By Dave Paulson
September 21, 2009
For the better part of this decade, blues/rock/soul veteran Boz Scaggs has spent his studio time revisiting the "Great American Songbook." First with the well-received standards collection But Beautiful in 2003, then with last year's similar follow-up, Speak Low.
But when he opens for John Hiatt at the Ryman Auditorium tonight, you won't hear one note of those skillful interpretations. Instead, Scaggs is sticking to his own collection of pseudo-standards stuff like "Lido Shuffle," "Lowdown" and "You Make it So Hard (to Say No)" for a set he describes as "a pretty broad musical spectrum. It's more immediate material, it's up, and it's pretty much across the board."
Such are the concessions that an artist like Scaggs has to make, the songwriter having spent the last five decades crafting tunes that bounce around the boundaries of blues, pop, soul and jazz, and earning a uniquely broad audience in the process.
"There are times when I would love nothing more than to be able to just play in a jazz quartet and do standards and some bluesy stuff. But, quite frankly, there's a limited audience for that," he says.
"Other times, I just want to play blues and play guitar. It's kind of my first love, and that's the music that I really like to be a guitar player and a singer on. The stuff that I'm doing now, I'd say overall, I love to do more and I think audiences enjoy more this sort of cross-section of all the different things that I've done."
Giving it a fresh feel
The broad set likely makes for a more relaxed evening for Scaggs, as well. Speak Low's effortless, relaxed vibe is somewhat deceptive. Though it was recorded in just four days, finalizing song selection and arrangements was more of an intense, deliberate process. Comparing Low's list of deeper cuts (Chet Baker's "She Was Good to Me," Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me") to Rod Stewart's recent four-volume laundry list of standards, it's clear that Scaggs took a particularly delicate approach.
"These songs are very, very revealing. They're very beautiful and easy for a lot of people to adapt. I don't really find a lot of people (for whom) these songs are easily accomplished. They can be performed, but not accomplished."
Musical greats like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, he says, have come to define the songs they've sung. "It's a bit of a minefield in finding your own style."
When it comes to his originals even his oldest, best-known tunes Scaggs is still finding new ways to interpret them. Audiences can come expecting to hear the hits, but not necessarily by-the-numbers versions of them.
"It changes with each (group of) live musicians that I use. I feel that it's definitely taking cues from the original arrangements and style, and I don't really try to mix it up too much, but it has definitely evolved. It sounds more contemporary."
More importantly, it still feels fresh for Scaggs. He says he's enjoying playing with his current band "as much as I've enjoyed anything in my entire career."
"The fact that we're doing it, and it feels fresh to me, speaks to some good writing and some good arrangements back then. A lot of it holds up really well."