Ever since Rock & Roll and Blues Hall Of Famer Elvin Bishop first hit the scene with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band back in 1965, he’s blazed his own musical trail. Whether he was playing raw, eye-popping blues, or penning the evergreen radio hit Fooled Around And Fell In Love, or touring the world for decades delivering his original, good-time countrified blues, Bishop has always inspired his fans with his rowdy guitar playing and witty, slice-of-life songs. Rolling Stone calls Bishop “a legendary guitarist” whose playing is “impeccable and spirited…a distinguished American player.”
Late in 2015, Elvin Bishop formed The Big Fun Trio, with Bishop on guitar and vocals, and his friends Bob Welsh on piano and guitar and Willy Jordan on cajón (a hand-played Peruvian drumbox) and vocals. After playing just a handful of live dates, the group’s instantly crowd-pleasing music and undeniable chemistry took the blues world by storm. With the release of their self-titled CD in 2017, media and fan response was immediate and overwhelming. DownBeat celebrated Bishop’s “verbal hijinks, outstanding guitar work and country boy friendliness.” OffBeat said The Big Fun Trio was “intricate, funky and uplifting,” declaring them, “consistently great.” With its top-shelf musicianship and front-porch vibe, the album earned a Grammy Award nomination, and won Blues Music Awards for Album Of The Year and Song Of The Year (for the title track) from The Blues Foundation.
The Big Fun Trio quickly discovered the more they played live, the more fun they had making music together. So a follow-up recording was an easy decision. The new album, Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here, finds the group fearlessly laying it all on the line. According to Elvin, “With a trio there’s no place to hide—you’ve got to be pourin’ everything you got right out front. You need to be totally into it all the time. It’s really cool to see how people react to the goin’-for-it feel of the music.”
The album mixes rousing, new originals, reinventions of three Bishop classics and some unexpected, soul-shaking covers. Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here was produced by Bishop and Steve Savage and recorded at Bishop’s Hog Heaven Studio in Lagunitas, California. Bishop wrote or co-wrote five songs (including two by the entire trio). The potent title track—a tongue-in-cheek State Of The Union address as only Elvin can deliver— kicks the album off with Bishop aiming his lyrical truths at those in power. The humorous but piercingly direct lyrics take aim at the current political scene while Bishop’s deep blues guitar playing drives the point home.
Lookin’ Good finds Bishop autobiographically gazing in the rearview mirror with sharp, wry lyrics accompanied by Welsh’s perfect blues piano. Willy Jordan sings lead on four songs, including blistering reinventions of Jackie Wilson’s Higher And Higher and Ann Peebles’ I Can’t Stand The Rain. Bob Welsh, whose guitar or piano playing highlight every song, pounds the ivories on his own Bob’s Boogie. “This album fell together easily,” says Bishop. “Everything I visualized about the songs—from Bob’s playing to Willy’s singing, came true. Bob and Willy are great musicians.”
According to San Francisco Bay native Jordan, who has decades of experience playing drums with artists including John Lee Hooker, Joe Louis Walker and Angela Strehli, playing in the Big Fun Trio is “crazy different. It’s rootsy but also new. We all stayed simple to stay strong.” Welsh, originally from Covington, Louisiana, has performed and toured with Bishop, Rusty Zinn, Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Boy Arnold, James Cotton and others. Welsh says he too loves playing in the Trio. “Playing this music is fun and fresh and new to us. It keeps us on our toes. We’re always surprising each other. We have to be fearless.”
Born in Glendale, CA on October 21, 1942, Bishop grew up on a farm in Iowa before relocating to Oklahoma when he was ten. He first got hooked on the blues listening to late night R&B radio as a teenager, and began collecting, listening to and absorbing blues music. Once Bishop realized that many of his favorite records were recorded in Chicago, he used his 1959 National Merit Scholarship as a way to get closer to his blues heroes by enrolling in the University of Chicago, whose campus was located near dozens of the South Side clubs.
After Elvin crossed paths with harmonica player and fellow University of Chicago student Paul Butterfield, the two began sitting in together at South Side clubs, often jamming with Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. They first formed The Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1963, adding Jerome Arnold on bass, Sam Lay on drums and later Mark Naftalin on keyboards. Prior to cutting their debut LP in 1965, Michael Bloomfield joined the group as second lead guitarist, creating a groundbreaking, all-star band. The self-titled The Paul Butterfield Blues Band introduced electric Chicago blues to the rock audience for the first time. With the release of East/West in 1966, the band’s popularity hit an all-time high. Their straight Chicago blues sounds drifted further into progressive and experimental rock ‘n’ roll and—with two world-class lead guitarists on board—the band helped pave the way for groups featuring multiple virtuoso guitarists, like The Allman Brothers Band and Derek and the Dominos. The band, including Bishop, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2015.
Towards the end of the 1960s, after recording three albums with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Elvin decided to move on, heading for the San Francisco area. He became a regular at the famed Fillmore Auditorium jam sessions, playing alongside Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, B.B. King and many others before embarking on a solo career. He recorded first for Fillmore Records, then Epic and then for Capricorn, where his career took off. He charted with Travelin’ Shoes before scoring big in 1975 with Fooled Around And Fell In Love (the song reached number three on the pop charts and was prominently featured in the blockbuster film, Guardians Of The Galaxy).
After a seven-year recording hiatus, Elvin returned to his blues roots in 1988, signing with Alligator and releasing five albums between 1988 and 2000. After a few releases on other labels, Bishop returned to Alligator with 2014’s Can’t Even Do Wrong Right, and once again turned the music-loving world on its head. Reviews poured in from NPR’s Fresh Air, Rolling Stone, Living Blues, No Depression and many others. He appeared on TBS-Television’s CONAN and performed numerous times on A Prairie Home Companion, most recently with The Big Fun Trio.
With Something Smells Funky ‘Round Here, Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio are clearly having a very good time. Having spent almost three years performing, these three tremendously talented musicians continue to inspire each other to new heights. As Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio take their music back on the road, fans will once again have a chance to experience the big fun first hand. According to Living Blues, “Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio has wonderful chemistry and are a joy to hear.”
[Rays photo by Bob Hoskins]