DATELINE: Balboa Theatre, San Diego—I’m waiting in the lobby, looking for the person who’ll take me backstage to interview emerging blues artist Christone “Kingfish” Ingram before his show here in May 2022. While I wait, I decide to sample early the new brand of edibles I brought for tonight’s concert.
As is the case in these situations, I never know who I’m looking for. My eyes dart around to spot someone “official” and that’s when I see “Gary” approaching. He’s walking toward me. I’ve seen the look before. I’ve seen this guy before. No, not this guy exactly…but somebody just like him…somebody just like me!
“Gary” is the guy everybody wishes would turn into his parents. He’s been to 347 concerts in his lifetime. He owns 14 guitars. His wife only knows about three. Now, we’re facing off. No, he’s not the guy assigned to take me backstage to interview Kingfish. He probably wants to talk ancient music trivia. I better know my blues!
Do I know Buddy Guy broke his leg jumping off a stage once? Do I know that Jimmy Vaughan can play all of Stevie’s solos note-for-note but opts not to in favor of a crisper, less legato tone? Do I know that Walter Trout’s new liver is working just fine?
I’m ready to parry: “It’s not exactly a new liver. He got the transplant in 2014,” I rehearse my comeback under my breath.
The above story is slightly exaggerated. But it reveals an important point about Boomers and Gen Xers: How old is your music trivia? What is your greatest rock ‘n’ roll memory? Meeting a Beatle? Backstage with Zeppelin, Van Halen, or insert-your-favorite-band-name here? Is your favorite rock ‘n’ roll memory over 10 years old or 20, 30, 40, 50?
The fact is that many Baby Boomers and GenXers have sunk into a rut. Sadly, many have turned into their parents as they defend the rock ‘n’ roll and popular culture of 50 years ago while overlooking the new stuff coming out today.
All too often, rock ‘n’ roll memories are things people share with their grandkids. But there’s hope! The grandkids are making music of their own, good music. Perhaps, it’s the aftermath of the Y2K baby boom. But, there is a fresh crop of young talent, in its early 20s, ready to conquer the airwaves. The torch has been passed to the Zoomers and Gen Alpha.
So, if your playlist hasn’t been updated since your first ex-wife threw out your album collection, create a free Spotify account for yourself and find what you’ve been missing. Just a quick warning: You’ll need to stop trying to compare your new playlist to Lynyrd Skynyrd.
In reality, “Gary” is not there to talk decades-old music trivia. He’s actually an incredible source of new information. He explains to me the musical renaissance going on in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Celebrities such as Morgan Freeman have bought clubs and property there. The Delta Blues Museum, celebrating its 43rd year, is refocusing on the kids of Clarksdale and various workshops, summer programs, and classes have been established for young people. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is one of those.
Ingram is a 23-year-old blues phenom from the home of the Delta Blues: Clarksdale, Mississippi. He grew up in the shadow of the Delta Blues Museum and started playing locally in his early teens. Now, he’s a Grammy winner, having toured the world and released two solo albums. And he’s Gen Z’s new blues ambassador.
He’s an old soul. And fans of traditional acoustic and electric blues won’t feel left out in the car as your kids go in to enjoy the concert. His lyrics mostly retrace the fears of human existence: Loss of money, loss of love, loss of family, loss of time. “Been Here Before” is an acoustic blues cut off his first album Kingfish (2019). The song sums up his approach to life: “Some kids like the greatest hits, but I dig Guitar Slim.”
With his album Kingfish, he established himself as a powerhouse with heavy blues pieces such as “Outside of This Town,” “Love Ain’t My Favorite Word,” and “It Ain’t Right,” creating a one-man revival of the Chicago blues made famous by his hero Buddy Guy. Another track “Fresh Out,” in fact, features Buddy Guy.
At the same time, Kingfish is firmly his generation. He was born in 1999. He listens to Thundercat. He’s shared a stage with his hero Buddy Guy. And he’s performed with HipHop artist Rakim on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, a series devoted to performances in informal spaces such as libraries, record stores, homes, and Covid-era popup studios.
In support of his first album, he’s toured constantly, playing blues festivals in Europe and a non-stop stream of theaters and clubs in the U.S. He’s been featured in reviews in Billboard and Rolling Stone. In 2020, he won the Blues Music Awards best album of the year and four other awards for his work on Kingfish.
