“Has anybody heard of Howlin’ Wolf?” Jeffrey Halford asked a young crowd the most recent time he played in the Crystal Bay Casino Red Room.
The response stirred memories of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, without Buddy Holly. Also a familiar line from an old Western just before the ambush: “It’s quiet out here. Too quiet.”
Don’t be mistaken about the audience. It was happy and it danced until 1 a.m. It seemed to love the band, Jeffrey Halford and the Healers. It just didn’t have a clue about the Chicago’s blues great. If Halford had planned to introduce the next song with a story about Wolf’s guitar player Hubert Sumlin, well, never mind.
Halford is a musician with a passion for history and deep-seated appreciation and concern for America, the topic of many of his songs. Perhaps that’s why he’s been paired with songwriter Robert Earl Keen Friday, June 7 in the Crystal Bay Casino. Keen is mostly considered an Americana artist. Halford may be as well, but probably just once in his presence.
“I hate that term because bluegrass is Americana, so is serious country and western,” Halford said. “Sometimes you go to see Americana and it’s a Buck Owens kind of guy.”
Halford clearly has blues influences, and but he’s not really in that realm, either.
“They always put me with blues people,” Halford said. “They put me with Robert Cray, then they put me with Buddy Guy. I’ll play with those guys in a minute –- it’s an honor — but I don’t think those people are going to love my shit. Then they throw me with Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark. Years back they paired me with Etta James. It’s totally bizarre to me. They’ve also put me with George Thorogood and Greg Allman. I thought that was a great mix.”
Halford often uses a slide on his National acoustic guitar. He loves “dirty, rhythmic slide.”
“It all starts with folk music for me with acoustic guitar and then it branches off into rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, country,” Halford said, getting a bit worked up talking music and history with a person familiar with Howlin’ Wolf.
“There’s country fields in what I do but there isn’t country western. I like the stories in country. I Iove Eddie Cochrane. Rockabilly, that’s how I started: ‘The Sun Sessions,’ Elvis, Scotty Moore, simple and really good music.
“Then I started hearing Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin. Then Chuck Berry. Then Keith Richards and it just goes on and on. Then Albert Lee and Junior Brown. That guy’s sick. …I’m real blues based, although if you want pure blues you will be disappointed.”
Halford’s love of the Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield led his musical investigation to the source, Willie Dixon and his peers.
Halford said his son is a talented songwriter who is collaborating with a friend heavy into hip-hop. He suggested an investigation rap innovator Gil Scott-Heron to his son and friend. Scott-Heron in 1970 rapped the politically charged “The Revolution will Not Be Televised” over jazz and R&B riffs.
“If you would find this yourself it would stick but it won’t if I just show it to you,” he told them.
Halford has several songs lined up for a future album. One track is about Harry Hopkins, the man behind the WPA, a government jobs program from 1935 until the time the United States entered World War II and the nation’s economy recovered. “Harry, we need you now,” Halford passionately sings.
“America needs to pick it up,” he said. “(Hopkins) understood the human psyche, how people need to get their wholeness from working. People didn’t want a handout. They just wanted to work. There needs to be a shift now to bring the jobs here. It’s a rock ’n’ roll march,’ an American hope song.”
He also has a Civil War song, and one about Rolling Thunder, a Native American shaman from Carlin, Nev., near Elko.
Halford’s last record was 2007’s “Broken Chord,” a thoughtful collection of songs inspired from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and an opportunity to collaborate with Augie Meyers.
Has anybody heard of Augie Meyers? You know the guy who played with Freddy Fender in the Texas Tornados? Also played in the studio with a guy who used to be Robert Zimmerman? No? Well, Halford probably knows better to ask about that during this Red Room visit.
Besides, history isn’t a required to enjoy good music. But it can be an enhancement.
We also look forward to the long-awaited follow up to “Broken Chord.” It’s been quiet, Jeffrey. Too quiet.
Friday night in America
Headliner: Robert Earl Keen
Opener: Andrea Davidson
After-party: Jeffrey Halford and the Healers
When: 9 p.m. Friday, June 7
Where: Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room
Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 day of show (After-party is free)