Power Trio Heaven
Power Trio Heaven
A Q&A with Craig Thatcher
By Geoff Gehman
The Mauch Chunk Opera House is Craig Thatcher’s soul kitchen. The very busy, very talented, very popular guitarist has played the Jim Thorpe house nearly 30 times over nearly 10 years, as a trio leader and an opening act for pals Laurence Juber and Jorma Kaukonen. Impressed by the active acoustics and interactive listeners, he’s used the former vaudeville venue to launch a Christmas show and test salutes to Eric Clapton, Cream and the Fillmores East and West.
Opera House partner Dan Hugos, who cut his concertgoing teeth at the Fillmore East, regards Thatcher as Mauch Chunk’s “Numero Uno.” On July 11 the favorite son will reward one of his favorite places. That night he and his longtime trio mates, drummer Don Plowman and bassist/vocalist Wayde Leonard, will headline the Luv It Live Benefit Bash, a fundraiser for the Opera House, which has received pledges of more than half its $40,000 goal. Spectators will get free food, prizes and blues-steeped rockers minted by ’60s and ‘70s power trios led by Robin Trower (“Day of the Eagle”) and Band of Gypsys (“Power of Soul”). Guest guitarist Brett Andrew Haas, a Thatcher distant relative who was once the only non-relation in Robert Randolph’s Family Band, will swap solos with Thatcher on the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Brown Sugar,” both of which debuted 50 years ago on the album “Sticky Fingers.”
Below, in a conversation from his Coopersburg home, Thatcher discusses the tricks and treats of replacing ZZ Top at Musikfest, performing in a power trio and gigging for Mauch Chunk fans, who have no problem letting musicians know if they’re happy or not.
Q: How has the Opera House rubbed off on you? Has it changed the way you act with listeners and rooms?
A: I look at Mauch Chunk as the testing ground, the proving ground. Whether we’re preparing a six-piece Clapton show or a three-piece Cream show, it’s the right place to get the right sound level, the right instrumentation. Once we get everything squared away in Jim Thorpe, we can take the shows to the Sellersville Theater or the Kirby Center [in Wilkes-Barre] or Building 24 in the Berks Jazz Festival [in Reading].
The theater has evolved as we’ve evolved. When we first played there [in 2006], there were folding chairs; now there are regular seats. They’ve spent money on soundproofing and updated the sound system to make the room much more comfortable and appealing to concertgoers and musicians. It sounds great; in fact, it’s the only theater around our area that reminds me of the Fillmore East. Even though the Fillmore was bigger, it has that kind of vibe.
It’s such a fun venue. One of the reasons it’s fun is that the audience has grown with us. When we first did the Christmas show [in 2007], we had no more than 75 people in the crowd. Now the audience is full, and we get a lot of email requests to play this song and that song. In every concert we get standing ovations and we’re called back for encores, which doesn’t happen that often at other places. That’s why we feel so at home there; that’s why our music belongs there.
The Mauch Chunk people are not easy; they’re very discriminating, very discerning. You don’t want to go there and do a bad show because they’ll let you know they’re unhappy. The last time I got that sense was when I was just out of high school and I was playing with this R&B band out of Philly, City Limits [an act signed to Philadelphia International Records, the fabled soul label]. One of our first gigs was at the famous, famously tough Apollo Theater in Harlem. If they don’t like you, they’re going to let you know by throwing fruit at you. I was a rare white guy and there were people trying to scare me by saying: “What are you doing here?” Being young and cocksure, I said: Bring it on. We did 15 shows over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, evenings and matinees, and by the middle of the series they had accepted me. I was so proud and pleased to have worked that room because it’s a very historical place.
Not that they’re going to throw things up in Jim Thorpe But they’re going to let you really know what they want and don’t want.
Q: One of your formative go-to groups was ZZ Top, who snagged you way back in 1973 with “La Grange.” Why did that tune hook you line and sinker?
A: I liked the fact that they were taking old blues in a new, fresh direction. They soloed over a riff that could have come out of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and they made it popular on the radio. That style, that pattern, made me think: This is so cool. The next time I heard something like that was in the early ’80s when Stevie Ray Vaughan played “Pride and Joy” and all that stuff.
