Friday, December 2, 2011

Rod Cook: The Quiet, Nice, and Shy Guitar Monster


By Robert Horn
Photo by Todd Harrison
For some time I have been thinking of writing an article about Rod Cook. I consider Rod one of the best guitar players in the region, and yet he is not as well-known as I think he should be. He did get a little attention beyond the Pacific Northwest when Vicci Martinez became a national celebrity on the NBC-TV show “The Voice,” and many fans looked her up on YouTube. They may have heard some of her songs and the amazing guitar riffs by her lead guitar player. Some may have thought it was Carlos Santana, but then realized that this guy has his own style instead of someone else’s. He also plays in other bands, including Snake Oil, Rod Cook and Toast, and Rod Cook as a solo act. This summer, Rod performed at a number of festivals, including the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival with Mia Vermillion. I met Rod at Bahama Breeze near the Southcenter Mall, and we talked for a couple hours.

Photo by Blues Boss
RH: How did your interest in music start, and what lead to the blues?

RC: My family was not really musical, but probably what I think got me into it was my brother started playing guitar. He’s four and a half years older than me… and so that is about the time when I started listening to rock and roll radio. It was in the mid 1960’s. My parents were into the big band sound which I didn’t really appreciate so much then. I think I was around nine years old I got a guitar… a $14 dollar acoustic guitar. I primarily taught myself by listening to the radio and was shown a few things. It was a fairly hard guitar to play so I took my time at it. By the time I was around 13 or 14 I got my first electric guitar and that really started to open things up. I started playing with bands in high school playing for after school parties and junior high dances.

RH: You probably listened to all the rock bands of the time, right?

RC: Yeah, I was certainly listening to all that was on the radio at the time and that’s when the British Invasion was going on, and then the American equivalent: The Byrds, The Beachboys, and I liked the Yardbirds a lot. Then later on when things started to change a little more with Cream, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, and a little later on with Fleetwood Mack, Van Morrison, and all the usual suspects.

RH: You have a variety of musical interests, not just blues rock, right?

RC: Yeah, but I was never into the hard rock thing. Bands like Black Sabbath never really did anything for me. I appreciate them more now than I did then. Johnny Winter was one of my favorite guys when I was pretty young. The bands I was in played a little “Johnny B. Good” and whatever we could play that didn’t suck. Later on Little Feet and Steely Dan became favorites. I got into listening to Jazz, got a little education in it. After graduating from high school, I went to Green River Community College and took some jazz classes. By the time that was done I was looking for people to play with.

RH: What time period was that?

RC: The mid-70s. In ’76 I was 20 years old, and a guy I wanted to play with who I met through my older brother, was putting a band together and wanted me to play bass, and I said “yeah.” It was kind of a country rock thing. That was my first professional gig. That band lasted a couple years. It introduced me to the country rock scene of the 70s with Emmy Lou Harris and Jerry Jeff Walker. I wasn’t really familiar with it before. When that band broke up, I was in another band that turned into The Royals. That band was together about ten years. It was an eclectic band. We eventually started playing some blues stuff. Jim King was in that band. Before Jim, John Hodgkin was in that band, too. When Jim joined the band he brought in some Springsteen stuff and I brought in some Little Feat stuff. That band was really pretty successful. It worked. For a long time it worked.

RH: So you were able to play music professionally most of that time?

RC: Yeah, I actually haven’t had a real full time job since I was about 21 years old.

RH: How did you do that?

RC: Well I was poor. I didn’t have much overhead. Getting back to The Royals now. Lilly Wild joined the band, and it was called Lily Wild and the Hysterics. When she left it reverted back to The Royals. We lasted another year or so and I had started playing with Laura Love. I played with her for about 15 years. She got a record deal and toured the country. We played a lot of festivals. It was a great experience. It was a great gig. I hooked up with Curley Cooke, too, and we later performed as Double Cookin’.

RH: Were you on the road a lot in the 90’s.

RC: Yeah, a lot of flying.

RH: I can see the evolution toward blues.

RC: Yeah, in the 80s, I went back and looked at the early blues. I was kind of interested in mastering, or at least handling, jazz, so that was a big influence. You learn how people think, when you sit down and learn their souls, and what they are doing and why they are doing it. Later on I started realizing how really cool guys like Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker, Freddy King, guys who were more simply players than the English guys that I gravitated to when I was younger. I learned why it was they had such influence.

