Even in an era when retirement has become a flexible concept, people in their 70s are expected at least to slow down. And they certainly aren’t expected to do the best work of their lives. But Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown shatters such preconceptions. Not only is the 73-year-old guitarist still going strong, touring almost nonstop from the West Coast to Eastern Europe, he’s also creating what ranks as the most inspired and most accomplished music of his long and storied career.
“I am better now,” says Brown, who can be outspoken to the point of cantankerousness. “If I wasn’t getting better, then I should just quit, you know? What would be the point?”
Gate Swings, Brown’s 1997 album on Verve Records, takes him back to the big-band sound of the late ’40s and the ’50s, when he was barnstorming through clubs in Texas and Louisiana. The difference is that, on his famed early recordingscollected on Rounder Records’ The Original Peacock Recordings and Red Lightnin’ Records’ San Antonio BallbusterBrown relied on simpler, more straightforward arrangements. On Gate Swings, the horn charts, rhythmic dexterity, and inventive guitar playing reveal a newfound sophistication and depth. It shouldn’t come as such a surprise, really, given that this musical pioneer has never quit expanding his diverse sound.
“Too many big bands sound like small bands,” Brown says, speaking from his home in Slidell, La., where he’s taking a rare three-week break from the road. “People don’t know how to voice the instruments like they did in the old days. I can take a five-piece horn section and make it sound like a 10-piece. I also enjoy playing horn lines on the guitar. That fills it in and makes it sound more orchestratedrather than just somebody out there playing the same old rhythm-and-blues crap.”
All the fancy musical turns don’t take away from Brown’s focus on entertaining, though. “Lots of blues and jazz players, they think they’re working only for themselves,” Brown says. “They don’t work for the audience. Instead of giving the audience some energy, they’re looking to the audience to give them the energy. That’s not how it should be.”
With Brown, the accent is on fun and excitement, and his complex arrangements pump dynamic surprises into familiar tunes (“Take the A Train,” “One O’Clock Jump,” “Caldonia”) and into a number of Brown originals. His new versions of “Gate’s Blues Waltz” and “Midnight Hour” (the latter of which he wrote nearly 50 years ago) are every bit as good and as classic as the freshly wrought standards on Gate Swings.
“You can’t stay stuck in what was,” the guitarist says. “You can’t keep doing the same songs the same ways. Playing in big bands is different now than when I was starting out. The technology is better, so you can get a better sound out of the instruments. Songwriting and arranging is different. You can get a more dynamic sound out of the rhythm section and the horn lines.”
Gate Swings follows another outstanding outing, 1996’s Long Way Home, on which Brown makes good use of such guests as Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Ry Cooder, Maria Muldaur, and Sonny Landreth. Even in such company, Brown is a singular performer, and he never lets the music suffer. Here, he revamps Clapton’s “Blues Power” into a jump tune and emphasizes the swinging rhythms of Ray Price’s honky-tonk shuffle, “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me).” In the end, Brown steals the show with two powerful solo acoustic blues, “Deep, Deep Water” and “Underhand Boogie,” both of which reveal a rarely exposed side of the guitarist.
The most audacious cut on the 1996 album, however, is a version of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright).” Performing the song as a duet with Maria Muldaur, Brown turns the melancholy kiss-off of Dylan’s words into a bluesy waltz that comes across as a friendly final conversation between two parting lovers. Brown voices lines that say he has to go, even if he’s not particularly keen on the idea, while Muldaur lets him know that he’s welcome to stay, if he should so choose. Without changing a word, the two singers significantly alter the song’s message just through their tone of voice.
Given his track record over the last few years, it wouldn’t be a stretch to label Brown one of the most exciting blues performers of the ’90s. But he would prefer you didn’t. “I hate for people to refer to me as a blues musician,” he says. “I don’t just play the blues. I play all kinds of music.”
That’s true. An expert fiddle and harmonica player, Brown has convincingly recorded country, Cajun, Western swing, and pop songs during the course of his career. He has paired up with country guitar master Roy Clark for projects and tours, and one of the most satisfying albums of his career, 1977’s Blackjack, focused largely on country and Western swing.
Blackjack was recorded just as Brown was beginning his comeback. A star in the Southwest in the ’50s, he languished for most of the ’60s and even withdrew from music for a while. He logged time as a deputy sheriff in New Mexico, but after his 50th birthday, he decided to return to performing and recording full-time. He released Blackjack on the tiny Music Is Medicine label, which in turn led to a relationship with Rounder Records; a few years later, his 1982 album Alright Again won a Grammy Award in a blues category. Brown then moved on to Alligator Records, which pushed him to emphasize his blues ability so that he could connect with the genre’s built-in audience.
But Brown tired of concentrating on one style of music, and he didn’t like what he heard on the U.S. blues circuit. “It’s negative music,” he explains. “It’s got one beat on everything. It’s just the Mississippi blues after it moved up to Chicago, and these people playing it ain’t doing nothing new with it. They’re all trying to sound like each other, and you can’t go anywhere like that. It bores the hell out of me.”
Ironically, Brown’s fresh outlook on the blues keeps earning him recognition within the genre. Over the years, he has won three W.C. Handy Awards for his work, and in 1997 he won the prestigious Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.
Now that he’s tackled a full-blown big band album, Brown is considering an entirely new fieldbluegrass. “I’ve always played it,” he says. “My father played nothing but Cajun, bluegrass, and country music. I’ve always known it, and that’s the way I’ve been writing songs lately. I might just come out with a whole fiddle album. Or I might do another big-band album but put fiddle and viola on it. I haven’t decided. I know just one thing: I want it to be positive. That’s my main thing right there. I want to have a positive influence.”
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown performs Thursday, Jan. 22, at Caffé Milano.
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