“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” This quote by Beethoven lives on James Howard’s Facebook wall and provides a solid introduction to the man and his band. Watching the seasoned Seattle foursome at a recent showcase, James Howard straddled that chasm like a pro: feet planted wide apart, hips thrust forward, his guitar rising up to meet his hands, neck arched back, and face to the heavens in a grimace of ecstasy.
Bassist Farko Dosumov, is thumping, bouncing right next to him, matching his incredible energy, looking back and locking in with drummer John Stout, while keyboardist Frank “Hot Rod” Holman glues it together, compounding the sound, raising the vibe to gospel proportions with his badass B3. The group is so kinetic that the stage looks like it’s moving. Individually they appear to be improvising, playing to the moment, while collectively managing to sound like they’re all building to the same, intense crescendo.
Just as suddenly the band breaks for a dramatic pause where the pleading sound of Howard’s guitar is all you hear. But there’s something more. As his fingers work the strings on those harddriving or long dreamy sequences, his mouth moves and companion sounds spring forth from his lips. While performing, and on many of his recordings, Howard’s songs are accompanied by this other-worldly punctuation of howls, moans and whispers, a style referred to as ‘singing into the guitar.’ The combination is dramatic and transports the music to a different level.
The James Howard Band is fired up and headed to Memphis this month for the International Blues Competition. Representing the Washington Blues Society, the band won the contest with fresh songwriting, masterful instrumentation and thoughtful themes, with Howard beaming out front, his guitar and voice united and infused with passion and soul.
“You want joy? Then give joy.” This is the first line of the title song on the new release, Path of the Mystic. “You want love? Smile on your brothers and your sisters. Be the change you want in the world.” The lyrics could have sprung from a modern guru or a church hymnal. On the surface, there is no pain, no train, no waking up with the blues, wishing his woman was there. The words are conceptual, not concrete, unabashedly positive, and seeking a higher plane. But then they swoop down and are growled low and dripping with a thick sweetness onto super funky guitar and bass, sounding like Jimmy Witherspoon grooving at a house party with an Ohio Players rhythm section, the spiritual definitely meeting up with the sensual world.
To be clear, the band pays homage to traditional blues themes in original compositions like “Trouble,” a slow blues that pokes a little fun at doomed relationships, and the boogie-woogie number, “Good Man.” They will enthusiastically jump through a well-loved standard like “Caledonia” and then turn around with an ethereal blues-tinged treatment of a gospel classic. But there is an ethereal element here, too, a vibrance, something beyond the norm, that elevates the performance to a transformative realm.
Howard is a guitar player’s guitar player. The feel and sound and dexterous style is definitely unique, and it’s easy to see why he’s admired by students and lovers of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Two decades ago, he was already impressing judges as a finalist in Guitar Player Magazine’s Hendrix Contest where he composed and performed his own Jimi-inspired composition, in addition to interpreting a classic of the late, great guitar legend. More recently, his guitar virtuosity and emotional presentation earned him the Best Blues Guitarist award in a 2011 Yamaha Global Guitar Competition.
“I generate the music in my body,” he says. “I am connected to the guitar so that I can sing the notes in my body and instantly translate them to the guitar.” He calls it ‘toning,’ and says if he ever starts to feel disconnected he will improvise with singing into the guitar to feel the life in it.
But Howard does not rely solely on his own talents. He praises the band members for their individual gifts and their abilities to improvise and work off of each other.
“Frank Holman’s B-3 really takes me back to my love for early Journey and Santana’s keyboardist Gregg Rolie,” says Howard.
“Frank is great at signature riffs, gluing the songs together, holding it down.” Holman has played in rock, ska and blues bands up and down the west coast for decades, including the Hot Wired Rhythm Band, Living Dolls and Robbie Laws Bigger Blues Band.
Multi-instrumentalist, music teacher and in-demand session musician, John Stout, has been drumming with Howard, off and on, for about seven years and they work together like a welloiled machine. Stout is also a prolific bandleader, has played percussion with Hootie & the Blowfish, and toured nationally with his outfit Shades of Grey. Together with bassist extraordinaire, Farko Dosumov, known for his blistering bass solos, Howard says this rhythm section collectively boosts the band’s special chemistry with their incredible creativity.
Dosumov, who is also regularly paired with the original Santana drummer Michael Shrieve in his band Spellbinder, is an International Blues Challenge veteran, returning a third time after performing with The Rafael Tranquilino Band last year and helping the Randy Oxford Band reach the finals in 2012. Dosumov has been with Howard about three years and says he loves playing with this band because Stout is so great at his job and because of the positive attitude generated by the members. He can let his creativity kick in.