In the interim, he released three singles, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a tribute to his mother whom he lost in 2019; “Empty Promises,” a cover of the late great Michael Burks; and “Letter from Bluewater Man.” In addition, several videos have made their way to social media to spread the legend.
“Gary” continues to fill me in on what’s going on in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I find myself pulling out my notebook to try to write it all down. But then a member of Kingfish’s crew shows up: “Raul?” He points to a few of us standing in the foyer. “That’s me.” I’m ready to go back to the greenroom to interview tonight’s headlining act.
As we hike through the hallways and stairwells of the Balboa Theatre, I ask the crew member some etiquette questions. “Chris, Christone, Kingfish? They all work.” I decide I’ll address him as Chris since I do better with single syllables.
My edibles are coming on and I’ve already got cotton mouth. I start drifting and “picture myself in a boat on a river.” No, that’s not exactly it. However, my thoughts drift to some of the other great bands out there.
As I said, there must’ve been something in the air or water around 1999-2000 because there is a ton of musical talent that has resulted from the Y2K baby boom.
Another event that took place in May 2022 is the annual Eurovision songwriting contest that was first established in the 1950s. Some notable winners from epochs past include ABBA, who represented Sweden in 1974, and Lulu. Known more for its longwinded torch songs and singer-songwriter marathons, Eurovision has taken an edgier turn in recent years, possibly due in part to Covid, which caused a cancellation of the event in 2020.
Upon reopening for business in 2021, the Eurovision judges awarded top prize to the hard-rockin’ band out of Italy: Maneskin. They got their start as teenagers busking on the streets of Rome in 2015. When Maneskin steals the crown of “new Led Zeppelin, “I told you so. Their winning song for Eurovision was “Zitti E Buoni.” Think Nirvana’s “In Bloom” meets REM meets Marilyn Manson. This band attacks each song with a hunger not often seen in a rock band in the post-guitar, synth/electronic era. If all you’ve heard is their overplayed Four Seasons’ cover “Beggin’,” give them another chance. The members of Maneskin, like Kingfish, were born during that Y2K baby boom. They’re only in their early 20s and have already recorded three albums of mostly original music. They’ve opened for the Rolling Stones in Vegas, appeared on Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres’ shows, and cover “If I Can Dream” for the new Elvis movie. Unfortunately, the Italian lyrics in many of their better songs have yet to cut through to an English-listening audience. (Do yourself a favor and do a Google or Spotify search for Maneskin and watch/listen to their extensive catalogue.)
The winner of Eurovision 2022, which just took place in Maneskin’s home country of Italy, was the Ukrainian experimental folk, pop, hip hop group Kalush Orchestra (Each year, the previous year’s winning country hosts the current competition.) One might automatically assume that a Ukrainian group won as a political nod. Regardless, this group’s win is well deserved. They mix echoes of a Ukrainian rural past with machine gun-staccato hip hop delivered at lightning speed and accented with layerings of melody, all woven into a strange, rich, beautiful sonic mosaic. The traditional “folk” song that has played well on Eurovision for 60 years is found in ironic samples that help frame the rapid-fire spoken word stanzas and half-hooky choruses.
But that’s just scratching surface. There were at least 40 countries competing in Eurovision 2022. And easily half have opted for a newer, cutting-edge answer to the (yawn) singer-songwriter of yore.
As Covid changed the way music is performed and distributed to an audience, Eurovision adopted a new role. Veteran bands such as the Rasmus out of Finland, took a fresh look at Eurovision and its reputation for what used to be called in the U.S. “music for the AM dial.” When their 2021 tour dates got cancelled, the Rasmus began collaborating and playing in various virtual circumstances. The result was the song “Jezebel,” cowritten with American songwriting hall-of-famer Desmond Child. The Rasmus proved they were still a viable band, winning the right to represent Finland, then making it to the semi-final round in Turin, Italy.
BTW, for those who thought Finland was only the midwife of shlocky metal and rockabilly bands, guess what? The Rasmus prove that Finland is rocking with newfound vigor.
