?I?m just glad we got the whole thing on tape!? 

The cover image for the Eric Culberson Blues Band’s brand-new CD shows a closeup of a classic Fender guitar amplifier.

Weathered and scuffed, it’s hard to determine just how old the piece of equipment is, but it’s sure seen its share of hard travelling. The smooth finish which surrounds the input jacks is worn off, and the base of the amp is chipped and nicked from being dropped, set and dragged on countless stages.

The fabric grill which covers the four large speakers is a deep, rusty brown that’s common for vintage tweed amps.

Only this amp was never tweed.

“Some people can’t even believe that amp still works,” the guitarist laughs.

“We were out on the road a while back and it was givin’ me some problems. I found this mad scientist kinda guy who knew everything about old tube gear. When he saw it, he about passed out (laughs)! It’s a 1966 Fender Super Reverb. He acted like it was the Hope Diamond or somethin’. I bought it in ‘89 and it looked great. The front grill was originally silver and black, but it’s lived through so many years of cigarette smoke and bad bar air folks think it’s supposed to be tweed!”

With that in mind, it’s a wonder that the “thirty-something” Culberson (he’s guarded about his exact age) doesn’t look more haggard himself. He’s been breathing that same barroom air for close to two decades. A professional musician who makes a living playing and singing Chicago-style blues, he and his band have been on the road (in varying degrees) since the early ‘90s. And, while he’s famously burned through a handful of sidemen over the years, his own drive and dedication have remained a constant.

From the earliest days of his professional career, when his group was billed locally as both EROK and The EROK Trio (and could often be found plowing through as much jagged, angular alternative rock as straight-up blues tunes), through the release of his two internationally-acclaimed studio albums on the established Florida label King Snake Records (1996’s Blues Is My Religion and 1998’s No Rules To The Game), Culberson has thrown himself into his craft with a vengeance.

That attitude is likely responsible for his continued presence on our local music scene (and others far away). And – except for a few years there where it seemed like he was resting on his laurels and getting a wee bit too comfortable being the big fish in a relatively small pond – that determination has slowly led him into bigger and better things.

Now, after seven years without new product, he’s releasing his first-ever live concert album, and it’s no exaggeration to brand it his finest record to date.

Recorded a year ago this week in front of a packed house in Lake Worth, Florida, Live At The Bamboo Room is an immensely enjoyable snapshot of a one of the most consistent local guitarists this area has ever seen. Over the course of ten songs (including soulful renditions of nuggets by Sonny Boy Williamson, Hound Dog Taylor, Otis Rush and Culberson himself), Eric and the rhythm section of drummer Stuart Lusk and bassist Rodney Smith take the listener on a guided tour of the past forty years of electric blues.

It’s a cross-section of material that seems designed to spotlight Culberson’s versatility on guitar. On the traditional “Catfish Blues” (popularized by the late Muddy Waters), the bandleader deftly vocalizes in tandem with his brash and confident guitar leads, only to unleash a psychedelic solo that recalls both Roger McGuinn’s synasthetic Coltrane-isms (“8 Miles High”) and the acid-washed British Invasion stylings of ‘60s phenom Peter Green.

In fact, Jimi Hendrix’s own “Manic Depression” is quoted obliquely, with Lusk’s rolling and tumbling trap fills instantly reminiscent of the great Mitch Mitchell’s work with The Experience.

Contrast this with the straight-ahead and rock-solid barrelhouse beat of “Gimme Back My Wig” (a Hound Dog Taylor barnburner). On this cut, Eric’s high-pitched, squealing slide guitarwork and non-stop chugging boogie rhythm propels the song to greater and greater heights. Culberson’s voice is perfect for a number like this. However, while gruff, declamatory boasting has been a strong suit of his for years, Live At The Bamboo Room finds the bluesman pushing his own limits, and reaching deep into himself for moments of emotion and soul that would have seemed forced in the past.

In fact the singer on this record sounds like a much different man than he did even a couple of years ago. And, while at this point he still can’t lay claim to being a powerhouse vocalist, he takes greater risks, and that – more so than his fretwork – is what ultimately sells this CD.

Culberson says he’s very happy with this aspect of his performance, but he knows he can always grow as a singer.