“James can be very melodic or very intense in his playing,” says Dosumov, “and that gives the band a huge range of places to go.”
Each member of the band is poised at the top of his game. They have a huge amount of support in the blues community and raised enough money crowd-funding to release two albums this month, and they’re bringing it all to Beale Street.
“I’m passionate to bring it there,” Howard says, adding, “We’re ready to expand.” His smile is contagious and he seems at once excited and relaxed: not unusual for a man who blends his spirituality and social conscious with his music. Howard says he is careful not to give his music to his ego, and intends to enjoy the fruits of the spirit, regardless of where the competition takes him. He likens it to a friendly game of baseball. “You want to play baseball, you want to hit the ball, you want runs,” he says, matter-of-factly, “but your overall happiness doesn’t depend on it.”
This particular game is really icing on the cake, and in another sense, perfect timing for this global introduction. Because he almost wasn’t here.
Fifteen years ago, in his mid-30s, Howard was a hard-working professional musician in Northern California’s bay area. Over the years he had the opportunity to open shows for some big name acts including Boston, Journey, Robin Trower, John Waite, UFO and Greg Kihn. While he enjoyed various levels of success, after a lifetime in the music business, he lost interest in pursuing it so doggedly and decided to take a break. He began focusing much of his energy inward and says it was time to heal issues around his health and his family of origin. Born into an environment where addiction issues kept things off balance, his parents could not always manage to keep the family together. At one point Howard spent part of his childhood in an orphanage.
While he never gave up music or playing, he trusted his instincts and closed the door to the business of it all, mourning the loss. Then he set about doing the tough inner work to heal from trauma endured earlier in life. In time, his sabbatical from the music business brought him deeper into the music itself and it became inseparable from his spiritual practice.
Around the same time circumstances brought him to Seattle and he fell in love with the area. He began playing at the Center for Spiritual Healing in Seattle, where his recent album of improvised instrumentals, Devachan, was recorded. In 2008 he says he was ready to enter again from a different place in his heart, from a place of gratitude and service. He set about putting a band together and started playing clubs. “I followed my inner guidance to come to the Northwest and my career has blossomed here more now than ever,” he says.
One of the Seattle venues, the waterfront Highway 99 Blues Club, figures prominently in the story of the band’s evolution. Over the years Holman had been playing keyboards with many artists at the venue, including the All-Star house band since soon after its inception in 2004, along with Randy Oxford and co-owner and drummer Steve Sarkowski. Howard started playing there occasionally too, with Stout on drums, when he came back on the scene. Dosumov joined them, and the band enjoyed a regular slot on second Wednesdays. But Holman says it wasn’t until just two years ago that Sarkowski put him together with Howard one night and it worked so well they’ve played together ever since.
“You know this blues scene, it’s just like a big family. It’s such a pleasure to play with all of them—Farko, John and James—each of them has such talent, such originality,” says Holman. “It’s fun to create with those guys, nothing but fun. It’s such a respectful group and James is such a gentle leader,” Holman says. “We’re just beginning to explore the possibilities, which is so exciting.”
Highway 99 continues to be one of the premiere blues clubs in the country and The James Howard Band will continue to play those second Wednesdays. On those nights the music never stops. “I play for three hours with no break,” Howard says. The band usually breaks for about 15 minutes in the middle while he solos. “I like to keep the energy building,” he says. “I like to keep the flow.”
James Howard is all about flow. He talks about music like a priest speaks of God, describing sound as “the essence of matter.” He says, “Music is sacred geometry; a pure spiritual language.” If you press further he will wax poetic regarding math ratios, solar systems, pentatonic and diatonic scales, right and left brain, etc. He’s fascinated and fascinating.
In addition to playing from a very early age, he has educated himself, steeped himself, in all aspects of music and the creation thereof. And now he teaches what he learned, including the style of singing into the guitar. In addition to serving the community through music at the Center for Spiritual Living, Howard teaches at The Seattle Drum School of Music. He says he’s more like a coach, and sometimes views the process like therapy. “The solar plexus: that’s your place of personal power, and a lot of people are closed down there because of society, because of messages they received,” he says. “So one of the first things I ask people to do is scream, and some can not do it.” He says he works with many who wanted to do music their whole lives but didn’t or couldn’t and now they know they need to. He says, “I help them reach through to access that.”
