’s parents. “My mom was into the acoustic guitar. When she was in school /(at the University of Michigan/) in Ann Arbor, she had seen Mississippi John Hurt and Son House play, and she also was a fan of Leo Kottke.” His dad, Michael, a biochemist at the University of Oregon, became his booking agent.
“An acoustic is not a harder instrument than an electric, but you have to work it different ways to get the same range,” Jacobs-Strain says. “With the great electric guitar players, like Jimi Hendrix or Mark Knopfler, the sound is in their hands. Same with acoustic players, but the acoustic is more physical to play. It gives me a wider palette (but) I have to work harder to get it. Of course, I try to make it look easy.”
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