Music Thursday, March 10th

Leading the resistance: Stephen Dale Petit

In the age of the tedious TV talent show and artistically bankrupt boy bands (yes, still) Stephen Dale Petit is leading the resistance.

He’s on a mission to establish the blues firmly in the mainstream of popular culture with a determination to ignite venues with his thrusting, rabble rousing performances.

Delivered in California’s Joshua Tree desert in 1969 by a passing doctor with a passion for the blues Stephen set out on a prescient path.

The acquisition of a Gibson SG at the age of 12 was the start of the journey. 

Formative influences included US heavyweights Robert Johnson, Elmore James, and Son House, as well as favourites from the crop of new British talent (Cream, Zeppelin, and The Yardbirds).

Onwards to the Californian club circuit Stephen started playing five nights a week, jamming with greats such as B.B. and Albert King.

By the early-’90s, his love of those British blues bands lured London. Collaboration and friendship with musicians such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Mick Jones and David Gilmour prevailed.

But problems with drug addiction meant momentum was lost and a period of homelessness followed.

Luckily Petit clawed himself back from the brink, regaining confidence as a performer by busking the London Underground, building up a grass-roots fanbase and a media profile.

Demand for his music was such that he set about recording ‘Guitararama’.

Originally self-financed with a limited pressing of 5,000 units the album’s popularity prompted a 2008 reissue with distribution from Universal.

No longer a best-kept secret Stephen became a regular guest on BBC Radio 2 and praise was lavished by the likes of Classic Rock who described him as the “stunning middle-ground between the fire of Freddie King, the instinct of Jimmy Page and the soul of Clapton.”

By 2010, ‘The Crave’ further progressed his career and was included by Classic Rock in the Top 50 albums of the year.

This was followed by ‘Cracking The Code’ bolstered by A-list guests including Dr John, Mick Taylor and Hubert Sumlin.

The same year he set out on a successful bid to save the iconic 100 Club, his ‘spiritual home’ having played there more than 20 times, by putting together a benefit featuring such notable names as Chris Barber, Ronnie Wood and Mick Taylor.  

Now he is coming to Hereford with two dates planned for the Booth Hall.

On March 18 he will appear at a Hereford Blues Club date with Jack Greenwood on drums and Sophie Lord on bass.  

Then on June 4 he will play the same venue with support from legendary music journalist and musician Charles Shaar Murray.

How young were you when you first started listening to music?

My Dad had really cool hi-fi gear, with big, chunky metre-high speakers from before I was born, so music was always around. He often played it really loud! Music was played for enjoyment, as well as when my parents socialised. Also, they would play records and dance together whenever the mood struck. They had varied tastes - Wes Montgomery, Beatles, Stones, Edwin Hawkins Singers, Willie Bobo, Neil Young, The Supremes, The Temptations, early Santana, Joe Cocker Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Carole King. So from the off, music had a huge impact - the effect that the music itself had on me, coupled with the change in my home atmosphere when music was being played was a pretty potent brew.

When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

My first inclinations were when I was 5 or 6 and by the time I got my first guitar age 8 those inclinations became a certainty.

Who has influenced you the most in your writing and playing?

Hard to name one. I can be influenced by anyone creative, actually - writers, painters, architects, poets, actors - as well as musicians.
I guess I’m always interested in guitarists who can incorporate guitar into great songwriting or, alternatively, who feature guitar in a song, build out from that and end up with a great song. Wes Montgomery, BB King and Blind Willie Johnson come to mind immediately. Eric Clapton with Cream, Derek & The Dominos and earlier solo stuff. The Beatles and Stones both had shedloads of great ideas… they certainly knew how to write stunning songs and present them imaginatively. I used to write poetry for girlfriends I had, or girlfriends I wanted, when I was a teenager… you know I felt adolescent love & yearnings so deeply, I was that guy (laughs), so I’ve always had an instinct to write. Worked a treat, as it happens! Now, of course, I’ve become a deeply shallow adult.

SDP and SG Pattie Boyd

How do you keep pushing forward your take on the blues?

I’ve always felt that the world doesn’t need more people trying to recreate blues as it was played before - with the caveat that one starts from a place of being firmly rooted in Deep Blues. The intent is to both turn people on to the music that’s gone before AND further the story, hoping that people can get the same feeling, be affected by blues the same way that I have been.

I read that you said punk is rooted in the blues. Can you explain how?

Despite all the blank-slate “Year Zero” hype, nearly all the punks idolised Iggy Pop & The Stooges and The MC5. Both those bands were, at their core, blues bands. Mick Jones of The Clash told me he adores The Beano Album (“John Mayall And The Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton”). A huge number of punk songs - by The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones certainly - use the tension and release of the standard blues I-IV-V form, even if less strictly… they’re using the V chord as a feeling of resolution in their song structure, which is classic blues. Also, Dr. Feelgood had their own take on the blues and UK punk bands looked up to them in a big way.

