Sunday, February 5, 2012

Great News Out of Memphis - The Wired! Band Wins the International Blues Challenge

There were 240 bands from the United States and many from other countries in Memphis this past week. In the trial by fire that followed, one band survived: The winner in Memphis is THE WIRED! BAND from Everett, Washington and representing the Washington Blues Society.

Photo by Margene Schotz
Congratulations to Kevin, Rick and Keith on a great accomplishment!!

The process of the bands getting there was serious business. At each stage panels of judges with forms and a point system evaluated thousands of bands on many things: the number of octaves of each singer, whether 80% of their songs are originals, whether they keep their music inside the blues genre, the skill level of each band member and how in harmony they are, and much more. And whether you agree with the process or not, it is with out a doubt a huge recognition of talent and respect by the international blues community.

Below is an article, written by Robert Horn for the Washington Blues Society's Bluesletter awhile back, about about Wired's front man Kevin Sutton:

A Conversation with the Washington Blues Society's " Best of Blues" Performer of the Year - By Robert Horn

Kevin Sutton won Best of Blues (BB) Awards this spring for Best Performer and Best Songwriter. His band, “Wired”, won the BB Award for Best Blues Act. His band was also picked by the Washington Blues Society to represent this state at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Those are pretty good things to have on your resume. This highly entertaining band does some things way outside the box. I have enjoyed seeing and hearing Kevin as the band’s front man because he is a great entertainer.

I also found out something about Kevin that made me even more interested in interviewing him. Kevin has an education that includes Anthropology, Economics, and History. Because of that I knew that he would view music a lot like I do and we would be talking a common language about some deeper things. So when we spent an afternoon talking I was not at all surprised when the conversation covered not only his music history but also both of our interpretations of philosophers like Kant, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell. Kevin teaches high school and in a phone conversation before we got together he mentioned that teaching is a performance art too. I was definitely looking forward to talking with him and hearing what he had to say about his art. I knew that the biggest challenge for me would be to not talk too much myself. Early in our conversation Kevin told me that I shouldn’t worry about that since he teaches history (among other things) and he talks a lot.

When I met Kevin and his family we talked about our lives, our families, and the world situation up until now. At a certain point I pushed the button on my tape recorder and said this: Your background in music and academically made me think you probably see music within culture and culture within a society and the historical evolution of this society related to other societies. Do you approach music with this in mind? He then said the following:

KS: Here is the interesting thing. Here is what really showed the difference (in his perspective in contrast to some that don’t have his background). Everybody has this top list of what you are supposed to do when you go to Memphis, but if you kept going when you got downtown you go past Sun Studios, you see the statue of the Grand Dragon of the KKK, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. You also see the old dilapidated house of Memphis Slim in the same neighborhood. I also noticed a place that cuts hair there in that neighborhood. (He also told about the school at Stax Studio and he wanted to check it out). The idea from my background, those are the things, for me to go and see, making the connection between this and realize ‘what is this blues music?’ and as a white folks, we can turn it on or off, but think about what blacks deal with in this country when they see that statue every day. I will never completely understand it. That’s the blues but I will never understand it the same way. Memphis is a real place. When I was at Stax Studio and nobody else noticed that (in addition to the Grand Wizard statue) across the street is the home of Memphis Slim…It is fenced in and will be renovated. There is also Stax School. Right at the T in the road I can see a hair cutting place. My perception is of the things around it. I imagine that it was there when Stax was happening. I bet I could find old people in the neighborhood who could talk about the neighborhood history. That was Memphis. It wasn’t Sun Studios, it wasn’t Graceland, … It was all the things next to what you were supposed to see. (Kevin and I talked about how the music comes from the souls of the people and has a connection to the place it came from.)

RH: You lived in St Louis so the south was not completely new to you. I also saw an online interview with you where you talked about having a heavy metal influence but then being in contact with the St Louis Blues scene. What was going on with all of that?

KS: Where in the world is that?

Photo By Tim & Michelle Burge
RH: Click on Wired Band and then click around and you may find it. Can you tell more about how you went from early interest in music to what lead to blues?

KS: Oh, that’s Madison Pub and Rob Bramblett, and Seed of Seattle. Well, I had played music all through school. Unfortunately they let me be in all band classes in high school and I didn’t learn anything. That’s why it took me so long to get out of college. They just let me take four band classes and two regular classes.

RH: They let you do that somewhere?

