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Photograph by Michael Strain

Teardrop Explodes: David Jacobs-Strain was a 4.0 high school student.

School Daze

David Jacobs-Strain grows into his voice on 'Ocean'

By Jim Harrington

COLLEGE LIFE is a balancing act. Homework vs. keggers. Going to class vs. taking off for the beach. Every college student faces similar scheduling conflicts, but a Bay Area bookworm has to juggle schoolwork with the demands that come with a musical career on the upswing. At just 21, blues vocalist-guitarist David Jacobs-Strain already has four CDs out and appearances at major events like MerleFest and the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The Stanford cultural and social anthropology major will take a break from his studies to celebrate the release of his new CD, Ocean or a Teardrop—his second release on the NorthernBlues Music label. His previous efforts have been mostly solo affairs but he played with a full band of veteran musicians on Ocean—moving beyond his country-blues comfort zone to draw from other musical genres.

"I knew I wanted to do something different," he says. "I decided I wasn't going to censor myself. I wanted to be open to other styles and other textures. I wasn't going to force the songs to be blues songs or any other type of songs. I decided to just let them happen."

The result, according to producer Kenny Passarelli, is a work that properly showcases Jacobs-Strain's range and talent. "David does everything well," says the Santa Fe-based producer, who has worked with Stephen Stills and Joe Walsh. "The fact is he's a virtuoso guitar player. He's such a soulful singer. And I'm definitely seeing growth [as a songwriter]."

Ocean is a fine rebuttal against those who once wanted to write Jacobs-Strain off as a novelty act. Certainly, there was some novelty to his act especially in the early days, given that there probably weren't many white preteens in Eugene playing folksy-blues tunes that recall the likes of Robert Johnson.

Jacobs-Strain first picked up the guitar in the early '90s as other musically inclined kids his age were dreaming of starting the next Pearl Jam or Nirvana. But he immediately found himself attracted to an earthier sound.

"I didn't set out to play blues when I started to play guitar. But within a few years, I found that was what I wanted to play and what I was playing," he says. "There's something so raw and immediate about the music. I just feel that there is so much depth to it. There's an incredible freeing element to the music."

Growing up in Eugene, the aspiring musician had the opportunity to soak up the city's diverse music scene and he learned to appreciate everything from blues and folk to classic rock and jam bands. But perhaps the musician who had the most profound influence on the artist as a young man was Walker T. Ryan, who taught slide-guitar workshops at the University of Oregon.

"He was very intense about what he was doing," says Ryan, whose career dates back to the Greenwich Village folk scene. "He was very much like me, when I was young, in that he had this inner voice, and I just encouraged him to listen to it."

After releasing his first album at the age of 14, Jacobs-Strain began to play local festivals, which steadily led to better gigs and bigger crowds. When his voice changed, growing into the deep, soulful growl that it is today, the fans really began to take notice. He was soon spending his summers working the blues and folk festival circuits, touring Europe and selling bunches of his independently released records. Along the way, he kept up with school, scored 1510 on his SAT and picked Stanford over Harvard and Yale because he wanted to stay on the West Coast. The demands that come from attending Leland's farm have actually helped inspire him musically.

"I find myself playing my guitar the most when I have other things to do," he says. "If I have a paper due, you'll probably find me off in a corner working on a new tune instead of writing the paper."

David Jacobs-Strain plays Friday (Jan. 21) at 8pm at Espresso Garden and Cafe, 814 S. Bascom Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $15. (408.294.3353)

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From the January 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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