BWW Interview: The Benjamin Vo Blues Band, Pennsylvania's Unsigned Secret
I first became acquainted with Benjamin Vo through my recent coverage of the Reading Blues Fest. Away from the main venues, smaller and lesser known spots hosted those wishing to make their way into those big rooms.
A trio version of the band was jammed into the corner of the Speckled Hen pub. While most were there it seemed to consume, the crowd could not ignore a raw, soulful sound coming from the unlikely corner of young performers.
I caught up with the full quartet at WEEU Radio in Reading, where Vo and the band cut a session for "The Sound Room," a weekend music program. A converted storeroom serves as a studio, with a backdrop of retro gear and eighty years of broadcast history at hand.
Appropriate, for the raw, traditional, electrified blues of Vo and his comrades was to be heard. Gibson and Fender guitars, gear that was not for show, this is what the studio got, and can be found on Vo's fourth CD, Rain on My Window.
"This (latest album) might be a little more polished," Vo explained, "it's usually pretty loose and kinda gritty."
Currently settled in Lititz, Vo has taken the band with Mike Titzer on keys, Mark Hennessey on bass and drummer Joel Stoltzfus to a fair number of haunts in the mid-state, including Lancaster's Tellus 360, and 551 West, and the River City Blues Club, in Harrisburg.
That stripped-down sound, and the backroom vibe of Rain... takes you back in time. The acoustic "Mud Swamp Boogie" sets the tone for a trip to the past; "Things Are Getting Shakey" recalls Howlin' Wolf. "Smokin'" is a jam of distorted piano, harp, and guitar that sounds like someone pushed a mic under a door, to get something you weren't supposed to hear. "It's basically a continuation of what I've been trying to do and get better at since my first record in 2014," Vo says. "This record, I felt like I've been honing my sound a little bit over the past couple of years, I think I know what I like exactly in terms of style and feel, and the kind of musician I want to be. The first record was just kind of like, 'All right, let's try to do blues here, try not to butcher it.' This latest record I've done is trying to reach further artistically."
The title track, however, and "Willow" give a softer, and more accomplished side, mostly of Vo's experience and application to music in general. One thing of note: in an age where pedal boards are as tricked out like a video game's street racer, Vo went with one. "A clean guitar that can get a little dirty at times, with a nice pure tone," Vo says, "I think that's basically good blues to me, any effects or weird shit going on would just kind of ruin it."
"Ben's a big proponent of acoustic sounds," Titzer noted, "he very much wants the honky-tonk piano kind of sound."
"I like the country-blues sound that you get from just the piano," Vo admits.
Vo's history is a familiar one. "My family actually moved around quite a bit throughout my life, just because of my dad's job," he explains. "I was born in Atlanta, Georgia; we moved at least every couple years or so, I almost didn't have a hometown growing up."
The music was a constant. "My first instrument ever was harmonica," Vo says, "I got it at five, but I suck at it. Guitar, though, I've been kind of fooling around with guitar since I was five. My dad had a classical around the house I always plunked on...at ten I started to seriously learn (how) to play it. I was crazy about Funkadelic, more of an Eddie Hazel and Bernie Worrell fan, the Meters, Sly and the Family Stone, Red Hot Chili Peppers. I just liked it, 'cause it felt really good, and it was just simple, and that was all I could really do at the time, so that's what I gravitated towards."
As for the blues? "I have to blame B.B. King and Peter Green," Vo replies, "those two are the ones that made me think, 'Hey, blues is beautiful.' I guess when I was younger I'd hear blues and I thought, 'That's just kinda old guy music, or it's like a guy that sounds like he's choking on sand.' But when I heard (King and Green), there was just a beauty to the way they did it."
The current lineup came from being around, or in the right spot. Titzer had tried to recruit Vo for his own band, and the two bartered some time. Hennessey went to high school with Vo, and recently returned to the area. "I was just a couple years younger," he recalls, "I mostly remember meeting the guy, playing Jimi Hendrix's 'Star Spangled Banner,' and just being in awe of the guy. I wanted to be that good one day."
Stoltzfus soon fell in. "I kinda just met Mark and Ben," he explains. "We were at the Tellus open mic; it was my slot, one of the members of the house band suggested that Ben sit in on guitar with me."
"With the blues, I think," Vo says, "at least the kind of blues I like, playing behind the beat is important to give it that slow sag and lag, sort of that sound. I just had trouble finding anyone in the area, young or old, to be able to achieve that. Joel was able to do that within the first twenty seconds of us jamming."
Among the changes in the blues world this writer has noticed is the aging of the population. While festivals can draw an older audience, the clubs that cater to a young generation are also receptive to the roots of their favored music.
"It's kind of a silly mix, actually," Vo notes. "I'll see old guys that are blues purists they think along the lines, you know, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson are blues, not Jimi Hendrix or Chuck Berry. We'll also see young people who are jam band junkies, they're not familiar with the blues but somehow enjoy it.
'There's some people (who think a) 12 or 16-bar, or 1-4-5 chord change is the only thing allowed to be blues. Personally," Vo continues, "I kinda swing both ways: if I'm gonna do authentic 12, 16-bar blues, I want it to be the real deal kind of thing. I want it to have that old-fashioned swagger that a lot of the new stuff just doesn't really have. I like to have that smoky kind of feeling to it.
'I've been studying blues and playing it for ten years now seriously...it's just natural now, it almost doesn't feel right if I don't follow certain progressions and sounds, like the old artists have. At the same time I'm doing a lot of new stuff, stuff that just grooves or boogies on one chord the whole time or jams that people could describe as jazzy. I think the most important element I like to keep in the music is the blues feeling, regardless of different chords or what we do with the notes, it's just the blues feeling has to be there."
So if this has you: the band will be back in Reading for the Berks Jazz Fest in April, with a goal of hitting broader pastures. The appeal is simple: an accomplished musician and songwriter, with a solid, committed band. They take the music seriously, but never themselves. I don't think it will be too long before these fellows are signed, and we'll see how far they can go.
(All photos and video by the author, who thanks Andrew Roulston and the staff of WEEU Radio and the Sound Room.)