With the Johnson Hall Waterfront Concert Series 2019 going great guns, I figured a couple of interviews with some of the artists coming in would be in order, beginning with Tommy O’Connell who’s group, The Juke Joint Devils, will perform Friday, July 19.

Reached at his home in Wales, the singer-songwriter/harmonica player was more than happy to introduce me to his special brand of authentic roots music — specifically the jump blues.

Q: Though I have not heard your band, thanks to the Bluz Junky (bluzjunky.com) I have heard of the Juke Joint Devils. How long have you been with the group?
O’Connell: I’d say it’s been about nine years, with different people, because when I started the Juke Joint Devils (we were) basically like a duo with an upright bass and me on harmonica, electric through an amp. We went to Massachusetts and won the “Road To Memphis” competition there, and they sent us on to Memphis to compete in the blues competition down there.

Q: I went down there last year for a couple of days, and it was a fantastic way to dive deep into the blues, that’s for sure.
O’Connell: What a week — incredible! I mean, if you like the blues, you’re going to get it internationally. You’re going it everywhere down there, up and down Beale Street. We did it just to do it, and we wound up making it to the finals. We were one of seven or eight acts to make it in the world, internationally.

Q: Well, if it was like the competition in 2018, you were competing with a large amount of other bands, duos and individuals. When were you there?
O’Connell: I want to say it was six or seven years ago, maybe longer than that. I mean, I got away from the bands I was playing in before, because I wanted to play jump blues, roots blues, New Orleans — you know, swampy stuff. But no covers, because I’d played blues covers forever and I just got tired of it. I figured it was time to do something else, and if it works, great. And if it doesn’t, great. I’d just keep doing it; I don’t care. So we do a lot of our own material, and I’ll search out material from the ’40s and the ’50s, jump blues songs, and give them credit. Nobody else is doing them that I know of. Sometimes they’re one-off recordings that never got recognized. So we’ll do them because they sound cool.

Q: So you started out as a duo. How many are in the band now?
O’Connell: Usually four: a drummer that’s playing through a vintage kit, that’s Jeff Lynworth; then there’s an upright bass player, Andy Buckland; and usually a guitar player that plays more jazzy blues — a lot of West Coast jazz chord styles — his name is Steve Lynworth; and then me. I sing 99.9% of the material, so we can stay true to what we do all night. Those are the guys I’ll have with me at the Waterfront Concert show.

Q: Now jump blues is very infectious and good for dancing, right?
O’Connell: Yeah, everything we do is about a groove. If people aren’t moving or at least bobbing their heads, we’re not doing our job because they’re not grooving.

Q: It’s the groove that moves.
O’Connell: That’s exactly right — exactly! And I should say that I try to keep the volume down, and I try to make sure that everybody plays the genre or the style that we play. So I can’t use just anybody, really. It just wouldn’t fit; it wouldn’t sound right. So we use vintage equipment because you can replicate that sound easier than using a bunch of pedals and stuff.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to pass on to the folks reading this article about that Waterfront Concert show in Gardiner?
O’Connell: Oh, let’s see. They don’t want to miss it, I know that. Hopefully the weather’s going to be decent, too, like last year. It’s going to be a great band: four guys that love playing together, and we guarantee to have them dancing. It’s swing and jump blues that you can use, for sure.

 

Lucky Clark has spent 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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