“Some of this stuff is rather eye-opening to hear,” he admits. “I know where I nailed it, and I can tell where I need to tighten up. ‘Cause I’m just a mockingbird sometimes. I mean it as a tip of the hat. I’m not trying to be B.B. King or Otis Rush... It’s all about respect.”

When asked what his favorite part of the new album is, Culberson laughs.

“I’m just glad we got the whole thing on tape! We almost didn’t make it. My bass player at the time quit the band about two or three weeks before the gig. We had to get everything back up to speed in that short of a time and be able to make something that would stand up.”

And stand up it does. The saving grace was fill-in bassist Smith, an acquaintance of Eric’s who’d jammed with him in the past at a few Open Mic nights.

“He was a real nice guy and I knew he could do the job,” says Culberson. “In just two weeks he got in there and just killed.”

“It is kinda weird that he’s on the record but isn’t really in the band. But he’s got a straight job and can’t drop everything and get in the van for a few days at a time. I do think he’s happy to be a part of something like this CD, though.”

The group’s current bassist, Nate Saraceno, has been with them since not long after this recording was made, and Culberson is more excited about this lineup of the band than any one before.

“Since Nate joined, he’s gotten a workout with us. We’ve taken him all over the place. He’s turned out to be quite the accomplished bass player, and he’s gotten used to our style and developed a line of communication with us. That’s the most important thing besides physical talent. Now things are moving along very nicely, and we plan to stay on this path.”

And where will that path lead?

Culberson says that he and the two fans who bankrolled this project have formed a corporation to independently release this album, future studio CDs, and even a possible multimedia disc featuring live footage of this same concert.

“Creative control is a double-edged sword, but all of us are on the same page and it’s good to have Stuart who’s been with me for so long. We’re in a new phase with the band. We’re about to change gears. The material’s getting deeper, and we’re starting to lock in together on parts of our playing that we never have before.”

The notion of changing gears may be a timely one, as the entertainment business demands that artists continue to grow and evolve, or risk becoming superfluous. Culberson knows this well.

In fact, in a surprising development, he is considering revisiting some of his earliest material – including songs that have not graced his setlists for well over a decade. They’re edgier tunes, and more rock than blues, but Eric is confident they can fit in nicely with his current sound.

“We probably won’t even change ‘em too much. Just play ‘em like I wrote ‘em. Songs like “God Is Good Food”... That’s not too far from a real heavy ‘70s funk blues. It’s a bit like the Chili Peppers, but the beat is still there, you know? I still have a box of old cassette tapes of that stuff from back in 1988, and I guess it’ll be like hunting for dinosaur bones.”

However, while Culberson and his band have the ability to enthrall music lovers across the country (as the enthusiastic crowd response on this new CD aptly demonstrates), the real test may be whether or not they can invigorate and grow their current local fanbase.

In this town, where he’s held court several nights a week for more than a decade, it’s very easy to simply take Culberson for granted. He’s ubiquitous in this area: the go-to guy for fiery blues guitarwork. He’s like the Kleenex of R & B.

With the release of this album, however, it is relatively easy to make a strong case for his re-appraisal as a mature artist. This CD showcases a performer who has successfully absorbed the styles and tones of a wide variety of the classic blues axemen, and become adept and switching between approaches on the fly – without sounding like a he’s simply copping riffs. He’s come to the point in his career where he’s conversant enough in the language of electric blues music to pick and choose what suits his mood (and the mood of the songs) best.

From the opening notes, he and his bandmates come out swinging, with a self-assurance that speaks to the years Culberson and Lusk have spent on stage, and in a van heading up and down the East Coast. Live At The Bamboo Room casts him and his facile trio in the best possible light, and could seemingly catapult them into another strata of the touring circuit and the blues world.

“I keep gettin’ e-mails and phone calls from people who love the album,” says Culberson. “When they’re happy with it, we’re happy with it and it doesn’t get any better than that.”

The Eric Culberson Blues Band celebrates the release of their new live CD on Wednesday, November 16 at the Mercury Lounge. This 21+ party begins at 8 pm, with the show starting at 9 pm.


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Jim Reed

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