Guitar subtlety isn't the first thing that comes to mind when trying to describe most blues artists these days, but that's just the case when describing cab driver-turned-modern blues man, Mem Shannon.
"I don't look at music as a vehicle to play guitar solos over," said Shannon, who's playing Tres Hombres this Saturday. "I just try to tell a good story."
Don't be fooled, Shannon can tell one hell of a story with his axe, but with so many pocketfuls of influences, he has more than one story to tell. Born and raised in the Crescent City, Shannon started his musical career playing the clarinet at age nine. By the time he was fifteen, he had moved onto guitar and began experimenting with a few bands. Growing up in the '60s and '70s, Shannon's influences are heavily funk-driven -- of the likes of the Bar-Kays and Kool & the Gang, peppered with sounds of jazz, gospel and rock 'n' roll.
Although his interests span the musical spectrum, he is deeply rooted in the blues. "I've been influenced by music both inside and outside of New Orleans, but I really came to the blues through the back door," said Shannon. "B.B. King was the reason I started playing guitar in the first place. I always saw this instrument hanging around people's necks, but I never knew what it was supposed to sound like. His guitar spoke to me and showed me what it was supposed to do."
After high school, Shannon played around New Orleans in wedding bands, gospel groups, and Top 40 outfits. Although he didn't make much money, he was perfecting his chops and coming into his own as a songwriter.
In 1981, Shannon took a job as a cabbie and for the next 15 years, to help his family pay the bills, he put his music on the back burner. Around 1990, he began to get more serious about his playing and won a spot to play at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Things took off from there, and in 1995 Shannon emerged on the blues scene with his first album, A Cab Driver's Blues (Hannibal). Although immediately embraced as an up-and-coming blues talent, Shannon got more attention for the uniqueness of the album, which included tidbits of real conversations with passengers from his days as cab driver.
Known as a pioneer in the blues world, Shannon is trying to help the blues evolve. "I don't want to go to a club and play what a blues crowd is expecting to hear," said Shannon. "I'm kind of an oddball. I don't do anything traditional."
Now touring to promote his third album, Spend Some Time With Me (Shanachie, 1999), Shannon is once again creating music that is hard to pigeonhole. With the help of producer Dennis Walker, who has worked extensively with Robert Cray, Shannon is again pushing the boundaries of the blues. True to the nature of his previous work, Shannon delivers a soulful voice full of social commentary over funky backbeats and spicy horns. Seasoned by a lifetime in New Orleans, Shannon dishes out stories of Cajun humor, love lost, slavery, and the strange influence of social pundits with graceful insights and soulful, bluesy arrangements.
Shannon is stirring up what some people might call a tired genre of music. His blues are both refreshing and nostalgic. What the Washington Post calls "the finest social commentator since the days of Willie Dixon and Percy Mayfield," Shannon is keeping the blues in the present tense.
"I'm attempting to tell what's going on today," said Shannon. "Who am I to tell what was going on in the '50s when I wasn't around? Blues is about telling a story, about the trials and tribulations at this point in my life. I just try to have a good mix of personal and social commentary."