Few out-of-towners have performed more often or more memorably on the stage of Preservation Pub than Nashville four-piece the Blackfoot Gypsies. The seven-year-old outfit has been playing Knoxville’s Pub since their early days as a two-piece, before singer-guitarist Matthew Paige and drummer Zach Murphy decided to expand the lineup to include harp player Ollie Dogg and bass player Dylan Whitlow.
The Gypsies are ostensibly a blues-rock outfit, though that descriptor only hints at the dense grab-bag of retro-rock and traditional influences that inform their music. Their sound is that of a blues-powered locomotive, coal-fired by the rhythmic juggernaut created when Paige’s idiosyncratic hybrid slide guitar style locks in with Murphy’s insistent rattle.
It’s the sound of country blues a la Robert Johnson and Fred McDowell, reshaped by the atavistic propulsion of bluegrass and the mournful spirit of white proto-country, the whole of it filtered through the lens of classic blues-rock assimilationists like the Rolling Stones.
At the heart of it all is Paige, who commands attention on stage with his lank mop of hair, soda-bottle glasses and long, rail-thin physique. Singing in a voice that’s at once shrill and strangely beguiling, he rocks back and forth in a weird sync with Murphy’s beat, his angular frame a marvel of physics-defying elasticity.
Paige traces his musical inspiration back to his father, who was himself a voracious consumer of traditional musics, and who gave his young son the less-than-subtle nudge that started his career. “My dad told me I had to pick an instrument and play it,” Paige remembers. “Little did he know it would dominate the rest of my life. He wasn’t always thrilled with that, but, hey, he got what he asked for.”
That led inevitably to the pre-adolescent Paige plundering dad’s vinyl record collection. “Fortunately, he liked good music,” Paige says. “Lightning Hopkins was a big one that I got from my dad. John Lee Hooker. Robert Johnson. Hank Williams. Then came my first concert,Willie Nelson.”
All that listening gradually gave rise to Paige’s distinctive guitar style. A barreling, percussive amalgamation of various picking techniques working in concert with bottleneck slide, Paige’s playing owes as much to early country blues artists like McDowell as it does to rock ‘n’ roll slide masters like Duane Allman or Mick Taylor. “It started with me learning to play old Muddy Waters songs with the slide,” he says. “I loved the sounds I got, and I got obsessed with the slide almost immediately.”
The evolution of his uncanny man-alto singing voice, however, was another matter entirely. Paige tells that it was at first a daunting proposition, stepping up to the mic solo with his nasally twang, a keening that has more in common with high ‘n’ lonesome traditional mountain music wailers than with the gruff baritones indigenous to blues and rock ‘n’ roll. “The first time I thought about having to sing myself, it freaked me out,” says Paige. “Then I came to terms with what I had going on, and how I could use it. It was like, okay, this is what you’ve got. Now what are you going to do about it?”
After playing as a duo for the first few years of the band’s existence, Paige and Murphy added bass and harmonica to the mix four years ago; the move was a fruitful one, as the Gypsies foursome recently released their third full-length album “To the Top” on Plowboy Records. Paige says the addition of Gregg and Whitlow has been the most important factor in the band’s evolution, more important than the influence of any single artist or sound. “When you have that much sonic energy going on at once, there’s just no substitute for it,” Paige says. “It increases the chance of spontaneity.
“If I had to draw any parallels to what we’re trying to do, I’d say that what the Stones did in the early days was really cool,” he continues. “That was a great interpretation of the blues, where they really tapped into the human element of it. Their blues cover stuff was pretty sexy. I’ve heard Keith and Mick talk about how you have to conjure that unknown element, and how it’s a very visceral tap. And they did it. That’s the kind of thing we try to do, create that essence of sexy blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
The Blackfoot Gypsies will play Preservation Pub Friday, May 19 at 10 p.m.