Q: Last year you saluted ZZ Top, in a back-door way, when your trio replaced them after they canceled a Musikfest gig on six days’ notice because bassist Dusty Hill needed kidney-stone surgery. It must have felt a little surreal filling in for a group that helped fill you up when you were a young musician.
A: It was actually a little surreal before I got the gig. I was in a hotel in Nashville, where I was doing Martin [Guitar] clinics, when I received a call at 9 in the morning from Patrick [Brogan, senior vice president of programming for ArtsQuest, Musikfest’s parent company] asking me if I could replace ZZ Top. I told him, no, I already had regular shows set for Musikfest [with his trio and violinist Nyke Van Wyk]; people are going to think we’re hogging the spotlight. About two hours later I called him back and said, hey, what if we do something different, what if we do our Allman Brothers tribute? Musically, it’s not the same style but it would go hand in hand with ZZ Top’s material; it’s closer in genre than, say, Led Zeppelin.
The Musikfest show worked really, really well. In the middle of the set we even did a ZZ Top tribute by playing “La Grange.” In the middle of the tune we broke into Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam.” It was fun to play and people really followed us on the ride.
Q: The circle will close and open again on Aug. 12 when your band returns to Musikfest to open for ZZ Top. Are you going to toss in another ZZ Top number or two?
A: No no, we’re going to let them play their tunes all by themselves [laughs]. We’re going to perform our normal covers and original songs; we’re going to give people 30 minutes of solid rocking.
Q: Three-piece rock bands have a lot more ground to cover, and many more gaps to plug, than conventional quartets. What are the ups, downs and all arounds of playing in a power trio?
A: Yeah, we have a lot of notes and a lot of responsibilities. You know, it’s funny, when we did our Cream tribute at the Berks Jazz Fest I heard somebody at one of the tables up front say: “Wow, I would have run out of gas halfway through that set.”
One of the secrets of a successful power trio is a strong, strongly tested foundation. You can’t get people together for a couple of weeks and have that magic happen; it has to be something nurtured over time. Wayde [Leonard] and I have been playing since ’89. I don’t have to think about what he’s playing, or watch him playing, to know what he’s thinking or where he’s going. Don [Plowman] has been with us for eight years and it’s the same way with him: he knows where we’re going. Only certain players can really get that dynamic in a power trio. Sometimes you get musicians who aren’t cohesive, who aren’t jelling. They’re loud, but it’s just noise.
Another secret of a successful power trio is to tune down. Yes, the older guys tuned down to save their voices. But it goes deeper than that. When you tune down, you create a broader, thicker, fuller sound. With standard pitch you might get eight overtones. Tuning down, you may get 12. And you can actually hear them.
Cream did not tune down, but [Jimi] Hendrix and Stevie Ray did and [Robin] Trower does. Stevie Ray went down a half step. Tower goes way down to a step and a half. Sometimes he’s down to C, which creates not only a sound but a vibratory thing. A lot of the heavier metal players tune way down. In fact, some string makers make strings made for tuning down. Some people will tell you that you can take the tension off the strings, that you can bend them better. Today, a C tuning is not odd like it used to be.
We feel like we’re carrying the torch of power trios like Cream, the idea of three people generating a sound that’s very loud but also very vibrant. We just don’t play the drums, the bass and the guitar; we’re a complete entity, a unified front.
Q: You’re well known as a charitable musician. One of your causes is the Community Outreach Benefit in Coopersburg, which over 14 years has raised over $700,000 for catastrophic medical expenses. Did you have a charity mentor, someone who convinced you it was essential to give back?
A: There really wasn’t one individual who said do this because it’s a good thing to do. I have been influenced by what I’ve read about Clapton’s charitable work. A lot of people don’t know, for example, that he designates to charity all the royalties he receives from all his Martin signature guitars.
You can’t do everything and anything [for charity] because you’ll be inundated with requests. I do have a few pet projects. I love to support COB [the Community Outreach Benefit] because 100 percent of the money goes toward medical expenses. I like the same thing about the Salvation Army; I played their 5K Run this spring in Coca-Cola Park [in Allentown]. That’s an organization that truly gives from the heart and is not looking for anything in return.
