by G.W. Mercure
The swing revival band Roomful of Blues will appear at Provincetown Town Hall in December as their touring continues. The band seems so endless it’s difficult to find where it began. Roomful of Blues is a model: If your passion for the music you’re playing is pure, and you can make people move their asses, you can exceed the confines of New England, go national, and roll for parts of seven decades without ever slowing down—no pop swerves, FM radio, or selling out required.
Roomful of Blues, the jump blues/blues/swing band from Westerly, Rhode Island, has been making music since 1967. The only original band member remaining is saxophone player Rich Lataille. Current frontman Chris Vachon joined the band in 1990.
“I knew about them before I joined the band,” says Vachon. “The first time I saw them was when I had my own band, and I played on the same bill in a club downtown here [in Providence]. But back then, Ronnie [guitarist Ronnie Earl] was in the band. He was going to quit, so I tried to get in there, but he decided not to quit.”
It would be a few years, and Vachon would ultimately replace Earl’s replacement. Seamless transitions have been one of many constants in the career of Roomful of Blues. “We’ve tried different material or different things like that, but I wouldn’t say it’s changed,” says Vachon. “Not drastically. Not too much changes when other people join, like a new singer or whatever. It’s always been kind of the same sort of music that it started out with.”
And that’s the blues. Guitarist Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley started Roomful as a band playing Chicago blues, and that distinctive urbanization of Delta blues is still clear in their sound. The early-twentieth-century African-American migration to northern and eastern cities fostered that sound. Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters were among those migrants.
Not only was Roomful a Chicago blues band proper—albeit in Rhode Island—but they also synthesized many of the sounds that had coalesced in Chicago. The swing that followed Armstrong north from New Orleans; the jump blues hiding in the horns of those swing bands. You just couldn’t dance to most blues, so it had to evolve. Vachon doesn’t find music being traded that way as much anymore. “I don’t follow it that much,” he says.
The only thing that has stalled Roomful of Blues in the course of their 56 years and counting has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Their most recent album, 2020’s In a Roomful of Blues, dropped just as the pandemic hit. “It sort of like mowed the whole thing over,” he says. “So we did a lot of work on that and we thought it was pretty good. And then we just didn’t have any chance to go out and sell it, promote it. We sat around for a year., which was disappointing. But I still feel like it was a great album. We got a lot of good reviews, just couldn’t do any shows.”
Roomful resumed touring when the world learned to live with COVID-19. And the fruits of that time off the road may soon be ready for the recording studio.
“We’ll probably work on a new album, start gathering stuff; it takes a while for us to get geared up to do that,” he says.
Roomful of Blues’ repertoire draws from the practically limitless well of blues and rhythm-and-blues material, as well as original songs composed by the band.
“I’ve always fooled around with writing songs,” Vachon says. “I get an idea and work on it to get something that Roomful might want to do and record. I think I’ve written 35 songs since I joined the band.”
When a musical group’s career spans nearly 60 years, the accolades pile up. Roomful of Blues has been nominated for Grammy Awards on five occasions, and was named “Blues Band of the Year” for 2005 by the Blues Music Awards. Twice, the DownBeat International Critics Poll has named Roomful of Blues “Best Blues Band.” Among the musicians who have been members of the band are Robillard, one of the most celebrated guitar players of the twentieth century; vocalist Lou Ann Barton of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble; singer Sugar Ray Norcia; and the legendary Curtis Salgado (Salgado was the model for John Belushi’s Joliet Jake Blues).
Currently an eight-piece band, Roomful has a discography that spans twenty studio albums, three live albums, and countless compilations, guest appearances, and support appearances. They have backed Count Basie, Eric Clapton, Joe Turner, Earl King, Pat Benatar, and Vaughan, to name a few, and have shared stages with B.B. King, Carlos Santana, and Otis Rush, among others. They have toured almost nonstop since their inception. And there’s no end in sight according to Vachon.
“It just kind of keeps going,” he says. “I mean, we’ve been doing this for so long. It’s working. We’re working.”Payomet Performing Arts Center presents Roomful of Blues in concert at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St., on Saturday, December 16, 7 p.m. For tickets ($25-$40/Members: $22-$35) and information visit visit payomet.org.