As long as harmonica player, guitarist and singer-songwriter Tony Holiday has been making music, it’s always come out bluesy, without premeditation. “That’s just the way I play,” he says matter-of-factly.
But even though the musician has a tattoo of a harmonica on his forearm as well as the words “True Blue” on his fingers, he doesn’t classify himself as a strict Chicago-style bluesman. As evidence of his versatility, Holiday can be seen on local stages most weekends with multiple bands, including honky-tonk outfit Smoke in the Tavern and ’50s-country-influenced Antique Cadillac—which both feature his harp work—and his main band, The Velvetones, to which he contributes smoky lead vocals, harmonica, guitar and his original compositions and also tours with most of the year. Out of the three, The Velvetones—Dave Idan (drums) and Adam Fifield (keyboard/bass) complete the lineup, which changes on tour—is the most blues-oriented, but flavors of funk, soul and rock are strong in the tasty musical mix, too.
Holiday might not play what he calls “stone-cold blues,” but he’s closely connected to his fellow musicians in the local blues culture, through his work on the harmonica as well as his status of co-founder of the Utah Blues Society.
When Holiday decided he wanted to pick up the harp, he would “listen to players that I really like” for inspiration, he says, such as Harry Lee (of The Back Alley Blues Band) and James Cotton. He also got schooled by KRCL’s Bad Brad Wheeler, an accomplished harmonica player who runs the Monday-night blues jam at The Green Pig Pub with his band the West Temple Tail Draggers.
“I would go to [Wheeler] about once a week, and I would be like, ‘Yo, what is it?’ ” Holiday says. “And he’d say, ‘Well, you’re holding it wrong, so put it in this hand,’ or whatever. So then I would do that, come back the next week, and he’d tell me something else” to work on. Now, Holiday is sponsored by Shaker harmonica microphones, and has a case filled with about 10 harp beauties that he kept close by during this interview.
At the prompting of Wheeler, Holiday founded the Utah Blues Society six months ago with the help of KRCL’s Brian Kelm—host of the Red, White & Blues program on Monday nights—who was recently appointed as the society’s president.
Dedicated to the celebration of the blues as well as spreading awareness of the genre, the Utah Blues Society hosts weekly blues shows at various venues and even flies in national blues artists to perform and hold workshops in their specialty instruments. So far, some of the featured artists have been Blues Hall of Famer Lazy Lester—who did a workshop on harmonica—as well as Mississippi harmonica player Adam Gussow and legendary Texas guitarist/vocalist Guitar Shorty.
In addition to bringing musicians to Utah, the Utah Blues Society supports local blues players. “We raised money to send a Utah blues band to Memphis to compete in the nationals,” Holiday says.
With the enthusiastic response the Utah Blues Society has received, it looks to have a bright future. But Holiday admits the program still has a ways to go before it’s fully established. “It’s gonna take a really long time to get it off the ground because … with social media these days, anybody can start something, but it takes a while to get actual substance,” Holiday says.
In addition to keeping busy with the Utah Blues Society, Holiday is soon to release two new albums with the Velvetones: a live album called Live at Fats Grill, which will be out April 10, and a studio full-length titled Happy to Have the Blues, which will be out in June. Holiday says Happy to Have the Blues will have a funky and heavy-blues feel, and is “just all about harmonica.”
But the immediacy of the live-recorded Live at Fats Grill is what Holiday believes will truly capture the spirit of the Velvetones. “I’m a much better live player. It’s a world of difference,” Holiday says. “Being in the studio … I find it hard. You just go in and you’re in separate rooms and for me, I’m definitely a ‘feel’ kind of player. You can go in there and play the tune, like that’s how the song goes, but that’s not how I’m gonna play it, play it.”
TONY HOLIDAY & THE VELVETONES
60 E. 800 South
Thursday, March 27, 9 p.m.