I’ve also been influenced by my buddy Dick Boak [Martin’s director of museum and archives and special projects and Thatcher’s longtime clinic partner]. I’ve definitely picked up on all the extra things he’s done for people. I returned the favor by helping him with his new CD. I backed him on guitar, I suggested chords for songs, I pushed him to write and play the autoharp, which was his instrument back in the ’60s. I told him: Do your thing; this is part of your legacy. And, wow, the stuff that came out of him…
Q: If you could time travel through music history, where would you go? For me, I’d beeline to the Fillmore East I’m jealous of people who hung out there the way I’m jealous of people who saw the Brooklyn Dodgers play at Ebbets Field.
A: Yeah, I’d have to agree with you completely. When someone talks to me about seeing concerts at the Fillmore, I really corner them to tell me all the details. I did go to most of the important places in Philadelphia like the Bijou Café and, of course, the Spectrum. I was at the Spectrum for Chicago in ’69, when they were still called CTA [Chicago Transit Authority]; I remember skipping work to go with my brother. I missed Hendrix in the round at the Spectrum when I was 12. My parents wouldn’t let me go because I was too young; they thought I’d blow my mind on drugs [laughs]. I wanted badly to see the Fillmore East but the only time I went to New York when I was young was for the World’s Fair in ’64.
For many people, the quintessential live album is the Allman Brothers’ “At Fillmore East.” For me, the one album recorded there that’s quintessential is from the Band of Gypsys [Jimi Hendrix, bassist Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles]. It was basically a throwaway album that Jimi had to give to MCA because he had forgotten his contract called for another record. But it’s recorded really well and there are things on there that he didn’t do for anybody else.
Q: What tops your Bucket List? Recent Mauch Chunk interviewees told me they want to travel around the world and promote world peace.
A: I have literally traveled around the world for Martin the last six years. I’ve thought a lot about the turmoil in countries I’ve visited like Turkey and Israel, South Africa and Croatia. In the airport in Tel Aviv you go through three metal detectors, and there’s even a fourth at the bridge right before you get on the plane. I wasn’t afraid; in fact, I was blown away by the security. But I was thinking how sad it is that they have to take these measures.
My wish would be to just end terrorism. That sounds very simple and idealistic, but something has to be done. Music has such a positive, peaceful effect. I don’t know if it has such a positive, peaceful effect on terrorists. But it does bring us together so we can deal a little better with the consequences of terrorism.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List? Recent Mauch Chunk interviewees told me they want everything from killing snakes to killing religions that kill hope.
A: My pet peeve is our system of income tax. It’s so archaic, it’s crazy. It needs revamping, it’s beyond repair. It’s just nuts how the middle class pays for everyone, as the poor and rich seem to have ways of getting out of paying taxes, or least paying lower taxes. I’m in favor of a flat tax. That way, no one gets out of paying taxes, and you can earn more money with no fear of being put in a higher tax bracket. State income tax should go away, too. I’d be in favor of paying a bit more in sales tax to make up the difference, as is done in a number of states already.
You know, I don’t have an issue with snakes. I lived in Panama, which has these little poisonous snakes everywhere. I remember signs that said: We don’t have any anti-venom, so don’t get bit [laughs].
Craig Thatcher: The Scoop
The Quakertown native was 10 years old when he received his first pivotal album as a Christmas gift from his grandmother: “Blues Breakers,” John Mayall’s coming-out party for Eric Clapton.
He opened for Robin Trower, one of his early guitar heroes. “Trower got dissed early on as being a Jimi Hendrix clone, but he really wasn’t. There were similarities in tone and phrasing, but he wasn’t carrying Hendrix’s torch; he really was a unique player. I’m still a big fan.”
His trio has premiered all of its tributes at the Mauch Chunk Opera House except a Hendrix retrospective, which the band christened at the Musikfest Café in Bethlehem.
He once granted a fan’s email request to sing “Silent Night” during his annual Christmas concert at the Opera House.
Last year he helped raise $23,000 for a center that helps people transition from hospital to community through a show featuring songs by George Harrison, who helped organize the Concert for Bangladesh.
“Behind the Guitar,” his show on PBS39 in Bethlehem, has showcased guests ranging from Laurence Juber to Roger McGuinn. He was expecting to host Jorma Kaukonen alone when the latter appeared with a surprise guest: bassist Jack Casady, his partner in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Craig Thatcher’s belief that Eric Clapton is an exceptional musician and humanitarian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.