How did you get to play with Eric Clapton? This must have been amazing?

We were introduced by mutual friends and got to talking. It WAS amazing, since he’d been an absolute teenage idol and influence. Lovely, no bullshit guy, gifted and phenomenally talented.

You’ve toured with Mick Taylor (one of our favourite ever guitarists!). How did this come about?

An idea to do a tour with a special guest was put to me and he was my first choice. Pete Feenstra very kindly made an introduction at one of the Mick Taylor shows he was promoting and it turned out I knew Mick’s manager. Another teenage guitar idol and influence.

Are there any particular songs that have a special significance for you?

There are so many! I can become immune to the magic of some songs, and then the magic returns when I revisit them months or years later. I guess “Satisfaction” - when I first heard that on my Dad’s stereo I was floored - what a brilliant, fantastic noise - infectious, driving beat, with guitar and fantastic lyrics at the heart of it. BB’s “The Thrill is Gone”. “If Six Was Nine” by Jimi Hendrix. Dylan’s “Ballad Of a Thin Man” and “Positively 4th Street”. “Who’s Been Talkin” and “Goin’ Down Slow” by Howlin’ Wolf. Actually, everything Wolf ever did! And most anything by Chuck Berry. I started to clock that The Beatles and The Stones did a lot of Chuck Berry covers and name-checked him in interviews, along with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. So when I bought “Chuck Berry On Top” and saw it was on Chess Records, I started to investigate who else was on that label - and then started to get into the people that who had influenced them. In short order, I was listening to Charlie Patton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Robert Johnson. Similar blues-discovery story most of us have, I should think. I certainly had nothing in common at all with my peer group’s musical tastes.


How healthy is the blues scene in the UK?

The UK blues scene is thriving. Whilst venue closures up and down the land are a serious, massive problem and pay-to-play policies have a hugely negative effect on aspiring blues musicians, that’s true for any musician starting out, no matter what kind of music they make. And it’s never been easy. Read the definitive John Lee Hooker book “Boogie Man” by Charles Shaar Murray. Hooker spent nearly 10 adult-years working as a labourer in automobile plants, steel mills and other odd jobs before he could establish a foothold as a musician… that was over 70 years ago. Having said all that, if you look at the amount of blues gigs there are up and down the country, it’s very similar to the legendary UK 60’s Blues Boom.

Are you excited by the formation of the Hereford Blues Club?

Absolutely. The Hereford Blues Club is a hugely exciting development on the blues scene and a fantastic addition to Hereford’s illustrious musical legacy.

You once said “I’m on the planet to play blues. I’m on a mission to spread the word about blues and about the guitar – especially to young music lovers.” What’s the key to helping young people discover the blues?

Exposure to music is the key. It’s helpful that there are plenty of young people playing blues - the bass player in my band, Sophie Lord, is 23 yrs old and a bona-fide blues head. Also the fact that more and more females are playing blues (again! look at the 1920’s list of blues greats - most all of them women) helps to spread the word.

Is it true you once jammed with blues legends BB and Albert King when playing the Californian club circuit?

Yes. I grew up in a town called Huntington Beach which had a club that was on the national circuit called The Golden Bear and they both played there - as did John Mayall, Hendrix, Dylan and countless others. It was was a supper club with small tables less than 4 miles from my house and they turned the house around every night to do two shows. Since they served food I could get in underaged no problem. I went with my mates (I was trying to turn them into blues fans) and we got a centre table that pushed up against the stage. BB was a less than a metre away from me the whole night! In between shows, it was relatively easy to speak with the performers because that was when they had THEIR dinner. Albert King parked his tour bus right outside the front entrance and in between shows he sat in it, alone, smoking his corn-cob pipe. Probably looking at the Summer sunset over the ocean. I knocked on the door and asked permission to board - he had a guitar with him which he used to graciously demonstrate answers to my adolescent questions. Then he walked me back in to the club as his guest for the second show!

SDP BAND Mick Schofield

You’ve been quoted as saying that “as a teenager I was scared by it (the blues) but I couldn’t escape its pull.” What did you mean by this?

From when I was 12 I’d been listening obsessively to this music that had been forged in the nasty, horrific Jim Crow apartheid system in the U.S. South, of which I had no first hand experience, being performed predominately by adult black musicians, of which I was neither. Plus, I didn’t have the sense of safety and reassurance you get from your schoolmates when you all bond over the same things and music was already central to my life, so I was all alone on a path that, if I was seriously going to pursue, didn’t seem to guarantee any prospect of a welcome. But the blues had such a profound impact on me that when I was 17, I made a very conscious decision to follow that path and consequences be damned. I mean, all around me poodle-haired guitar-gymnasts had been getting accolades and having success playing 4th or 5th generation blanded-out blues licks that they didn’t really know the source of and it all left me cold. I was idealistic and perhaps naive, but I arrived at a place where I instinctively felt that this music which had such truth, realness and faith at it’s core would do right by me if I did right by it. That’s where MY faith and trust were put.

You came over to the UK in the mid-1990s and things got pretty tough for you. What happened?

I came a bit earlier, but I went from being a jobbing musician in California to basically starting over again. Eventually, after lots of scrambling around finding my feet in a new country, I got a publishing and recording contract. The Holy Grail for any young musician. It wasn’t a success and things weren’t working out with the record company after 2 or 3 years. I lived with that sinking feeling, you know, the big chance hasn’t worked out. PLUS in order to get those deals, I’d had to compromise - they didn’t really want blues and I thought I could sneak in increasing amounts of blues as things developed - but that’s not what happened and I was painfully aware that I’d let myself down, I’d not been strong enough in my convictions…. you know they waved their cheque books with proper money involved and I’d capitulated, I’d succumbed AND it hadn't work out. So I was lost. Drink and then drugs went from being occasional party implements to being the central feature of my life and I lost like, 3 or 4 flats, you know, I couldn’t keep it together to pay the rent, keep a roof over my head and look after the basics. SDP Charlie Chan

You got things back on track by busking in the London Underground. This must have been a tough gig?

It wasn’t really. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to doing it when I started, I was dreading it in fact - it seemed like the final confirmation that I’d failed in life, but I said to myself that if I was going to do it, that I would play only what I wanted to play, which was blues. But once I started, I’d be so immersed in the music that I wouldn’t notice the people at all for hours and, you know, in some of those West End stations six or seven thousand people would’ve walked by in that time! Yes, sometimes people would get in my face but I’d reconnected with what, on a deep, primal level, I knew I should be doing, so I was revelling in it and the odd wanker or group of lairy lads were pretty much like water off a duck’s back. It also helped knowing that BB King, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson, to name but a few, had busked too.

In 2010 you pulled together a crack squad of top musicians including Ronnie Wood and Mick Taylor in a successful bid to save the 100 Club. Why did you set out to do this?

I was so excited to get to play The 100 Club, I’d read about it from when I was a 10 year old in California. It was mythical to me, and when I initially came to London, the very first gig I saw was one of the last that Alexis Korner played before he died and that was at The 100 Club. When I read in the Evening Standard that they were in serious trouble and would have to close, I’d already played there about 10 times or so and it’d become a bricks-and-mortar version of the blues to me, I held the club in absolute reverence. It’d never moved location and Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, BB King, Howlin Wolf had all played in that exact same spot plus all the 60’s bands, plus The Stones after they were world-striding superstars had played there with Jeff Beck, Pete Townsend and Eric Clapton guesting, plus the UK punk scene was essentially born there and those are just for starters, you know, so it hit me very hard, I was in tears. I’d already booked a show to play there on December 1st 2010 months before this article appeared in September, so I rang up the owner Jeff Horton to ask if I could help. Since there’d been a rapid show of support in the media by the likes of Mick Jagger, Primal Scream, Liam and Noel Gallagher and so on, I assumed that there was already a benefit in the works, but nobody had offered to do anything, nobody had sent a fighting-fund cheque, nothing - so he was grateful that somebody was offering to do something. The best thing, really, was Chris Barber coming down to play. He is so very, very cool.

I’ve read that you want the blues to become mainstream. I’ve been told by other players that there is a glass ceiling for blues musicians. Can the blues really become common currency in popular culture?

I’m not sure that’s the right way to frame the question - you’ve missed out the word “again” - to become mainstream again. Because 60’s Swinging London was fuelled by the blues and the charts were full of blues and blues inspired acts. So, what I’m really talking about is a return to form. And I’m well aware that “glass ceiling” is a metaphor, but where in real life do you actually SEE glass ceilings? They don’t exist except in people’s minds - in any walk of life. It’s a very crippling phrase, really, which doesn’t serve anybody to use. If you really want to do something then hard work, perseverance, tenacity, a bit of faith and an ability to roll with the punches will see you through. Surely that’s true in any endeavour?

What can visitors to your Hereford gig expect to see?

A dynamic and extremely energetic band delivering a big-picture take on blues music. We’re going to seduce, astonish, disturb and then blow the roof off the place.

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