KS: In Moscow Idaho you could. I don’t understand why they did that. If you look at the transcripts you see choir, orchestra, band…

RH: You can do that in college. You can major in music.

KS: I was well aware of that and actually spent some time in Hawaii majoring in music at the University of Hawaii. I was learning different types of music. That was an amazing experience too because if you walk into a theory class at the University of Hawaii and you were walking into a class where it was not agreed upon that there were twelve notes in a scale. Instructors had to re-think how to teach music. Why does it (music) do what it does. In many Asian cultures there is no twelve note scale. There are semi –tones and stuff. One of the scales from Japan is a blues scale, the same notes and they bend the same way but different. In India there is a chord in their culture that is beautiful but a half step away it is discord and sounds out of tune.

RH: Can you bend genres with blues and all other cultures in the world?

KS: Absolutely.

RH: I was thinking about something you said earlier and thinking of Rye Cooter who put together the film, “Buena Vista Social Club”. He visited old neighborhoods in Cuba asking who may have known some old guys that used to perform a type of music not heard anywhere else.

KS: (Kevin picked up on this train of thought and ran with it). Some of those guys, man, some of those guys were driving buses and were janitors. Johnny Johnson, great example, you know who he is right? He was the piano player who hired Chuck Berry, and it turns out, arranged all those hits. Chuck Berry would come in with vocals and an idea for a song and Johnny Johnson would say, “This is the way it goes.” He didn’t know he was co-writing Johnny B. Good and Roll over Beethoven. But if you listen, all of those hits have the same piano player on it. He was arranging all the songs for Chuck Berry. When I was living in St Louis one of the people I ran into was Johnny Johnson. He was a bus driver. He used to play with Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry, you could see every couple weeks. He’d walk into a club and be sitting there watching music in St Louis or sitting in and playing with whoever. I played with him (Johnny Johnson) who is now in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. He had played with the Rolling Stones…and was hanging out with Keith Richards. I replaced him in a band on piano in the late ‘80s. I hired him for $40 a night to play piano during the same time period he sometimes performed with Keith Richards. I was playing some Hawaiian guitar I had been learning. He was just Johnny Johnson, a really nice guy. He may get $4,000 from Keith and $40 from me.

That was a cool thing about my education in St Louis, was to know these guys. Big Fat Smitty was one of these guys: a hard drinkin’ huge piano mover from East St Louis. He also sang in a band. Just getting him focused enough to do a gig was amazing. He was Howlin’ Wolf’s size and had the same tough as nails demeanor. He would show up and what a character: he’d always have a flask of whiskey in his back pocket…. I played with Tommy Bankhead for a while…James Crutchfield,…some amazing guys. These old guys… I got to play with some amazing old guys. That was my education.

RH: You play guitar and piano. When did each of those begin?

KS: I’ve always been a guitar player, but opportunity knocked (for piano) because I was good friends with Jimmy Lee Kent who was Godfather of the blues scene in St Louis …Greg Edick, whose father was George Edick, didn’t always show up on time. I was told to bring a bass in case he didn’t show up. So I was bringing in equipment. After a month he was used to me and finally asked (after I had played bass) “what else do you play?” I said I played piano. So I was on stage and the piano was turned off but I was going through the motions like I was Jerry Lee Lewis. After the show people came up and said “that was great.” In six months I could play piano.

RH: What early influence made you go from not just liking music but deciding you wanted to play it?

KS: My dad played some piano…. I had an older brother who whenever I was interested in something, would make something happen. If I got interested in guitar he’d show up with an amp….Things were pretty boring in Moscow Idaho (where he learned to play as a kid.)

RH: Many grow up on rock and along the way get interested in blues. How did you get interested in playing blues?

KS: I think the blues always has been of interest. I like jazz but can’t play it. I couldn’t play heavy metal either. I loved it but could not play it. Blues just feels like what I feel comfortable with.

RH: With blues fans, I know in my case, after being around a while and going through the school of hard knocks a little bit, I would hear blues and think “that is what I wanted to say.” With playing it, in your case, how did it speak to you?

KS: I could listen to one measure of jazz and think about it all day long. So much going on it overwhelmed me. (Kevin then imitated some heavy metal sounds and talked about how there was a lot going on there too.)

RH: You mentioned that teaching is a performance art. What do you mean?

