- Jen Neilson
In addition to the blues, Tony Holiday's got jet lag. It's 9:30 p.m. and his plane from Chicago landed only a few minutes ago. But the blues ain't such a bad thing to have, especially when you can let it out onstage in front of a throng of people who've come to purge their problems to the sound of your music.
Holiday was in the Windy City to perform at the Merchant Street Music Festival. "There were probably, like, 20,000 people," he says. The festival features a ton of blues acts, but isn't dedicated to a single genre. In fact, Holiday opened for Color Me Badd. "I wanna sex you up!" Holiday sings into the phone.
It's been a busy weekend. "I haven't showered in a couple days; I'm funky," he says. He flew out on Saturday morning, took Amtrak to the festival in the suburbs of Kankakee, performed there, then returned to Chicago to play a set at Lizards Liquid Lounge. As if that wasn't enough, Holiday and guitarist Landon Stone then went to Buddy Guy's Legends for his birthday. "We drank beers with Buddy Guy's daughter Shawnna," he says. "We were drinking Sierra Nevadas by the dozen. Then we did the whole Chicago night scene with the Guy family."
These trips get more common for Holiday every year. "We're on the blues circuit now, and it's taken me a long time to get there—seven years," he says.
Since he struck out on his own in 2009 following a successful run with jam band Marinade—which featured one Talia Keys on drums—he's built quite the following. Even esteemed music critic Fred Mills, my old boss from Harp and Blurt, had already heard of him. In City Weekly's Local Music Issue (March 2, 2017), Mills said of the bluesman: "Every city with a club scene has the proverbial journeyman blues band that perennially tops annual best-of awards but remains unknown nationally. But I come pre-sold on this harp-powered outfit, having already heard of its rep for sinewy, tuneful chops and full-tilt appreciation of the form."
Holiday's music is that good, and it gets better all the time. His new EP, Tony Holiday (facebook.com/tonyholidaymusic), while deeply rooted in the blues, is imbued with elements of funk, but never feels like one of those forced blues hybrids that tries vainly to update the sound. In some ways, the funkiness is simply attitude—much like how music journos toss around the word "punk" when describing blues guitarist Popa Chubby. But when you listen to Holiday or Chubby, it's hard to hear anything but the deep, righteous blues.
Recorded piecemeal over the past year at noted blues guitarist Kid Andersen's (Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Estrin & the Night Cats) Greaseland Studios in San Jose, Calif., the six-track set features originals and covers. "Barefoot Blue," an intersection of raw blues and Blaxploitation-era funk written by guitarist Stone, features the band's new three-piece horn section—Michael Bigelow on tenor sax, Eric Devey on trumpet and Mason Peterson on sax. "Mean Ass Woman" is a close cousin to that tune. Songs like "Weep and Moan" and incendiary takes on Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Cross My Heart" and Brandon Santini's "You Ruined Poor Me" are pure blues magic, where Holiday's dusky voice and jaunty harp are in top form. "New Groove" splits the difference between both approaches.
That Holiday and his music are homegrown should be a point of pride for Utahns. The tunes sound as though they could've come from sweet home Chicago. He says that wherever the band goes, people ask, "We love your music; where are you from?" When they say Utah, "they're surprised. But if we play in Chicago, they might think we're from Chicago." This could be vexing, but Holiday says he and the Velvetones take it as a compliment—and motivation. "It's like we have something to prove."
As he insinuates, it's not such a bad thing. It's good to stay motivated. It gets you through those long weekends of work and play, and keeps the music flowing. But Tony Holiday & the Velvetones have already proven their mettle. When they release Tony Holiday at The State Room, they'll be joined by blues legend and fellow harmonica master James Harman—plus another local genre luminary, Jordan Matthew Young and his band.
Holiday chooses to remain humble about it all. In fact, he's letting Harman have the headlining slot. "James is a blues legend," he says. "We're more than thrilled to have him out. He's the real deal. We might be co-headlining the night, but as far as I'm concerned, yeah—he's the man."