Great blues artists can be found in unlikely places.
For two nights this week, esteemed producer and guitarist Kid Andersen, 37, and his wife/singer Lisa Leuschner Andersen played at the Cabaret Lounge at the Carson Valley Inn Casino. They performed as “Kid and Lisa,” and on the first night I am certain I was the only one in the audience aware of their fame. It was a quiet Tuesday night, with the Monday Night Football crowds apparently resting up on the sidelines for the evening.
The venue is popular because it’s centrally located in downtown Minden, Nevada, a ranching community and the county seat of Douglas County. In addition to enticing restaurants and full-service gambling, the drinks cost half the price at they do at the casinos a 30-minute drive up the hill to Lake Tahoe. And there’s free live music in the Cabaret Lounge every night there’s not televised NFL football.
I arrived early, hoping to get a chance to interview Andersen, who I am sure will be prominent at this spring’s Blues Music Awards. I would be surprised if the two albums he produced for Rick Estrin & The Nightcats and Tommy Castro & The Painkillers don’t receive nominations. Andersen also has been nominated the last two years for best guitarist.
Andersen was the first person I saw when I entered the casino. While he was on his way to gather some equipment, I said hello and asked if he had a few minutes before the show for a chat. To [pullquote]I was leading the house band and I thought, ‘She’ll think I’m a big deal.’[/pullquote]my surprise, he remembered me from previous shows and interviews, but no, unfortunately he didn’t have the time because he had to set up. Fortunately, I was prepared for that answer. I took my New York Times to the bar and ordered a tall Langunitas.
An hour later, Kid and Lisa took the stage. Robbie Yamilov was the soundman who also sat in on bass a few times. Kid played an electric guitar and Lisa had a snare drum. Their instructions were simple: Play songs people know.
After a toe-tapping rendition of “Use Me,” Andersen addressed the audience. “I know it’s early, but we do take requests,” he said. “We will attempt just about anything. I am referring mostly to musical numbers.”
Humor is a characteristic of any good lounge performer.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” someone shouted, referring to a fiddle song by Charlie Daniels.
Lisa recited the first line of the country song but confessed that was all she knew of it. She wore high-top Adidas and throughout the evening hit the beautiful high notes that are heard on numerous Greaseland records. The former “American Idol” finalist also performs with the Michael Jackson tribute Foreverland.
“We lost some great musicians this year and last year, and we kept some bad ones,” Andersen quipped, before playing a couple of Prince tunes.
Andersen’s speaking tone became increasingly like the scene from “The Blues Brothers” with bandleader of Murph and the Magic Tones.
“We’re here every night: tonight and tomorrow,” he deadpanned.
It was about to get more interesting.
Someone from the bar shouted, “Play some Eric Clapton blues!”
Andersen’s selection was spontaneous, appropriate and poignant,” Eric Clapton’s “Have You Ever Been Mistreated.” That tune has been taken and rearranged from the late Eddie Boyd’s “Five Long Years” and became a radio hit for Clapton in the early 1990s. Andersen was cognizant of that, of course, especially since he helped make a record for Boyd’s cousin, John “Blues” Boyd.
The first of four sets came to a close and Andersen hit the casino floor to gamble. Lisa politely joined me at my table.
“I am the perfect wife,” she said, “because I don’t mind being surrounded by musicians.”
She told me they met at the Santa Cruz blues bar Moe’s Alley. “He didn’t know I was a singer until he saw me on TV and then he felt like an idiot.”
Andersen joined us at the table. His ATM card had reached its maximum limit for the day. He had no gambling money. I had my interview after all. (His luck would change shortly after the show when he hit a $2,000 slot machine jackpot.)
The Kid broke out into a grin when my first question was about John “Blues” Boyd, who he pretty much discovered at the original Smoking Pig in the South Bay.
“He’s a freak and he’s the real deal – that’s what he calls himself,” Andersen said. “He has no musical background but he’s a natural singer.”
A native of Greenwood, Mississippi, Boyd moved to California, where spent most of his life working as a roofer. Not only is he a cousin of Eddie Boyd, the R&B singer of the 1950’s hit song “Five Long Years” that Clapton later cashed in on, he’s related to Oil Can Boyd, a former Boston Red Sox pitcher with a blues name.
