Dawson County is about as West Texas as West Texas gets. For all the monotony in its landscape, this part of the world has produced more than its share of gifted musicians.
Jeff Strahan, for example, is from Dawson County. Lamesa to be precise, roughly halfway between Midland and Lubbock – and anywhere halfway between those two oases might be a little rough, but not Strahan. He’s a musician, a musician’s musician; plays both guitar and piano with engaging skill and delivers fine tuned vocals with a good-natured quality.
On Wednesday, July 8, the Jeff Strahan Band was at Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar , one of Houston’s eclectic live music venues. It’s a neighborhood beer joint with good, sometimes great, music and a regular blues jam on Thursday nights.
It might be easy to characterize Strahan’s music and his band as a blues rock band. And while that’s accurate in a general sense, it’s more useful to think of Strahan as a good time band. Wait, scratch that; a huge, kick-ass, great time band. He’s having fun, the band’s having fun, he loves what he’s doing and if you can’t hear that in his music, you might need a hearing aid.
In addition to Texas-quality musicianship, Strahan’s music makes for pure joy-ride-style fun; think of a Saturday night bar packed with people ready to drink, dance and party. If you walk away from an evening with Strahan all cold quenched serious and shit, you might need a vacation.
At the moment, the Jeff Strahan Band is a three-piece outfit. It’s tempting to call them a power trio, but that’s too limiting for what they play. Everyone in the band is top dead center good. The bass player, Randy Chaffin, is tasteful, spare in an elegant way when needed, but also driving and punchy when called for. Chaffin is originally from California, but had the good sense to move to Austin. The drummer, Ernest Klein, another Texan, keeps time clean, tight and discreet. Plays like he knows who the band is named after.
We’re talking a two-hour set on a Wednesday night and even though the crowd was a little slight, Strahan and company played their hearts out. Opened the show with one of his own tunes, “Amen to the Blues”, a solid piece of blues funk rock that reminds us of why we love electric guitars so much. Most of the show featured Strahan-written songs.
You can hear many different influences –at times, the hot slide work of Duane Allman, (yes, Duane Allman) in “Give Me One Good Reason”, or Otis Redding, in a gospel blues ballad (“Hope and Faith”) or the Doobie Brothers, in “Everyday is a Holiday”, even, at times a little Robin Trower or Tab Benoit. You can also hear straight ahead rock, chicken funk blues, and when he plays piano, a little of the stride and barrelhouse blues of Jelly Roll Morton, a little of the straight ahead southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Billy Powell and a lot of the jumping jehosephat of Jerry Lee Lewis. It all just makes for a great time.
Strahan has described his music as Red Dirt Blues (and has released a CD with that title) – a passing reference to the Permian red beds that color the earth at the breaks of the Llano Estacado. But in his view, it’s more an expression of the many different music styles that were marinating the High Plains while he was growing up. Styles like Tejano, country (…and western), rock, blues, Texas swing and all the fusions in between. It’s a good mix and it’s one of the reasons Texas music runs so deep.
Strahan started playing in bands at the age of 12. He’s been at it for awhile.
After finishing high school in Lamesa, he made his way eventually to Austin, via Dallas. He played in “countless bands” – playing any and every style that could be useful for booking gigs. Music business being what it is, after too many almost record deals and broken down tour vans, the bloom faded enough by the late eighties that Strahan took a part-time detour for ten years - through law school and practicing law in El Paso.
Finally, by 2000, he’d laid by enough stores to quit the day job and pursue his music again. He moved to Durango, Colorado and spent the time in between getting back to his muse and enjoying the mountain lifestyle. But with serious chops back in place, the road has called and he’s been touring in an RV now for over a year. After this gig in Houston, he’s headed for New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, amongst other places.
As a guitar player, he sports a compact, rhythmic style, not really derivative of anyone – it’s his own. Near the end of his set, just when you might start to wonder if any blues classics might show up, he pulls out his version of “Texas Flood”, the now famous tune of L.C. Davis and J. W. Scott. Takes some cajones to cover that song in the state of Stevie Ray Vaughn. But Strahan handles it quite well, even adding some of his own piano twists and near the end of the song, with his guitar moaning and screaming – well, hell, I’m just going to say it: he out Buddy-Guys Stevie Ray. He’s got a fierce right hand.
His piano playing is also a real treat. In a number of songs, he’ll add piano solos at the end of his guitar solo, then play guitar and piano simultaneously. He’ll whang a quick rhythm chord and then, with just his right hand, break out a 55-gallon drum of Jerry Lee whupass on the keyboard.
Since 2000, he’s released five CD’s (all available on CD Baby) in 2002, as Jeff Strahan and the Strangers, “A Little North of the Border”; in 2005, “Along for the Ride”; in 2006, as the Jeff Strahan Band, “Red Dirt Blues”; 2008’s “Amen to the Blues” and this year, “Double Live at Billy’s Ice”. A prolific recording schedule for anyone; best of all, Strahan’s live sound translates well in the studio.
Strahan’s music might raise eyebrows amongst the blues purists. But there’s been a long tradition amongst blues artist for playing music outside of their genre, because that’s just what musicians do. Sometimes, purists can’t see the forest for the trees and there’s an unfortunate amount of convoluted academic seriousness that has crept into worshipping the blues. For example, one author (Elijah Wald, “Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues”) suggests that “As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.”
Apparently, the hell hound was on the wrong trail. Leave the text books at home and go listen to some music that reminds you how much fun it really can be.
Growing up in Lamesa offered choices: cotton, cattle or crude. Not necessarily a raw deal, but fortunately for us, the muses provided an alternative for Jeff Strahan. It’s been too long since I’ve been reminded of pure, rowdy, beer-drinking and dancing just for the hell of it and I’m glad I got to hear Strahan’s version. I just kinda wish it had been a Saturday night
Note: To see more of the photo work by Dale Kennemer check out his web site at http://austinallarts.com/.
Posted by: baspinwall