Teenager Eli Cook had a vision of his path to bigger things.
by Mark Bialczak
February 9, 2015
"When I was 16, 17, my perception of what the music industry was came from books and liner notes, the 1970s way of working your way up and making albums," Cook says during a phone conversation in February, taking an afternoon break from a series of rehearsals in his hometown in Virginia. "You play in a church. You play at barbecues. You play in bars. You write and play originals. Then you make albums."
He says he got those notions from following the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan ... and a generation of bluesmen before that. Albert King ...
So that's how he went about his love of music, this singer and guitar player and songwriter.
"I did my midnight revivals in a tent up in the back woods for all black crowds of Baptists getting rid of the devil," Cook says. "But there were no rattlesnakes involved, as far as I knew. But that's how you did it. You played gospel and you played it for real. The mojo is the same."
Cook looks at the business today and wonders how anybody coming up has any mojo at all.
"In the modern model, to be successful, you don't have that," he says. "If anything, they take the one person from that, and pull them out of the band and put them with a bunch of other musicians of their liking and picking and produce the hell out of it in 1-4-5 pop structure to everything sounds the same."
Eli Cook sighs the sound of a guy who loves the blues, no, is attached to all music, and isn't so sure this new model is so great for the musicians or the world.
Here's what is says about his background on his website bio:
"Eli took up the guitar as a teenager in the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia. Following the tradition of the great blues men, he performed in churches and late-night gospel revivals with only his acoustic and deep baritone voice, while playing every hole-in-the-wall bar that could handle his electric power trio. Blending the influences of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Fred MacDowell, Bukka White and Lightning Hopkins with the likes of Clutch, Soundgarden, C.O.C, and Rage against the Machine, he forged a fresh sound, alive with the southern blues tradition."
In April, he'll turn 29. And he already has six albums on his discography, starting with the all-original acoustic "Miss Blues Child" he put out himself in 2005 and spanning to last year's "Primitive Son," on LA-based label Cleopatra Records.
Asked if those February afternoon rehearsals were for a new record or live shows, Cook said the earlier work was with a reggae band he plays with and the later work will be with his blues trio band. And he added that yeah, he's got songs ready for album No. 7, "but they need several things for the next studio project to be set in stone. Like a studio to book it in. And sponsors to back it."
After all, he says, 2014 was the worst year for album sales in history. All this technology has been good for singles and not so good for those who prefer their music album-sized. "So you need to diversify," he says.
But, he assures his phone conversation partner, "all is good."
He gets to write and play music and play, and inform people about the blues.
"I've taken on the role of a pseudo educator, Cook says. "I'd be content to educate as I get older as long as I could also create blues as I do. It's apparently rare to have younger people document and carry on the story, so to speak. But that's how it is. Little by little, that's what I do."
Call him an on-stage educator about the blues.
"In my case, I can teach with my band," Cook says. "Acoustically. With cover songs."
Cook says he changes his show from night to night. He reads the room and constructs his lesson plan on the fly.
"Some nights I talk throughout the set," he says. "Sometimes I perform straight through. It depends on the room and the audience."
During his sets, blues fans will find Elie Cook performing the music of the blues masters. And yet, they'll discover that he puts his own style, the things that he learned in those hundreds, perhaps thousands, of nights of playing in tents and churches and bars and clubs and now theaters, into their songs. Then he'll play the songs he's written, and connect the dots between the two.
"I like having 10 different pots going on the stove," Cook says, answering a metaphorical conversational question about not only his musical values, but the things he's learned about life. "I certainly like having the educator pot going. Cover songs pay tribute to other music from other periods. And at the same time, performing original music coming from that sound is integral to the genre. It shows that it continues to evolve and grow and has the ability to be modern and not be your same old 'Sweet Home Chicago.' To have a new direction."
Certainly, Cook allows, his music starts back in those days of John Lee Hooker and Albert King and Muddy Waters, but flows through him before he gets to share it with the world.
"I learned the idea from these artists," he says. "But if it's going to be authentic, it has to be from my heart. I learned the bars from these artists. But covering it has to be inspired by personal experience to be realistic. It's a different thing altogether. This is why there are blues artists today that what blues stations are today wouldn't play because they won't call it blues. The Drive By Truckers for instance are tremendous modern blues players actually but not by what stations or Billboard or such standards call the blues. But I try to be the blues, for marketing purposes.
"If it were up to me, things might be different," he says. And he sighs that sigh, again.
How? That's what the other-end conversationalist wants to know.
"If I had my druthers, I'd be more diverse, if nothing else," Cook says. "I'd be heavier. While softer. But the nature of the beast is, you have to be played (on radio and such) to be sold. It is somehow said that blues ain't nothing but a man being sad about a woman."
What Eli Cook expects in Syracuse:
"It's a solo show. It was a late booking, so I'm driving up myself. Syracuse is for the blues, so there will be more interacting with the audience, 'Where this song comes from, where this music was inspired by and comes from.' But it's not a museum historical act. It's a modern experience. But because it's a festival lineup, I won't have my usual second set of grunge rock."
Syracuse show information
Eli Cook plays in Syracuse on Feb. 20 as part of the first Snow Plow Blues Festival.
The show is at The Palace Theatre on James Street.
Doors open at 6 p.m. and music starts at 7 p.m.
Also on the bill are Los Blancos, the Carolyn Kelly Blues Band, Phil Petroff and Natural Fact, and Professor Louie with singer from his band Crowmatix Miss Marie.
Tickets are $20.
They're available at Sound Garden in Armory Square and online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1258137.
About Mark Bialczak:
Mark Bialczak's pieces about music will appear frequently on the Live Space Entertainment site.
A happy resident of Syracuse with his dear wife Karen and beloved rescue mutt Ellie B aka Dogamous Pyle, Mark has written about music and entertainment for 25 years. He currently also writes about movies for http://www.syracusenewtimes.com/author/markb/, the Central New York community for http://waer.org/people/mark-bialczak and music, sports and life for http://markbialczak.com.
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