RH: I first heard you over ten years ago at a Washington Blues Society meeting, and you were there as Rod Cook and Toast. How did that band come about?

RC: Well in The Royals we all split the duties. I had a gig with Curley at Forecasters. Curly couldn’t make it so I called Chris Leighton and Keith Lowe. It was only a two hour gig and we didn’t have a lot of material. We had a couple more gigs and I added some original material. Usually I was a side man, but out of necessity, I did this. It has never been an ambition to have my own band. Maybe if I had a manager they would do something with it. I am really proud of that band, great players. It is a little eclectic. I am still, by nature, more of a side man. I am not great at connecting with the crowd and being an entertainer. If you really want to make a goal of having your own band you have to book a lot of gigs and it is a pain in the ass. Guys like Too Slim decided to make a go at it and do it that way. I like playing with a lot of people. With the Laura Love Band, I could play with them. Then come back home, play in my own band and do my own thing. When the Vicci Martinez Band came along it was sort of the same thing: it had serious potential and this is going to be my priority. That band has been a wonderful experience, they are wonderful people!

RH: I was recently talking to Blues Boss, and he said two things: 1) He thinks you are the best guitar player in the region, and 2) Vicci would say that she is a better musician because of you. Rod interrupted me and asked of the Blues Boss: “What does he know?” He then joked about himself for a while, and told me Blues Boss suggested the idea of one of “Snake Oil”. Rod told about how he likes working with Snake Oil bandmates Mark Riley and Rob Moitoza.

Photo by Blues Boss
RC: I love working with Rob. He is an extremely talented guy. He is a good song writer, too. I think he’s brilliant. Mark’s a great guitarist, too!

RH: What is next? Is there a new album in the works?

RC: I am thinking of doing a solo acoustic thing. I have been doing a lot of that lately. I have fragments of things written, and I have thought of doing an instrumental album.

RH: Your singing is ok too. Actually I think it is a lot better than “ok.”

RC: Nice of you to say that but I consider myself a guitar player who sings as opposed to a singer/guitar player. I have been writing some instrumentals but have had a lyric block lately. I have a few songs I have written that I am proud of and think are good songs.

RH: Do some songs come when you have decided you wanted to get one written or when a life experience hit you?

RC: Yeah, that’s more the way it has worked with me. Someone like Paul Simon may set aside a certain amount of time every day to work on lyrics for music.

RH: Two songs you do one after the other a lot are “I Ain’t The Fool I Used to Be” which sounds hurt and bitter, and it is followed by “I Want to Be In Love Tonight” which sounds like you are ready to try again. Where did those come from?

RC: “I Ain’t The Fool” was kind of a fictional song because I wanted to write that type of hurt blues song, and “I Want To Be In Love Tonight” was about a crush I had. I feel good about both of those songs, they aren’t trite.

Photo by Blues Boss
Rod talked about his current schedule. Every Wednesday, he is at PC’s Pub in Everett, and on Thursdays, he is at CC’s Lounge in Burien with Chris Leighton. He also is playing with The Little Bill Trio at Johnny’s Dock in Tacoma, plays with Snake Oil, Rod Cook and Toast, and The Vicci Martinez Band when it is performing live in the region.

Who knows? We may see Rod more on the national stage where he belongs, even if he acts bashful when I told him that. We talked about his Best of the Blues Awards from the Washington Blues Society, too. Rod was nominated 24 times for a BB Award before receiving honors in the Best Acoustic Guitar category in 2004 and 2006, and that same year, he received the Best Electric guitar award. I’m guessing that Rod may have been overly modest about his count of nominations, too.

There are some nights when Rod plays acoustic, or electric, or slide (electric or acoustic) and you wonder if anyone can be better than that. He is a treasure to have in this region, and just maybe one of the best kept musical secrets of the great state of Washington.

3 comments:

  1. Nice interview, Robert! I too have been interested to learn more about this great guitarist and soulful singer, whom I've had the pleasure of jamming with several times. Here's a great solo performance by Rod Cook from my "Blues Tuesdays at the Kaosamai Thai Restaurant" concert series: http://www.youtube.com/user/timji42#grid/user/95F1C84C9735B4D6

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  2. Thanks for the video link Tim! I've added it to this post.

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  3. Rod is sounding more and more like Eric Clapton........

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