Breaking every stereotype

Described as ‘one of the best and brightest guitar heroes performing in the world today,’ Oli Brown plays the blues – and couldn’t be happier.

Oli Brown 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Oli Brown 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Despite the traditional job description, you don’t really have to be elderly, black and down in the dumps to create scintillating blues. At least, not if you’re Oli Brown, a 21-year-old British guitar phenomenon who’s been turning the blues world on its ear over the last couple of years. Not a shabby achievement, considering that he didn’t pick up a guitar for the first time or hear any blues music until he was 12 years old.
“I started having 20-minute guitar lessons with a music teacher from school,” said Brown from his home in Sco Ruston, a hamlet near Norfolk, about two hours away from London. “The first song I learned was the James Bond theme tune. I stayed up all night learning it. I just loved it and didn’t look back from there. That sense of achievement I got when I learned that song, I knew it was what I wanted to do in life. It made me so happy.”
It’s also cocked the trigger of a lot of other people who have heard or seen Brown perform.
Not since the early days of Eric Clapton’s career, when his white man plays the blues prowess prompted 1960s disciples to scrawl “Clapton is God” graffiti in London, has a young English star in the making with a prototype tall, thin and long hair rocker appearance and magnetic stage presence displayed such a natural affinity for the American- born art form.
“The hottest young pistol in British Blues,” crowed UK rock journal Mojo, while another magazine, Classic Rock, deemed him “one of the best and brightest guitar heroes performing in the world today.”
It’s now Israel’s turn to watch – and with wide eyes and open mouths – when Brown makes his local debut on March 5 at Reading 3, leading his potent power trio. In another example of the exception making the rule over who can play the blues, bearded, tzitzit-wearing Lazer Lloyd will be opening the show.
FOR BROWN, whose humility and politeness smash stereotypes of cocky musical egotists, there was no terrible poverty-stricken childhood with a broken home to explain why someone with a seeming eternally sunny demeanor would feel the need to play the blues.
“I first started playing the blues because I wanted to solo all the time, and it was the first music I found that I could solo over. So I just sort of got stuck playing it, which maybe isn’t the best reason to go into the blues,” laughed Brown.
But Brown discovered something deeper about the music that ignited a true love when his prodigious talent was discovered by an American blues band, Blinddog Smokin.
They invited the 15-year-old high school student to tour with them in the US for two months, where they ended up playing with American musical giants like Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal.
“It was so great, Blinddog Smokin were big blues guys and really amazing musicians.
They made me appreciate the music, the soulful fun of it, the spontaneity and how much freedom there is. It’s something I never really saw in any other form of music, and it’s why I ended up loving the blues so much. I never try to do a solo the same way twice,” he said.
Bolstered by his newly acquired knowledge and experience and spurred on by Gustafson, Brown formed The Oli Brown Band in 2007 when he was 17. And he managed somewhere along the way to complete his studies at the urging of his mother.
“My mum really wanted me to go to college, and I did the A-levels for her. But the last year in school, I was really miserable, I was gigging all the time and all I wanted to do was to play music. I never had any interest in going on to college,” he said, adding that growing up in the rustic Sco Ruston enabled him to concentrate on music without other urban distractions. “There are no other houses around, which is quite nice if you want to play your guitar very loudly.”
That freedom, along with a generous combination of dedication and skill, enabled Brown, at age 18 in 2008, to release his debut album Open Roads, which was voted the Number Two blues album of the year by readers of Blues Matters! magazine. The buzz attracted legendary producer Mike Vernon, who’s worked with Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie, to urge him to come out of semi-retirement and take the helm of Brown’s follow-up album, 2010’s Heads I Win, Tails You Lose. The record received similar accolades, Brown headlined the blues and jazz stage at the prestigious Glastonbury Festival and won Male Vocalist of the Year and Young Artist of the Year at the 2010 British Blues Awards.
“It was amazing and terrifying to work with Mike, due to all the great people he’d been involved with in the past. I didn’t realize it until I looked up his back catalogue,” said Brown.
“I went to spend some time with him at his home in Spain before we went in the studio, and he would keep me up ‘til all hours telling me stories. I didn’t need to ask, I think he was desperate to tell them,” he laughed.
Brown will undoubtedly one day have plenty of stories to tell himself, but now even as a bright-eyed 21-year-old, he possesses the poise and charisma of someone who’s spent their whole life on stage – traits he credits his American friends from Blinddog Smokin.
“Their singer Carl Gustafson taught me about the entertainment side on stage – how it’s all about a big performance as well, not just the music; how the frontman needs to have a great presence on stage, walk around, tell stories,” he said. “The most important thing is how you perform, but your presence on stage and how you present yourself also play a big role. That’s why I always wear nice clothes and try to look as smart as I can,” he said.
“When I was on tour with Blinddog, I would sometimes sit out songs and watch them and study. I saw Carl’s presence and how he could captivate the audience. It fascinated me, and I really wanted to make that part of my show. All I want is for people to have a good time. You don’t go to shows to see musicians with their heads down and tails between their legs playing for themselves.
At least for me, it’s not interesting or exciting. So how I look, how I walk and how I present myself is a big part of it for me.”
BROWN HAS some accomplices to achieve his goals in the guise of drummer Wayne Procter and bassist Ron Sayer, who create the sturdy bottom sound and beat to enable the virtuoso to lose himself in solos “They give me a lot of space to do whatever I want. I’ve never played with a rhythm section like that before,” said Brown, who recently departed from his long-time drummer Simon Dring.
“Wayne’s only done a few gigs with us, so we’ve been spending a lot of time together in rehearsal creating a tight unit. I like to make up things as I go, so we need to make sure the band understands my little cues so it doesn’t all fall apart.”
Whether it’s because he’s not widely known enough in mainstream circles or has just fallen under the radar, there have been no calls on Brown to boycott his show from pro-Palestinian activists, a process that occurs with most visiting artists.
“The only letter I’ve received is from the Tel Aviv Blues Society welcoming me to Israel,” said Brown. “I’m not aware of anything else, and I sure haven’t thought about not coming.
I like to know as little as possible about the places I go to so it’s more exciting once I’m there.”
Like the rest of his life once he discovered the blues, Brown’s world consists of music, and he makes no false statements about aspiring to anything else right now.
“All I want to do is play music in front of people. With all that’s happened to me over the last four years, it’s a bit nuts but I wouldn’t want to change anything. It’s amazing that people are interested in hearing me and that I can go to places like Tel Aviv. I feel very lucky and privileged.”
And so will anyone who ventures to Reading 3 on March 5.