By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
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By Mary Willson
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By Tom Murphy
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By A.H. Goldstein
Ben Stevens has just driven from his home in Lyons, Colorado, to Denver for a taste of his favorite pizza. It's a considerable effort, considering all the pizza joints he's passed on the way to Famous Pizza on South Broadway. "You can't get good pizza in Boulder," says Stevens, an Illinois native and ex-New Yorker whose youthful face is framed by tinted granny glasses and a soul patch. "This pizza is real. It's like a slice of home for me, man."
Hitting the highway for the things he craves is nothing new for Stevens, who is set to appear as part of Swallow Hill's "Roots of the Blues" series this weekend. In the past three months he's put almost 20,000 miles on his new traveling vehicle (a former Aurora cop car that sports numbers, a spotlight and a cage between the front and the back seats), and he's played in half a dozen states. He's also found himself in some noteworthy company along the way. At a show in Livingston, Montana, he found himself peering out over his National Steel at a guy famous for his own brand of roadwork: the Easy Rider himself, Peter Fonda. The actor invited Stevens out to his farm someday to pick with him.
Not bad for a local boy. "But it's not really accurate to call me a 'local' musician," says Stevens, an enthusiastic cat whose personality is more amplified than the instruments he plays, "because I make most of my money traveling all over the country. But people will not normally consider me a national act, and it's strange. I'm only 'local' because I have a P.O. box in Boulder."
To many music fans along the Front Range, Stevens's name is familiar from the days of the late Bleecker St., one of Colorado's more acclaimed blues-based acts of the past decade. Stevens started the group in 1990 with rub-board wizard Washboard Chaz; the duo's jug-band/retro-blues sound became popular across Colorado, then spread to much of the United States and parts of Europe. The group sold close to 10,000 copies of their two recordings (I Need a Gun and a Drink and Tumbling Down), the latter of which included a guest cameo from blues legend Taj Mahal.
But in 1996 the bandmembers called it quits after coming to the shared conclusion that they'd exhausted their musical possibilities. "It was one of those things where we both felt like our time had come," Stevens says over a slab of steaming sausage-and-cheese pizza. "I was looking for other stuff, and I think Chaz was, too. For me, I'd been a bandleader, a booking agent and a record-label guy for five years, and it got to the point where I was hardly playing guitar anymore except for when we were on the gigs."
During the past four years, Stevens has made up for lost time. In 1997 he released Reservation Blues, an impressive collection of warm acoustic blues and back-porch folk songs that echoes the gifts of Stevens's heroes, players like Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and the Reverend Gary Davis. The late Charles Sawtelle (of Hot Rize fame) produced and played on the disc, which also features guest appearances by Tony Furtado, Richard "Earthquake" Anderson and Kenny Passarelli. It's a satisfying solo effort that features a wealth of smart Stevens originals, his relaxed singing and immaculate finger-picking.
It's also marked by a conscious sense of self on Stevens's part. Rather than trying to sound like some Delta-blues wannabe, Stevens comes across as an unabashedly blues-addicted white guy from the heartland. "Actually," Stevens says, "it's not deliberate, and that's why it sounds like me. And that's the whole thing. There is something about playing in real time rather than playing from your head. Playing from your head, it gets contrived and you try to sound like people. For me it's all about the journey, and the journey for me was, 'Wow, now I finally sound like myself.' That's a huge breakthrough, and now I don't have to worry about whether I can play or not anymore. Now I'm in a new square one; I'm moving ahead. I've never tried to package myself as somebody sounding like a black guy or somebody that's truly traditional."
Stevens's stance has made it tough for some to get a handle on just what it is he's doing. "The traditional corners don't know what to make of me," he says, and at the same time, "people that want to hire me over the phone are like, 'Blues? We don't do much blues.' They think it's all down-and-out or shuffles." To help remedy some of that confusion, two years ago Stevens adopted a new term for his music: world blues. "It was a mistake," he says. "World blues? What the hell is that? It sounded like some hippie-dippy Telluride label, so I just recently changed it back to 'folk blues' on my Web site and my promo. That's what I do. Hopefully I'm just Ben Stevens, and I'm playing 'Ben Stevens' music."
Lately, it doesn't appear to matter a whole lot just what Stevens calls it: People are digging his sound. Acoustic bluesman John Hammond certainly knows a thing or two about good dobro playing, and he's played with Stevens on a number of occasions. "Ben is a very good player," Hammond says, "and a real nice guy." The roster of other living legends with whom Stevens has played includes such heavies as Piedmont-style greats Cephas & Wiggins and revered Virginian picker John Jackson. This July, Stevens will be sharing a bill with these three-chord icons when he appears at the Centrum's Port Townsend Country Blues Festival in Port Townsend, Washington. The players will also be joining Stevens on the faculty of the festival's blues workshops. Stevens will teach a class on finger-picking.