He says that process has also helped him reach that place of transcendence for himself. He acknowledges his vocalizations and style evoke a primal feeling, reminiscent of relationships indigenous peoples had with nature. He compares it to riding a bucking horse: “Music is the horse and I’m just riding the force, trying not to fall off.” Maybe he tames it a little, he says, but he’s along for the ride. “It’s me interacting with the universe, with the musicians and with the audience. It’s not an isolated event. It’s energy.”
Howard points to a serious football injury in his sophomore year of high school as the first musical turning point in his life. He had already been playing in a band but it was when he broke his femur that he became truly dedicated to his music.
“I was laid up for half the year, with a tutor coming to my house only an hour a day to do school work. The rest of the time I played guitar.” For months, he spent the majority of his days practicing, playing by ear, working from songbooks, perfecting his technique. “I learned how to pick up guitar riffs, licks and solos by ear,” he says, listening to Led Zeppelin, Pat Travers Band, Santana, Clapton, etc. He found he had a knack for improvising.
When he discovered that the guitar sounds he liked in popular music originated from farther up the road, so to speak, he searched out their influences. He rattles off a list and then stops. “Albert King, Freddie King, Robert Johnson… Finding Robert Johnson was like discovering the Holy Grail. I could hear where Led Zeppelin came from.” Many blues lovers can identify with this listening journey of discovery. He kept listening and studying and shifted in that way we do when insight opens the mind. He says he heard the roots of so many things in the sounds of the blues greats.
Later that same year Howard began playing professional gigs. He played house parties as a teenager with legendary Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. Also highly influential was the playing of Eddie Van Halen, which he says he experienced as “blues-rock guitar from outer space,” and then Stevie Ray Vaughn, who, he says, “brought the blues back down to earth,” and whom he sights as his biggest lasting influence.
He then topped that off with a little jazz. “I feel very settled into my style,” he says, which, may be evident by now, is not easy for one to pin down. He’s also backed up Loretta Lynn’s granddaughter, Tayla Lynn, and performed a Flamenco duet with Danny Godinez and a 25-piece orchestra at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Not your usual map to Memphis.
But Howard is not your average guy and he’s not content with just playing and singing and writing and teaching. He’s also helping to bring attention and balance to the issue of economic equality with the group Global Abundance Intentional Community and by serving on the board of Harmonic Humanity, a non-profit that offers supplies and financial grants to the homeless. The organization was founded on making music CD’s which homeless people can purchase for a dollar or two and sell for $10 using the Real Change Newspaper model. Howard has also contributed a song, along with artists like Jason Mraz and Maroon 5. Read more about it at http:// harmonichumanity.org/
He’s also concerned that society, as a whole, does not support music financially. We see it every day, clubs closing and independent musicians finding it harder each year to make a living. He says music can save us if we heal the inequality.
“The blues is the lotus flower that grew out of the mud of slavery,” he says, noting that dirt is still everywhere. “It’s so prevalent in our society, the domination and subjugation, the propensity to own. I have a sense that we are in a time in our world where we can change this, we can transcend this,” he says. “Music is a spiritual gift, it’s the spiritual salve for that great wound, the blessing bestowed upon a people, that enabled their survival. It’s not talked about a lot. We forget.”
Howard wants to help us remember. He says in some ways we are still socially immature and he wants to help foster growth and understanding. He says his new view of success is the hope that any newfound popularity “comes with a certain amount of opportunity to say something of value, to be of value to society.”
Frank Holman echoes the positive hopeful outlook of his bandleader and says the songs on their new blues recording, Path of the Mystic, demonstrate it. “He’s got a positive message and he’s an insanely talented guitarist. His songs and the way he plays, it’s so compelling and inspirational…and fun! It’s a little self-deprecating, yet bold. These tracks just absolutely grab you. They come at you from a bunch of different directions.”
James Howard knows how to change direction. He knows how to ride the horse. He is no stranger to standing at the crossroads. White curls give away that youthful face has weathered a few more years than it’s letting on. And that beaming smile has seen real suffering. But because he’s worked through it, is always on the path, making his way, stretching to come out the other side, there is a pure and wild abandon that comes across when he plays, like a phoenix rising, like an eagle soaring.
Beethoven knew it and now the James Howard Band is preaching it on Beale Street. Music is the mediator, the magic, the healer and the salve.
Like many bluesmen before him, Howard survived, then succeeded, and then got off the bus to really look around and explore the journey and heal the wound. He learned how to scream. Now he helps others learn and heal, and his breakthrough, his transcendence, is what we connect with, connect with our own pain that carved that empty space in our hearts that music rushed in to fill.
“I think that James has a message for the world,” adds Holman. If you’re in Memphis in January, you may just have the chance to see him deliver it.