Matthew Stubbs, the longtime guitarist for blues legend Charlie Musselwhite and founder of blues-rock trio GA-20, seemed destined to make his mark on the genre. He fell in love with the music when he was a teenager growing up in southern New Hampshire, which is “not exactly the stereotypical place to grow up playing blues,” as he sees it.
While the New England state is more known for its role in the American Revolution than as an epicenter of the blues, Stubbs credits his father, a guitarist and bandleader himself, for exposing him to the music that would eventually become his livelihood.
“They would do band practice at the house or gigs on weekends, so I was exposed to live music my whole life,” Stubbs shares, adding that guitar legend Jimi Hendrix served as his gateway into the blues before he fully immersed himself in the music’s history of badass axmen.
“By the age of fifteen, for whatever reason, the blues spoke to me, and I started digging in and going further back from Hendrix,” he continues. “I got into Buddy Guy, Albert King, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, Ike Turner and Earl Hooker.”
From then on, he would form and play in bands that were rooted in blues, rock and psychedelia. After landing in L.A., Stubbs became the lead guitar player in Musselwhite’s group sixteen years ago through a mutual musician friend.
“It scared the crap out of me,” he says of his playing on that initial tour with Musselwhite, but “luckily it was good enough to keep the gig.”
Keeping company with Musselwhite has proved to be a one-of-a-kind experience and education for Stubbs, as the elder bluesman has rubbed shoulders and played with many of the musicians Stubbs considers “beyond human.”
“I’ve been with him sixteen years, traveling around the world in vans and airplanes, and every time I hang out with him, I hear a new story from back in the day in Chicago or San Francisco with all these legendary people like John Lee Hooker or Magic Sam,” he explains. “It blows my mind overall where all this music I grew up listening to was in the ’50s and ’60s, and most of them I didn’t get to see, so they’re larger-than-life characters to me.”
But Musselwhite “very matter-of-factly will just talk about them like it’s no different than me sitting there with Charlie. He sat there with those guys. He did gigs with those guys.
“He’s just like, ‘Oh, I was drinking with Magic Sam,’” Stubbs continues. “It’s crazy how he’d just hang out with these legendary people in clubs in Chicago.”
But as much as he’s a blues fan, Stubbs is also making his own mark on the longstanding style with GA-20. He formed the band in 2018, when he found himself with a year off while Musselwhite worked and toured with Ben Harper. Initially, GA-20 was a way for Stubbs to pay the bills by gigging around the New England area. “We got a gig every Wednesday at this little wine bar. No one listened to us,” he says with a laugh.
After winning a day of recording at Boston’s Q Division Studios through a silent auction, GA-20 recorded an EP and shopped it around to labels. Colemine Records of Loveland, Ohio, signed the trio and put out its debut album, Lonely Soul, in 2019. The record debuted at number two on the Billboard blues chart, and GA-20, with singer-guitarist Pat Faherty and drummer Tim Carman, had officially arrived. Every one of the band’s releases has climbed to the second or top spot on the chart, including last year’s Crackdown, and GA-20 Live in Loveland earlier this year.
Stubbs admits he was “shocked” when Lonely Soul did so well, and it just “snowballed” from there.
“I still consider us a blues band," he says, "but as we toured and [wrote] other songs, we let some other influences get in there,” such as country (check out GA-20’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”) and garage rock.
“We do play traditional blues," he adds, "but when you see the show, it’s definitely a rock-and-roll show."
And that's what fans will experience when GA-20 takes over the Skylark Lounge on Wednesday, September 13, with Rootbeer Richie & the Reveille.
The band’s penchant for using vintage equipment only adds to GA-20’s authentic blues sound. Even the name GA-20 is a reference to a classic Gibson amp. Plus, “I can just go get an old ’60s Baseman amp, and it’s half the price,” says Stubbs, who currently wields a Waterslide T-style (think Telecaster) guitar with gold foil pickups.
With two guitarists and no bassist — something that makes GA-20 more of a beefed-up power trio than anything else — using two amps helps “push more air as a trio and fill the room,” Stubbs says.
“These days, blues kind of has a different reputation,” he adds, but the music of GA-20 is far from “depressing.”
“Half the time, we don’t even know what we’re playing,” he admits. “We’re trying to write songs and melodies. It’s not all about self-indulgent, ten-minute guitar solos,” though he and Faherty can do that, too.
“There’s songs we open up and you never know what’s going to happen,” he concludes. “Every night is different. We want it to be an experience.”
GA-20, 7 p.m. Wednesday, September 13, Skylark Lounge, 140 South Broadway. Tickets are $19-$20.