No time for sleep
(Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Blues Revue magazine.)
With the economy in shambles and the music industry imploding, why would four guys quit their day jobs and criss-cross the country to play the blues in tiny clubs?
How about because it sounds good, and it’s fun to play.
Actually, that’s the reason Insomniacs guitarist, singer and songwriter Vyasa Dodson gives when he talks about why the blues became his first love when he took up the guitar at age 14.
“I started in high school playing guitar, and I wanted to play blues from the beginning,” says Dodson, 28, whose band headlines a Memorial Day barbecue on Monday at the Gold Hill Inn in the mountains north of Boulder. “It wasn’t like I was in a rock band or something like that. This is just what I wanted to do.”
Such an early introduction to the blues — and the years of jam nights and stints at Portland, Ore.-area clubs that would eventually follow — might help explain how a band that was confined to playing in the Pacific Northwest two years ago has gigged as far east as Clarksdale, Miss., and has two nationally released albums to promote.
The story of the Insomniacs, however, illustrates how much hard work goes into graduating from regional heroes to national blues veterans. The recipe is simple: Stay on the road.
“Right now is not really the time to be a new band touring the country, with the economy and just the music scene in general not what it used to be,” says bass player Dean Mueller, who until November 2009 was doing the band’s booking and continues to handle publicity. “But on the other hand, if you’re out there doing it there are not a lot of people who can make it work and make it happen.”
The Insomniacs have been making it happen – and the music industry has noticed Just a few days before the four members of the band sat down for an interview before their set at the Boulder Outlook Hotel’s Blues & Greens bar in Colorado late last fall, they struck a deal with Piedmont Talent to take over their booking. And like the band’s record label, Delta Groove – which contacted the Insomniacs unsolicited and quickly signed the group – Piedmont handpicked the Insomniacs.
“In the last three days I’ve talked to them every single day about the plans,” Mueller says. “It was kind of like Delta Groove. They gave me a buzz, and they were ready to roll. And it’s because of how hard we’ve been hitting the road. All you have to do is look at our touring schedule. That says it all. It doesn’t really matter what awards you won – yes, it help get those gigs – but those guys want their job to be easy. And they want to make money, and they want to make you money and take care of you.”
In their short history, the Insomniacs have racked up considerable kudos, including a 200? Blues Music Award nomination for best new act. The band’s independently released debut disc, Left Coast Blues – dominated by original songs penned by Dodson — earned the group a best new act award from the Cascade Blues Association within a month of its release in late 2006. Delta Groove picked up the album for national distribution a few months later after producer Jeff Scott Fleenor discovered the band online.
“Jeff Scott found us on MySpace, and I was still running that aspect of booking, promo and stuff,” said Dodson, who handed over such duties to Mueller. “He asked me for a CD. And I didn’t know who he was. I thought he was just some guy trying to score a free CD. I had a bunch of people asking for free CDs; you know ‘I work for a magazine.’ So he just bought one, and Jeff talked us up and gave it to label chief Randy (Chortikoff) at Delta Groove, and that started the whole process.”
With a national label and a national booking agency supporting them, the Insomniacs are poised to start making a better living. The November show at Blues & Greens was the first time the club charged a cover for the Insomniacs At a show there a few months before, hotel owner Dan King tried to rally patrons to buy the band’s CDs during a break between sets.
“Buy some CDs because we aren’t paying these guys crap,” he told the audience. “Maybe we can charge a cover next time and give it to the band so they have more money than enough to just drive to the next gig.”
Despite the modest pay and rigorous schedule, none of the band members regret taking the plunge to full-time music.
“I usually wake up and go, ‘I love my job,”’ says piano and organ player Alex Shakeri, 36, who was juggling music gigs with information technology contract work before the Insomniacs decided to stretch beyond their regional base.
That feeling is still fresh for drummer, Dave Melyan, a veteran of rock bands in Seattle before moving back home to Portland to join the local blues scene in 1999. “Beer money is what music was to me a little while before this band got together. Now it’s my sustenance.”
You get the sense that these guys function as a real band – not just a front player with a support crew. During a one-hour interview, Mueller (the one band member who won’t give up his age) and Dodson spent the most time talking, but they directed the conversation toward Shakeri and Melyan, ensuring their chapters in the band’s history weren’t neglected — from Shakeri’s days sneaking into the Candlelight Room in Portland as a teenager to learn how to play the Hammond B-3 organ to Melyan’s determination to master the nuances of playing blues shuffles after years pounding the skins in hard rock bands.
But the primary selling point for the Insomniacs is the strength of Dodson’s singing and playing and the original songs that have fueled the band’s two albums: swinging shuffles like “Serves Me Right” and the kiss-off title track of At Least I’m Not With You, the aptly titled roots rocker “Angry Surfer,” the instrumental workout “Insomniacs Boogie.”
“The original aspect of the band is going to be super important. That seems to be where longevity comes from,” Dodson says. “We try to do obscure covers. We also do some more well-known covers as well – we do have to play four hours.”
Now the pressure is on Dodson to come up with new tunes for the album the group hopes to begin recording some time this year.
“Writing has become hard. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve become busier and I don’t have as much do-nothing time as I used to,” he says. “I haven’t written much recently, in the last year and a half or so. I’m trying to figure out now what I need to do to kick-start writing again.”
The Insomniacs’ sound carries the inflections of the band’s home base. Dodson, who once considered Stevie Ray Vaughan his primary influence, gravitated toward a different style of playing guitar after moving to Portland. “Portland has kind of its own little sound, which is good. It’s like a West Coast thing instead of a rock blues thing or instead of a Texas blues thing. The shuffle is a little different; it’s a lot more up tempo.”
When asked why the Insomniacs have an original band name rather than one that simply takes the name of its leader, Dodson is frank: His first name (pronounced VEE-AHS-SA) wasn’t a suitable moniker.
“Vyasa Dodson Band doesn’t sound very bluesy to me,” he says. “Having an unpronounceable first name for the band is not a good way to have people pass the name of the band on and get you some attention.”
If you go: Memorial Day Folk ‘N Blues Bar-be-cue with the Insomniacs, Romano Paoletti Band, Gretchen Troop Band, Ryan Chapman
When: Noon to 5 p.m.
Where: Gold Hill Inn, 401 Main St., Gold Hill, Boulder
Tickets: $15 for music, $12 more for food, children under 12 half price
Info: (303) 443-6475, www.goldhillinn.com