Blue-chip Blotter

The Blotter Boys have recorded only 12 songs to date and played just a handful of live shows. But don’t call this group — whose name is often preceded by the qualifier “all-star band” — a bunch of novices.

Band members’ collective experience spans almost five decades, and their resumes read like a Who’s Who of American music history. Legendary fiddler Vassar Clements is the best-known Blotter Boy, but Boyd Albritton, Sammy Piazza and Buddy Cage have also claimed their share of the spotlight over the last 30 years.

Albritton cut his musical teeth in the heady late-’60s San Francisco scene, playing guitar with such diverse acts as Jesse Colin Young, Buddy Miles, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins and Quicksilver Messenger Service. In the early ’70s, the guitarist formed The Boyd Albritton Band, whose seminal 1975 San Francisco recording sessions were only recently released, under the title Prehistoric Raven

Many of those Albritton sessions feature Piazza on the drums. His background includes years of touring and recording with such luminaries as Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jefferson Airplane — plus a stint as the original drummer for ’70s supergroup Hot Tuna. Piazza also holds the distinction of having turned down a first-choice audition, offered by guitarist Billy Gibbons, for the position of drummer in a little ol’ band from Texas that came to be known as Z.Z. Top. It seems that Piazza, a Texas native, was hell-bent on breaking into the San Francisco music scene — to the exclusion of any opportunities that might arise in his home state.

When the seeds of what later became The Blotter Boys were first planted by Albritton, the guitarist sought out Piazza — no mean feat, as it turns out. “My phone number’s unlisted,” Piazza explained in a recent phone conversation, “so after months and months of trying, Boyd finally found a guy I’d done some work with and paid him $50 for my phone number.” It was money well spent. Piazza was intrigued by the notion of pulling a roots-music, all-star band together and soon joined Albritton and steel guitarist Buddy Cage in a Charlotte, N.C., recording studio to hang out, jam and try to forge a sound. The results of that jam session are slated to be released early in 1999.

The monstrously talented Cage replaced Jerry Garcia as lead guitarist for New Riders of the Purple Sage in 1971; later played with The Grateful Dead and Sly and the Family Stone; and, most notably, was one of five musicians to grace Bob Dylan’s 1974 masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks. (That’s Cage’s plaintive, frankly sexual guitar wailing on the this-lust-might-just-kill-me track “Meet Me in the Morning.”)

Cage recalls the night he found himself laying down a single track in the cavernous A&R studios for Dylan, a notorious perfectionist: “I went through [the song] five or six times, and nobody said anything. Finally, after about the sixth take, [Bob] came out and just swarmed me.” Dylan told Cage exactly what he wanted, and Cage aced it in one shot. “He knew he could push my button and get that take out of me, and he did,” remembers Cage, with a laugh.

At one early Blotter Boys session, Cage mentioned that he’d been playing with Clements, who he was sure would love to come along and jam the next time the group got together. Clements — who’s been called everything from “the country Isaac Stern” to “the Count Basie of the fiddle” to “the Miles Davis of bluegrass” — agreed, providing a perfect complement to the free-form grooves the other boys laid down.

On a tape of a recent Blotter Boys show in Charlotte, the group’s easy musical rapport seems almost palpable. Piazza calls their sound a “musical conversation.” Whatever you call it, though, the music definitely takes on a life of its own. While a Blotter Boys tune may have some structure, chances are you’ll never hear it played the same way twice. “We like to take a [free-form] jazz approach to songs,” reports Piazza. Band members’ almost limitless experience lets them play off each other without apparent effort, moving flawlessly from one musical idea to the next. In the age of cookie-cutter bands concerned mostly with images and marketing strategies, the Blotter Boys are a welcome reprieve.

Cage calls the band’s sound “jam groove,” which probably poses as many questions as it answers. Clearly, the Blotter Boys’ music is solidly based in the blues. But while Albritton’s backup guitar work is distinctively down-and-dirty, his solos draw more comparisons to the homegrown noodlings of Jerry Garcia. And Cage forces sounds from his steel guitar that are by turns achingly poignant and psychedelic as hell.

Adding Clements to this already-imposing mix further ratchets-up the stakes a notch or two. His fiddle magic renders the Blotter Boys’ version of the Alvin Lee classic “Little Schoolgirl” more traditional Celtic tune than blues rave-up.

“We’re just one of the bands trying to fill the enormous void left by the death of Jerry Garcia,” Cage relates modestly. But few modern bands can boast the fundamental musical prowess needed to successfully meld disparate styles of music into a living, breathing whole.

As Cage puts its, “The band want[s] to take a little bit of Vassar, a little bit of me, and a little of everyone else and turn it into more than the sum of its parts.”

Piazza’s take on the band’s philosophy is somewhat simpler. “If [audiences] like us, we’ll keep doing it,” he vows. “Hopefully, we won’t be playing to tables with candles and no people.”

But the Blotter Boys’ own press release probably says it best: “If it’s not Blotter, it’s not worth doing.”

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