The 73-year-old John Boyd, Andersen said, “is as old school Southern as you can get. He has all of these authentic old sayings. He talks about himself in the third person. I found this book with five songs he wrote in 1981 and I said, ‘This is pretty good.’ ”
With Andersen’s encouragement, Boyd wrote more. “It set him on a kick,” he said. “He’s written about 130 songs and we’ve recorded maybe 80. Every session, he won’t stop until we do 10 or 12 songs. And it’s the hardest thing to get him to do more than one take.”
Time for the second set. Andersen sang the bluesy “Merry Christmas, baby,” and my second IPA tasted real good.
Referring to the sound of a slot machine, Andersen said, “I like that Wheel of Fortune song. … I know there’s not many of you, but there’s not many of me, either.”
After Kid and Lisa’s second set, we were back at the table. How did this gig come about? Through Buddy Emmer, the Reno-Tahoe bluesman who also books shows and makes referrals. Sometimes Emmer’s blues band dons cowboy hats and they become a country act. It just completed a three-night run at the Carson Valley Inn.
I told the couple that Buddy also was playing on this Tuesday night at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe for a weekly blues show, and the featured guest was Andy Santana, one of the artists Andersen has produced.
“Andy drove us on our first date,” Andersen said. “It was a Biscuit and Blues anniversary party. I was leading the house band and I thought, ‘She’ll think I’m a big deal.’ ”
As a teenager learning guitar in his native Norway, Andersen bought an Andy Santana record because the guitarist was Junior Watson. He said he has tried to emulate Watson’s guitar tone.
At a club called Muddy Waters, Anderson was part of the house band that fronted by visiting blues stars from the United States, including Homesick James, Nappy Brown, Jimmy Dawkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, each of whom has passed on. There were also American harmonica players who are still in their prime: Santana, Rick Estrin, Rod Piazza and Mark Hummel.
“Those were idols to me when I was a kid,” Kid said.
Andersen dreamed of moving to California, where players such as Junior Watson serve up West Coast blues. He got his chance when saxophone star Terry Hanck made him an offer. He later played with Charlie Musselwhite, John Nemeth and now Rick Estrin & The Nightcats.
Estrin praised Andersen when I spoke with him last summer before a Bluesdays show at Squaw Valley.
“Greaseland (Studios) is becoming really popular, probably bordering on legendary in our little sub genre,” Estrin said. “(Andersen) is the best engineer I’ve ever worked with.
“He’s fast. You can describe an idea for a sound and he knows what you are talking about 95 percent of the time. He knows just what to do just to get that sound. Things go quickly and he captures the feeling in the moment better than anyone I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been around a long time.”
Andersen, who also plays keyboards, bass and drums, explained why he became a producer.
“I was 18 and in a recording session and realized I could use everything I know,” he said. “Also, it was out of frustration trying to get producers to get the sound I wanted. The slower they worked, the more money they made.”
A man approached the table and made some small talk before getting to his point. He wanted to talk about Kid’s Gibson ES-175 guitar.
Afterward, Andersen said he is a former guitar collector but he’s sold most of them. “With that money, it freed me to make the music I wanted.”
His future projects, he said, might be with Frank Bey, Billy Price, Fillmore Slim and Musselwhite. He’s also toying with the notion of a country album sung by blues singers, possibly Bey and Rockin Johnny Burgin.
During the third set, Kid and Lisa played some R&B and then struggled a bit with “Mr. Bojangles.” “That song sounds simple but it’s difficult,” Lisa confided.
At the final break, I asked Andersen about perhaps his most recognized work. He produced a record for Wee Willie Walker, “Live! Notodden Blues Festival,” which received three BMA nominations.
An incredibly talented Southern soul and blues singer, Walker recorded for a while in the 1960s, but he never received the attention he deserved.
“(Walker) knew me from seeing me on a Blues Cruise,” Andersen said. “He played at (an amateur jam) and was better than anybody I’d seen on that Blues Cruise. The next time he went, he went as a paid performer.
“I toured with him in Europe and the people went crazy for him in Germany. He sang Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come” and he had to turn his back on the audience because he was crying. It was too much for him.”
Andersen first met Wee Willie Walker when the Nightcats were playing a show in Minnesota. “He was playing in a little bar next to where we were playing,” Andersen said. “We went over there and Rick realized he was Willie.”
Great blues artists can be found in unlikely places.
Next stop, Andy Santana takes Center Stage at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe.