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The Son Also Rises

[whitespace] Son Seals Born to the Blues: Singer/guitarist Son Seals learned to play from his father, who owned a blues club in Oscela, Ark.

Metro Fountain Blues Festival headliner Son Seals blows in from the Windy City

By Nicky Baxter

BLUESMAN SON SEALS doesn't just play his guitar--he brutalizes it, working it over as if the thing had committed some unspeakable crime. The sounds he extorts from his guitar could make the devil shudder. Seals himself, however, is pleasant enough, just a man going about his business.

Presently, the business at hand calls for some packing. He's preparing for a flight to New York, where he is scheduled to appear on Conan O'Brien's late-night TV show. "Some things are happenin' for me right now," he says in a soft, almost tentative Arkansas drawl. "That show is nationwide; millions of people watchin' it, and hopefully, some of the people will see me play." Asked if his appearance on the show is a sign that the music is at last receiving its just due, the Chicago-based musician is cautiously optimistic.

"Well, you know, for a long time the blues has been on the back burner. People didn't really want to have too much to do with the blues. Now, people are appreciating it more. It's not on the front burner yet, but it's not on the back burner anymore."

With his status as the headliner at the 19th Annual Metro Blues Festival Saturday (May 8, along with Howard and the White Boys, Chris Cain, Sugar Pie De Santo and others), it certainly appears as if Sons Seals' career is heading in a northbound direction. Indeed, in Chicago, where the singer/guitarist spends much of his time, Seals is a top draw, regularly packing blues venues like Buddy Guy's Legends.

Seals' most recent release, Live--Spontaneous Combustion (Alligator), was recorded at Guy's nightspot. Made nearly 20 years after Live and Burning, his first caught-in-the act performance, Spontaneous Combustion is, if anything, an even more torrid affair.

Backed by a pumped-up six-piece rhythm section, Seals muscles his way through a dozen tunes, wrangling from his guitar some of the nastiest licks ever committed to disc. On "Don't Pick Me for Your Fool," Seals plays with volcanic fury; his closing solo is as fierce as it gets, a cauldron roiling with the kind of desperate passion that lands a man in prison--or 6 feet under.

Seals' vocal style isn't pretty either; words tumble from his lips in a mad rush, as if he can't exorcise them from his system quick enough. Ultimately, "Don't Pick Me for Your Fool" is not so much a song as it is a threat.

"The Sun Is Shining" is a chugging midtempo number highlighted by bandmate Sidney Wingfield's rollicking piano playing and Seals' whining, stutter-stepping guitar work. "Landlord at My Door" showcases the irrepressible Johnny Gayden's funky thumb-plucked bass and Wingfield's skating keyboards. Son's scratchy vocals are answered by terse guitar notes. The R&B chestnut "Don't Lie to Me" concludes the set. Seals' thrash-and-burn playing transforms the tune into a high-octane Chicago-style romp.

ONE MIGHT say Son was born into the blues. As a youngster growing up in Oscela, Ark., he and his 12 siblings lived in the back room of a juke joint his father operated called the Dipsy Doodle Club, where the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson (II) and Robert Nighthawk held court. When the younger Seals picked up the guitar, Papa Seals, an accomplished musician, gave him some pointers.

"My father taught me a lot," Seals says. "He showed me how to get the guitar in tune, how to work out chords. I learned as much from him as I did sneaking a look at Robert and them play."

At 18, Seals had formed his own group, the Upsetters, which opened for a variety of marquee names, including B.B. King and Bobby Bland. In 1963, Seals trekked to Chicago to visit relatives and promptly fell in love with the city, incredulous at its vibrant blues scene. By decade's end, he was there to stay.

"I love this city," Seals declares. "When I first came here, it was like Dodge City. There was music goin' on all the time, on every corner, night and day. I could get up at 2 o'clock in the morning and go and play somewhere." For that reason alone, his manager has a hard time prying him off Windy City blues stages for high-visibility gigs like the Metro Fountain Blues bash.

Not that he isn't looking forward to his gig in San Jose. "California is one of my favorite places to play," he asserts. "Plus, I know that in order to make the blues what it should be, I gotta get out there and play." Seals may or may not succeed in pushing the blues onto the front burner. But one thing's for certain: few performers can burn like this Son.

The Metro Fountain Blues Festival features Son Seals, Howard and the White Boys, Chris Cain, Sugar Pie De Santo, the Rusty Zinn Band and Terry Hanck and the Soulrockers. It takes place Saturday (May 8), noon-7pm at San Jose State University, Seventh and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Free. (408/924-6262).

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From the May 6-12, 1999 issue of Metro.

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