"People can't just take Stevie Ray Vaughan and think he's the creator and almighty god of the blues, because that's just not how it is," says Denver bluesman Lonesome Dan Kase. "He played rock and roll, which was good. But when you base your whole philosophy on a guy who came out on a 1983 David Bowie record, it just doesn't work."
Lonesome Dan, who's 22, knows what he's talking about. Whereas most performers his age only know John Lee Hooker from Pepsi commercials, he is a legitimate scholar of the blues--so much so that he's put together a roster of "ten essential blues recordings" made prior to 1940 and "five underrated blues singers" from the same era in order to enlighten the uninformed. (Computer users who wish to view the list can do so at www.westword.com.) In his opinion, the albums of Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and lesser-known practitioners of the form such as "Funny" Papa Smith are the surest way for people "to understand what the blues is about."
So how did Kase, a Caucasian who cut his musical teeth far from the Mississippi Delta (he was raised in the sleepy hamlet of Hillsdale, Michigan), develop his encyclopedic knowledge of and near-religious reverence for the genre? His taciturn response--"I've always been interested in old music"--doesn't shed much light on his transformation. Perhaps, like the bluesmen he idolizes, he realizes that the music rings truer when it's accompanied by a little mystery. During live performances, he seldom looks up from under the felt rim of his fedora except to mumble a quick "thank you" between songs; the rest of the time, he concentrates on the impeccable finger-picking for which he is fast becoming known. Kase's vocals are impressive, too. When he's singing, he alternates between a convincing growl, a falsetto that's as clear as a train whistle and a half-spoken delivery that's offhanded but undeniably effective. As for percussion, it's supplied by the insistent tapping of Kase's secondhand wing tips, which ensure that the beat, as well as his listeners' attention, never strays.
That a white kid still within spitting distance of his teens could put together such an authentic combination of elements astonishes many observers. But according to Kase, no one should be surprised. "I don't think race these days has much to do with it," he insists. "Early hillbilly music was blues, and early blues was hillbilly music--it all congregated together down South. If you listen closely to the Carter Family, they almost sound like Blind Willie Johnson. White and black were definitely interspersed back then." Age also strikes him as an overstated factor in the blues. He acknowledges that "people look at the blues and think that you have to be this hard-drinking 65-year-old man" in order to do it justice, but he points out that classics like "Frankie & Johnny," "Stagger Lee" and "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" were originally composed by musicians who were not much older than he is now.
By the same token, Kase admits that he's always had trouble relating to people of his own vintage. Particularly offensive to the singer are folks who feel that completing the required number of college courses automatically guarantees them the job of their choice. "I don't know if it's every generation or what," he says. "But people my age definitely think that things should be given to them. Self-reliance is an important thing that's been lost." Except, of course, by Kase. He's been earning a living from his music, but he recently took a part-time job washing dishes at a northwest Denver eatery. "I wanted a new guitar," he says, referring to the classic Fender acoustic he just purchased. "And I knew it would take two or three weeks of hard work."
Kase believes that this attitude is diametrically opposed to the prevailing currents in Los Angeles and Nashville, two music-industry meccas where he hung out prior to his move to Denver a year ago. He calls L.A. "just a rat race--there ain't nothin' shakin' there, man," and describes Music City as a "gray, desolate bombshell of a city. They didn't want too many people who were willing to put their heart into their music." And while he's lasted long enough in Denver to have become something of a fixture at local haunts such as the Lion's Lair and City Spirit, he has a few complaints about his current home base as well. "The problem with being out here is that everyone has this, like, pseudo-Buddhism thing about them," he claims. He maintains that most Denverites, perhaps inspired by Kerouac's On the Road, eventually develop an urge to move on--but "they get about two miles and come back because they miss the pampering of their families." He adds, "It's good to have that attitude about leaving, but they just don't do it right."
Although such comments suggest that Kase himself may be hitting the highway soon, he denies it. He's having too much fun playing the music he loves. "The blues can be a very happy thing," he explains. "And it can be a very sad thing. It came from a very sad point in our country's history, you know? But it also came from a growing point in our history where people were learning things."
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What Kase has learned from the blues is immeasurable--and he's eager to pass his wisdom along to a wider audience. Originally, he notes, blues music "wasn't even made for recording's sake. It was made just for the sake of making it. I think that's what turned me on most about it--it was guys who were playing because they like to play."
But, he concedes, "if somebody from Rounder Records called up and wanted to sign me, I wouldn't say no."
Lonesome Dan Kase. 9 p.m. Saturday, April 26, Slim's Joint Coffee Bar, 1730 Glenarm, free, 294-0464.