We reach the empty dressing room where the interview will occur. Kingfish walks in calmly, sits down, and we begin talking, where “Gary” in the lobby left off. Kingfish retraces his youth (he’s still in his youth), growing up in Clarksdale and the thriving blues scene there.
We soon refocus on the Grammy that Kingfish just won in April for Best Contemporary Blues Album. The album is titled 662, named after the telephone area code for the northern half of Mississippi. 662 is the area code of the Blues.
Throughout the album, his second, Kingfish moves effortlessly from traditional acoustic blues to electric blues, moody, explorative minor blues, funk, full-throttle hard rock, jazz-rock, boogie-woogie, and nods to classic R&B.
The title track “662” is a jump blues that describes the city of Clarksdale block by block, name-checking such things as the Cooper Tire Factory, a big employer in town, where “daddy” worked.
“Not Gonna Lie” is a rock ‘n’ roll tune with the electric thunder of 1970s’ American hard rock. “That’s All It Takes” changes the pace as Kingfish sings Motown-style R&B, reminiscent of the Holland-Dozier-Holland hit machine. “Too Young to Remember” is an electric blues number, which he dedicates to “Jimi, BB, and Buddy…and Lightnin’ Hopkins, too.” “You’re Already Gone” changes the pace with breezy jazz rock that makes me wanna don my captain’s hat and start singing yacht rock again. “I Got to See You” is an uptempo boogie with flashbacks to Chuck Berry.
“Rock ‘n’ Rock,” first released as a single last year, is included as a bonus track and closes out the 14-song track list. It’s a country-tinged, southern rock cut dedicated to Kingfish’s late mom, who worked her butt off so her son could “sell [his] soul to rock ‘n’ roll,” It should be mentioned that Kingfish is related to Charlie Pride on his mom’s side. And there’s a definite Nashville country echo in many of his songs, including “Rock ‘n’ Roll” from the 662 album.
Relying on very little processing, Kingfish’s sound is natural and raw. Yet he creates exceptional dynamics using only a volume pedal. He can play clean and pretty—one moment, loud and dirty, the next. Except for the volume, the difference between the two is all in Kingfish’s fingers.
Live! Kingfish is a tour de force. I can say I’ve seen him twice, at THE Apollo Theater in Harlem in March and then at San Diego’s Balboa Theatre in May. (And who says you can’t spell “theater/theatre” two different ways in the same sentence?) His already “live” sound from the studio is pushed to the limit on stage. His solos soar as he takes his audience on a blues journey of life’s highs and lows.
He often brings the band down to just the basics, a closed hi-hat and the outlines of a bass or keyboard line. The house is nearly silent as Kingfish shows off his hand-muting and single-note playing. Each note is deliberate and sings into the balcony. At the Apollo show, many in the audience were yelling “Sweet Fish” to break the fragile silence. The San Diego audience did their best, punctuating the din with white-lawyer-at-a-blues-concert “Eeyooos” and IPA-fueled “F-yeahs.”
I’ll blame it on the edibles. But, strangely, the same person (“Gary”?) was standing behind me at both shows, yelling “preach” when Kingfish paused between phrases to let the notes breathe.
The calm on stage never lasts long though. And soon Kingfish is stepping on the volume pedal again. The crowd goes wild. The rollercoaster effect takes your breath away on the way up AND on the way down. While people walk out of the Balboa Theatre, I hear more than one version, “Wow! That was f-ing amazing!” The crowd is blown away. Long live the new King of the Blues.
I do want to comfort those who are still clutching your Uriah Heep bootlegs and outtakes. You can still find them on Spotify. And a freebie account will take you five minutes to set up. I must also say: much of the older music is better than what’s being churned out by the “major labels” these days although that term, in an age of self-made YouTube sensations and influencers, may not apply as it used to.
However, while you’re searching for those Uriah Heep bootlegs or the Hendrix bootlegs or INXS bootlegs, take a minute to search up something like “rock 2022,” and you’ll open up a whole new world of future rock ‘n’ roll memories, memories that you and the grandkids can make together.
Raul Sandelin is a San Diego writer, filmmaker, musician, and educator. Special thanks to Dylan Sandelin for recording the Kingfish interview and helping out with the story. And thanks to the real “Gary” whoever you are. You got me wanting to book a trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi.