Ben Stevens gives good interview.
A lot of bands, especially young ones, have a tough time getting past the “how we got together/what are some of our influences/here’s some other anecdotal trivia that only we could possibly care about” loop, and getting an interview out of them often amounts to getting them to agree on something so insipid you wouldn’t want to read it anyway. But solo bluesman Stevens is his own boss, band and manager, and as you might expect from someone who spends several months out of the year driving himself across the country, he has plenty of time to think ahead. Today he’s presenting a blues guitar program in a Boulder-area school; he just starts talking and it all goes from there.
“Since I’ve been off the road this winter, one of my objectives has been to tie into my community here in Colorado, because I’m getting this kind of disease happening where, when I do come home, I’m basically invisible and people are like, ‘Oh, you’re still alive? You’re still playing?’ and the most logical way to hook up with the community was call the blues society and present some classes.
“Mostly what I’ve been doing is giving a class I put together called Journeys in the Blues and the Silent Notes, and what that does is it maps out my journeys and all the great people I’ve had a chance to learn from firsthand—from John Hammond and Taj Mahal to Robert Junior Lockwood and all those great guys. That’s geared more towards players and adults who work with instruments. But what I’m doing today is something I put together with my friend Bobby who plays harmonica with the blues society. We’re reaching some kids through a guidance-counselor class—second-graders who have lost parents, or whose brothers and sisters are in jail, kids who really right on the edge of being able to deal with their lives. A lot of times people just close up and turn in, and what we’re hoping to do is be able to share an hour or two of their time. I actually wrote a song, ‘The New Fishing Blues,’ about the time I lost my grandfather, just for this class.”
Pointedly topical and crucially personal songs are nothing new for Stevens, whose albums have in the past tackled issues like reservation life, welfare, alcoholism and racism in addition to the more commonplace themes of messed-up relationships and the blues condition in general. But whether he’s writing about a fallen-down “Jesus Saves” sign or the importance of enjoying life while you still can, Stevens garnishes his fine slide guitar and porcelain-clean picking with lyrics long on allegory, metaphor and a keen intelligence that steers effortlessly clear of cliché.
Not that he’s above laying a pithy truism or two on you over the phone, mind. Minutes after our interview last week, Stevens calls back with this big news: “As long as there’s life, there’s going to be the blues.” You just have to love it when someone cares enough to call back and acquit himself as best he can.
Ben Stevens plays Sean Kelly’s Saturday, April 21 at 9:30. Admission is FREE.