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Every band struggles to take flight.
Ghost Town Blues Band got their name when so few patrons were showing up at the first few shows singer and multi-instrumentalist Matt Isbell wondered, “is this a ghost town or what?”
He looks back on that and chuckles today as the award-winning Memphis-based, international touring unit brings its driving, eclectic sound to a whole new generation under the blues umbrella. We spoke the day after the group brought out what he felt for him like “the whole county” in Oregon’s mountainous region, one leg in a western tour that brings them here May 28.
“It’s all blues and roots,” says Isbell of the sextet’s diverse sound, delivering echoes of classic Memphis soul and Stax Records along with New Orleans second line, funk, jazz, hip hop and country blues, jam rock, even the occasional folk ballad .
“Memphis is really a melting pot,” he explains, “and our band is exactly that. It wasn’t calculated or anything. It’s just what happened. That defines this band.”
Check their last (2019) studio album Shine for surprise detours into jazzy trombone solos, rock that breaks into a rap, punchy horn riffing, a delta two-step, or the beautiful, dreamy floating shuffle Hey There Lucinda that Isbell wrote for his daughter . Given how the pandemic shut things down awhile they are still putting the polish on Shine on the road but the band has at least enough tracks for another album waiting to be recorded.
“We didn’t want to be pigeonholed into that blues thing,” as Isbell explains Shine. “Yes, we’re called a ‘blues band’ and we got the Tennessee music award for best blues band, and Maple Blues Awards, all that stuff, but at the end of the day (lead guitarist) Taylor Orr and myself are both songwriters and all this music comes from the same back porch roots in Mississippi. We’re just now having fun with it.”
On that jam angle, GTBB has a thing for improvising unexpected elaborations on bands like The Allman Brothers, The Beatles or maybe The Rolling Stones to compliment their vast repertoire. It’s spontaneous and inspired in an unforced, re-imagined way that you hear on the 2018 live disc Backstage Pass.
“It’s like riding a wild horse on stage,” offers Isbell. “We never play the same song the same way twice, There is always a plan to get back to but we deviate from that plan. That comes from years and years of playing the same songs and avoiding boredom on stage. It’s exciting for us and the audience.”
This spring marked GTBB’s 13th anniversary and despite occasional personnel changes over the years they were happy to enjoy the shared company that makes them what they are. Apart from Isbell (electric and cigar-box guitar, lead vocal), and lead guitarist Taylor Orr, the group has taken shape with Suavo Jones on trombone, raps and vocal, Cedric Taylor’s keyboards with some great organ flourishes, bassist Matt Karner and drummer Andrew McNeil.
It is possible to grow up in the famous southern music city of Memphis, Tenn. and not develop some sort of wider musical awareness? Isbell’s conversion to the groove wasn’t the way you might guess. In fact he didn’t see a lot of live shows until he began playing himself. He did get piano lessons from age 10 but it was a three-string cigar box guitar that spurred his enthusiasm from him.
It was during the mid-1990s that well-travelled singer-songwriter Todd Snider, then thriving in Memphis, mentored Isbell and Orr and the band they formed in high school, a band they even took out on Beale Street. After his first solo release Isbell’s business smarts led them to make their 2010 debut Dust The Dust. They won more acclaim in 2012 with Dark Horse. By this point GTBB was entering the International Blues Challenge and they made the finals twice, placing second in 2014. Using the resounding attention to expand their touring into Europe and Canada. Shine is their fifth release and the first to hit the top of Billboard’s blues chart.
Blues history matters too. Isbell’s stint working for the Memphis indie label Inside Sound (home to three albums by GTBB) helped expose him to early blues bastions like RL Burnside, Rev. Gary Davis and Jesse May Hemphill, influences that still show up in his picking today.
Isbell is a prolific instrument maker too, responsible for dozens of unique cigar box guitars and hundreds of slides, and the demand keeps him busy when he’s not playing in GTBB.
“I’m not bringing them to sell,” he advises when I ask. “I haven’t had any time lately.”
Ghost Town Blues Band
Where: St. Basil’s Cultural Center, 10819 – 71 Ave
When: 7:30 – 11 p.m. Saturday (doors at 6:30 p.m.)
Tickets: $50 from edmontonbluessociety.net – tables available
Adults only event – no minors