KS: It is not just about talking but getting a student to interact with you. It is like being a therapist and trying to get someone to lay on the couch. You sometimes get kids to say some amazing things that become an educational experience for the whole class. (He gave some examples that we discussed for some time.) There are kids from Mexico and think they are Spanish. I asked a kid if his grandparents live in Mexico and the kid says yes. I ask if their grandparents speak any other language and he said “Yes they speak this other language called ….” That is what the ancient Aztecs spoke (Kevin’s background in Anthropology was very useful for this). So I ask why they would be speaking what the ancient Aztecs spoke. They then realize where they came from. So, I have gotten good at drawing people in with teaching. It is not about me telling an interesting story, it is about me drawing kids in so they want to be part of the conversation. (Kevin also told about a situation where he was telling about the European colonization of 3rd World Nations and a kid said “So we won, right?” Kevin pointed out to the student that such “winning” was at the expense of many of the ancestors of his classmates, and asked if he had thought about that. The class got a chance to discuss the world in a deeper way right then.)

RH: Can you tell how that relates to what you are doing with music?

KS: I don’t think I am quite there yet with music. I am learning to do that.

RH: The “Minnie the Moocher” thing draws people in, and makes them interact with you doesn’t it? Do you always do that song or just sometimes?

KS: Upon request. A lot of people love that song and then the next question is where you go from there. There is so much more to do than that. With music, it’s maybe 20% of what it should be. I’ve got a couple more songs where I try to recreate that atmosphere without copying that song. There is the call and response, but it is still in development. I just know it could be a lot better…more of a connection. For this next album I have 60 or 70 songs and I have to pick about 10 of them that may help get there. I would be happy if we have one song that makes people think “Oh, those were the guys that did that song.”

RH: Is there any pattern to how you write, some riffs or some lyrics first?

KS: One song I wrote that some people like called “And You Should Be Jealous”. It is a song about politicians. Heather Coleman lives here in Everett and was at a show at Benaroyal Hall. She sends a message from the show saying “I am listening to…and you should be jealous.” I started thinking about that phrase and soon the song wrote itself. Do you practice writing songs by writing songs or by experiencing life? (Kevin argues that it is mainly life and told about how the old early blues masters who worked all day long were not the professionally trained musicians and may have played horrible guitars but came out with this music. We discussed Howlin’ Wolf who played a few licks on harmonica and had the gravel in his voice but it was able to sound great. Kevin said that when he tries to play too many notes on guitar it doesn’t work as well for him.)

RH: Will you always do this?

KS: I think so. I just finished Keith Richards’ autobiography and that is what he says too. I started teaching late and don’t have a 401K, I have to do something for retirement. In a few years maybe I will do it sitting down.

RH: So your current project is the next CD. When do you expect it to be done?

KS: It has had stops and starts, been a long time comin’, maybe by this summer.

RH: How long has there been a Wired Band?

KS: It’s been four or five years. The character behind the band though is Keith, the bass player. He has played since the sixties from Anchorage to Sacramento. He is Rick’s wife’s uncle. There’s a place in Snohomish called The Wired Coffee House. It had an open mic there. We were jamming there. So we were the Wired Unplugged Coffee House Band and got a gig at the Snohomish Farmers Market for $40 bucks. Then there was a bar that opened up called The Speakeasy and they wanted Rockabilly. Rockabilly is a little like blues, you just pick up the beat a little bit, it’s just swing music. Rick and I quit the (earlier) band we were in, which was Miles from Chicago. Eventually started writing original material and got gigs.

Kevin talked for some time that afternoon about how he feels like he just showed up recently on the blues scene here and wants to contribute more to the life of that scene. More music will be created by Kevin Sutton. It didn’t take much time from the first gig in Snohomish to getting the Best of the Blues Awards this year. On one hand there is a high degree of modesty and self-examination. On the other hand there is a determination to create music at a higher quality level than this BB Award winner has yet reached. It is the interaction of those contradictory parts of his thinking that is driving his future development. 


  1. Congrats Guys. Well done.
    Ray Roberson from Roberson, BZ, Flores.

  2. With Washington State bands in the IBC finals two years in a row now, The Randy Oxford Band and Nick Vigarino's Meantown Blues in 2011 and the WIRED Band taking top honors this year in 2012, this is further evidence that the Pacific NW truly has one of the great Blues scenes in the world.
    Nice work gentlemen.

  3. Way to go Kevin, Rick and Keith! Fantastic!