I have two hard and fast rules when it comes to music: The first is that live music is inherently better than recorded music. If faced with the option of listening to my favorite band on CD or seeing an unknown band play live, I’ll take the latter every time. The second rule is that musicians, like baseball pitchers, are best when they don’t think too much, especially about the blues, perhaps the most emotional of genres. I’m not trying to impugn intelligence, of course, just the contrivance of bands embracing sloppy minimalism in an attempt to stay authentic and sincere. For example, the White Stripes, my hipster generation’s contribution to the genre, have ignored 40 years of music history and created three albums of raw garage blues, with everything from the band’s biography to its wardrobe meticulously planned as a nod to the past. But the formula overshadows the excellent songwriting, leaving it feeling emotionless and letting everyone down.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago listening to Bluestone, a versatile group of musicians embracing the blues on eclectic terms. Not only are they great live (their sound check is better than most bands’ sets), but they expand the possibility of what the blues can be without sacrificing any of the emotional resonance.
“We are trying to get more of a pop genre going in but with this blues edge,” explains Lisa McCuiston, lead vocalist. “It seems like even when we do the cover tunes, we make everything so much edgier than it originally was that it would appeal to a younger crowd.”
Part of the edginess comes from McCuiston’s powerful vocals. She moves from aggressive blues growl to sultry soul longing with ease, as she did when she out-emoted Bill Withers during a cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and sang a pissed-off version of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” (a song she learned on the drive to the show).
Joining McCuiston are Scott Terry (lead guitar), Vito de la Cruz (rhythm guitar, mandolin, harmonica, native flute), Gia Torcaso (bass, vocals) and Spiro Edgos (drums).
What makes the band unique is the eclectic musical background the members bring to their sound. Aside from vocals, McCuiston is also a classically trained violinist; de la Cruz was previously in the Native American folk and rock ‘n’ roll band Spirit Wind; and Edgos played Greek music back East for 10 years. All these elements make it into their original material, as does de la Cruz’s clever wordplay.
“I’m a very mischievous writer,” says de la Cruz, smiling.
This is demonstrated in “Heyoka” ("Heyoka” is a Lakota word that means contrary). The song starts out as a lover’s lament—"and why do you hurt me so/laying here next to me/lovin’ your friend not me"—that ends with a reversal in the last verse—"one thing you should know/one thing before you go/I’ve been laying next to you/lovin’ your friend not you.”
Combined with excellent songwriting, the improvisational, jam-band-like atmosphere Bluestone creates is the key to its live show. When I saw the band, Todd South of Burning Peace was filling in on bass, and Brian Kahler accentuated the bluesy lead-guitar parts with sultry saxophone playing.
“Me and Lisa are the same; we’re so improvisational,” says Terry. “And we’re nervous about getting into a really good vibe and a good mood because it’s not like a jukebox where you go and put your money in, and you get the same song.”
“It’s never boring," adds Edgos. "Every song we do, it’s the same song, but it might have a little different sound. Each time, it’s unique. Then you never get bored with a song, and it’s always something exciting and new."