Train Still Running: Danny Kalb Keeps Moving Down the Track

 

 February 13, 2018 | by David McFadden-Elliott                                                                                                    Photo by David Pexton

 

 

There’s one thing that Danny Kalb told me that always sticks with me. It was just a brief message he left on my phone five or six years ago. “Remember Dave, I never gave up.” For a guy who had an early taste of music business glory, resilience is key. His white-hot band the Blues Project splintered on the eve of a potential career-making performance at the historic Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Kalb, now 75, has fought through a series of comebacks and health setbacks ever since. Whether he finds the energy for another comeback remains to be seen, but time last we checked, there was still soul and style dripping from his guitar.

NO RECESS!: In 2013, the Coen Brothers released Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie set in 1961 about a struggling folksinger inspired by Dave Van Ronk, who was your mentor. What was your reaction to the movie?

 

DANNY KALB: It had some stuff in it I liked. I don’t think it was particularly accurate, but it gave a certain sense of some of the fun we had. I liked that.

 

NR!: In the middle of the movie, Llewyn Davis attends a session for a song called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” It’s sort of a political satire.

 

KALB: Yeah, yeah.

 

NR!: And the character despises the track in the movie, but listening to Dave Van Ronk’s real work, it seems he had a sense of humor and might have enjoyed a track like that.

 

KALB: Well,  we did do that. It’s kind of a funny thing. The last cut on the record Ragtime Jug Stompers [1960, Marmot Music] was a jive tune — “You’s A Viper” — about pot smoking. At the end of the song we’re talking about getting high.

 

NR!: I was curious, did you or any of the Blues Project ever visit Timothy Leary [at his historic estate] up in Millbrook [New York]?

 

KALB: I think so. I may have. The other guys in the Blues Project turned onto LSD before I did, before I had my disastrous trip. [Note: After sampling Owsley Stanley's famous LSD in 1967, Kalb suffered a harrowing trip that took years to recover from. In a 2009 interview for Crawdaddy!, he commented on the experience, "People like me, who are prone to getting depressed, shouldn't be involved in substance abuse. There's no percentage in it for taking that kind of risk with your sanity."]

 

NR!: But I guess you were bringing some of what would be termed a psychedelic sound without dabbling in psychedelics at the time.

 

KALB: Yeah — I don’t know if I was bringing it in so much. We all smoked pot every night before we went on stage and put our arms around each other — bear-hugging. It was delightful.

 

NR!: So while your bandmates were bringing in some original material, like Kooper’s “Flute Thing,” you were sticking to interpreting —

 

KALB: I’m not sticking to it. I didn’t write anything. I don’t know why. I should have taken the chance.

                                                                                                                                                                         Photo by David Pexton 


NR!: So you weren’t writing at that time.

 

KALB: No, not at all. I wasn’t. After the Blues Project broke up, I started to write. Sojourn Records have a number of my tunes.

 

NR!: But could you talk about how you interpreted some of those classic blues tunes by Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon?

KALB: How? I would just say au naturel. Whatever I felt. It was not just me. It was all of us as a collective. We knew that music for years, and it made sense to us. But I was the leading force, because I was the most into it, and I was the singer.

 

NR!: In ’67, you guys got invited to play Monterey Pop. Al Kooper, of course, was leaving the band.

 

KALB: He left. He was working for the Monterey Pop Organization.

 

NR!: On the Monterey Pop DVD you can see you guys playing “Flute Thing.” Do you remember what else you guys played during that set?

 

KALB: Uh —

 

NR!: I saw one reference that said you guys had played “Wake Me Shake Me,” which Kooper also played during his set.

 

KALB: Might have been. I really don’t remember. Monterey Pop for me, personally, was mostly a nightmare. I thought that Blues Project was over with. Most of the time I just stayed in the hotel room, stayed in bed, and wished for the end.

 

NR!: Why did Blues Project really break up, and how much had to do with Al Kooper wanting to bring a horn section into the band?

 

KALB: Well, that kind of was it. Except that I also think Al wanted full control. A horn section would have changed the music from a band that was taking chances with genres to a certain kind of Memphis horn-based band. I think Al was looking that way, and I think he thought he could get a lot more money. We weren’t earning much money and our manager was not doing a good job for us. And I was starting to get depressed, too — I think that was ‘cause we weren’t doing any new material. I wasn’t bringing any new material to the band, which probably was my responsibility.

 

NR!: If Blues Project had gotten into the studio for a proper Projections follow-up in ’68, ’69 what would that have sounded like?                                                                                            

 

KALB: I think things were so strange in the culture and in our relationships within the Blues Project. The sweet part of the ‘60s was turning into conflict and darkness that led to Altamont and the Weathermen. That wasn’t a good place for our essential mixture of things. “Wake Me Shake Me” is not about blowing up a police station — it’s a gospel song.

 

NR!: I didn’t know that was an interpretation —

 

KALB: It wasn’t. That’s why our time was over.

 

NR!: Tell me: Who went electric first? Who traded in their acoustic guitar for electric first? Was it you? Dylan? Paul Butterfield?

 

KALB: Well, I think it was Butterfield — No, let me see, In 1964 or ‘5, I was talking to Dylan at a cafe in Greenwich Village, and he told me that John Hammond Jr., who played the blues in Chicago, was gonna do his next album electric and that he [Dylan] was then thinking of going electric for his next album. This was before Bringing It All Back Home. I found that interesting. However, to tell you the truth, a few months later I made the stupidest comment of my life — When Dylan was getting pilloried by the left folk music establishment for daring to know that technology could be used for music [laughs], I kind of went along with it. I said, “Bob, is there anything I can help you with?” That seemed unsupportive of his music and his free expression in the face of Stalinists. I hope he forgave me, ‘cause later on he loved our concerts. He came all the time. He dug it. And of course he used Al [Kooper on Bringing It All Back Home]. I had heard from somebody — I don’t know if this is true or not — that I was supposed to be the guitarist on Bringing It All Back Home, but I was in a mental hospital at the time. My friend Bruce Langhorne was used instead. Bruce is one of the greatest guitar players who ever played the music that we played. [Langhorne passed away, since the time of this interview, on April 14, 2017.]

 

NR!: You were talking before about a bill that [the Blues Project] shared with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Could you expand on that?

 

KALB: It was at the Cafe Au Go Go, and it was a “Battle Of The Bands.” There were lines around the block. It was a big deal. Both bands felt the tension. We were all 20-something. Stupid shit. But, you know, natural stupid shit. I think we got up there first. Smoking. Paul gets up there next. Smoking! Goes on like that. The greatest thing was the third night they had both bands on stage for a farewell jam. First the drummers get up, then the bass players get up. Finally Steve [Katz] got up and Butterfield got up. You know Steve is very good, but Butterfield is God. It was unbelievable what this guy could do. Finally {guitarist Mike] Bloomfield and myself find ourselves up on stage — I was doing pretty good. And then, for no reason except for the fact that God is real, both bands break into “When The Saints Go Marching In.” It was New Orleans. It was the music. It was white and black. It was the essence of American music. It was from above. And it closes on that note. It was a beautiful ending.

Since this interview was conducted in February 2016, Kalb has continued to tough it out through health setbacks. When I spoke with him last week by phone, he was as resolute as always. “I’ve been through hell-and-a-half, and I expect to win. I retain my hope to create. [I’m] not doing a lot of playing, but I expect to do more as time goes on. I never stopped, you know.”

 

 

Watch Danny Kalb play "Samson and Delilah

 

 

 

Photos/video: David Pexton (instagram.com/davidpexton)

Special thanks: Jonathan Kalb (jonathankalb.org)

 

 

 

 

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