Blues isn't something Rod Piazza is prepared to analyze.
The music's all-encompassing role in his life places it beyond such considerations. Like the air around him – who stops to scrutinize every breath? – blues is essential and elemental.
So it's not surprising the harmonica player-vocalist didn’t mess around when I interviewed him a few years back and asked him to explain the sound he goes for, particularly in the studio.
''You're always trying to create something new and have people hear it,'' Piazza said. ''I (try) to get to the real core of each tune ... without trying to smooth things out.”
What is the ''core''?
''If the song grips you when you first hear it,'' Piazza said, ''then it's the core.''
Piazza has spent nearly a half century producing gripping blues and his track record is paying off. Not only are his Mighty Flyers among the genre’s busiest acts but they won W.C. Handy Awards in 1999 and 2000 as best blues band in America.
No strangers to Bay Area audiences, Piazza and Co. perform Friday night at the Redwood City PAL Blues, Arts and BBQ Festival. Set for Courthouse Square, the festival continues Saturday with a lineup featuring Rick Estrin and the Nitecats; the Golden State-Lone Star Revue with Anson Funderberg, Little Charlie Baty and Mark Hummel; Aki Kumar Blues Band; and Ms. Taylor P. Collins. Proceeds benefit the city’s Police Activities League.
Piazza has played blues – and nothing but blues – since childhood. There's a difference, the Riverside native told me, between being a blues player capable of re-creating the music and a bluesman (or woman) who has no choice but to live the lifestyle.
''I don't think I had any other way to go but the way I went with my career,'' Piazza said. ''So when you pretty much just play in that idiom ... I think that kind of helps keep you in it.''
Piazza began shaking hands with blues in the late 1950s, when he combed through his older brother's record collection. Piazza was a budding guitarist when, at 11, he went to see Jimmy Rogers play at a Riverside club. The bluesman gave Piazza his first harmonica and Rogers' laconic style was an early influence on the youngster's playing.
Decades later, Piazza said he understands why blues touched him as a schoolboy.
“'I guess it was seeing the people who played it and how really honest and emotionally real the music was,'' he said. ''More so than, say, I don't know, something that was just directed to sell on the radio. It seemed like music that was created out of emotion. Nothing can be more true than human emotion expressed in song. There was a dignity in that.''
As a teenager, Piazza would drive the two hours from Riverside to Watts to play blues. There he found a mentor in George ''Harmonica'' Smith, a veteran of Muddy Waters' band. They performed together on and off for 15 years in the group Bacon Fat.
Smith eased Piazza's entry into the Southern California blues scene. He soon was touring with Big Mama Thornton and recording with T-Bone Walker.
At 19, Piazza's own group, the Dirty Blues Band, signed a deal with ABC/Bluesway Records. The group recorded a series of albums – including ''Stone Dirt'' (1969) and ''Grease One for Me'' (1970) – before Piazza embarked on a solo career. He already had begun playing with his future wife, Honey, by the time he formed the Mighty Flyers in 1980.
The band gained converts through the '80s with its blistering live shows and a series of well-received albums on Black Top Records. Industry recognition came in the early '90s.
''Blues has always been unto itself and outside the mainstream,'' Piazza said. ''The band is what I started out wanting to do and we're doing it. I don't think I've changed the direction of my dream.''
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