Tone Uriza: Ain’t Nuthin’ But The Blues

By Traci Nubalo

One of the things I did to make a living in professional music was to promote concerts. I enjoyed the shows themselves, but sometimes strange things would happen that made it a tough gig.

At one point I booked a show with the great Muddy Waters - the Father of the Blues. He was on tour with Pinetop Perkins on piano, and Bob Margolin on guitar - a dream blues band, to be sure! The only venue I could get for that night was a former movie theatre that I would sometimes use for concerts. I’d had a few successful shows there but the drawback was the dressing room situation. The only available area was an upstairs room that had been used as the projection booth. It was a dank, airless kind of a place, with the huge, musty projectors still sitting in the middle of the room. Also, the performers had to walk to the stage from the back of the audience, something that’s never popular with artists.

I had successfully put on Squeeze in the theatre, as well as former Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson, but as the Muddy Waters play date neared I started to feel a little bit insecure about having to put such a stellar (let’s face it, legendary) artist back there. I cleaned the room like crazy, and found a few carpets that I put here and there. But no matter what I did, the room just looked like crap.

I met Muddy and his wife in front of the theatre that afternoon and rather sheepishly led them up the narrow staircase to the “dressing room.” Once inside the ugly place, Muddy said not a word, just looked away. But Mrs. Waters tore into me with a vengeance shrieking, “This is the room for the Father of the Blues?” After several minutes of verbal abuse all I could think to do was to mumble an apology and head for the door as soon as I could.

All day I just felt terrible. I felt a little bit better when showtime arrived, though. During the day I had devised a clever way around the entrance problem. I had the band slip onto the darkened stage without Muddy and begin the opening riffs of his classic hit “Mannish Boy”. The crowd jumped to its feet when they heard the disembodied voice of the legendary Muddy Waters sing “I’m a man!” On my signal, the huge spotlights swung around to the back of the theatre and there he was, microphone in hand, moving slowly down the left aisle singing and shaking hands along the way. I was just beside the stage and when he reached me I began to back away a bit, still embarrassed by the earlier scene. But he grabbed my hand and pulled me into a full hug and said, “Baby, it ain’t nuthin’ but the blues!” The crowd erupted at this comment, but I was the only person there who knew what he really meant. He smiled and kissed my cheek and made his way to the stage singing, “I’m a man! I spell M…A…N”. My heart soared!

Of course, I’ll never forget that scene, and I was thinking about it as I prepared to interview Second Life’s own Big Daddy of the Blues, Tone Uriza.

Traci Nubalo: Tone, it's almost stereotypical that blues players run into tough times. Has that been true in your career?

Tone Uriza: I can answer that with an anecdote that happened to me early on. The very first blues band I put together found itself without a bass player one day and I was lucky enough to get a bass player that was experienced and could really play the blues.

He was polite and fit in nicely, but one day he took me aside and said, “You know you haven't lived the blues so it’s hard for you to play the blues.” And he was right. It wasn't until I went through a divorce and other things in my life that I got what he was saying.

TN: Wow!

TU: I think that that stereotype is kind of deserved in that getting in touch with those deep feelings is tough when you are from a comfortable lifestyle and very young. There are always the exceptions, like Jonny Lang.

TN: Yes, but few and far between. How did you get started as a blues player?

TU: Well I grew up in the southwest US in a little mining town west of Tucson called Ajo, Arizona. My dad played guitar, as did my uncles.And my maternal grandfather played guitar in the brothels along the Mexican/US border at the turn of the century. So it was in my blood so to speak.

But growing up in a predominately Mexican/Western environment I wasn't able to get the kind of guitar instruction I was seeking, which was rock and blues. So I began to teach myself by ear. This was at age 9.

When I graduated from high school I moved to Tucson, Arizona to study digital electronics at the community college. At the same time I started playing anywhere around town they would let me.

Before I finished my associates degree I started working for a digital electronics company during the day and played at night. I haven't stopped since, except for the day gig. I gave that up in 1989 to play full time.

TN: We in Second Life know you as a blues player, but my ear tells me that there are some other influences going on at the same time.

TU: Oh yeah, absolutely. I am fascinated by the blues and the influence it has had on all other American musical art forms like rock & roll, jazz, R&B, funk. So to me the name blues means so much more than the traditional acoustic two- and three-chord progressions.

TN: Personally, I enjoy that hybrid although some of the blues purists look down on that. They tend to not enjoy anything but straight ahead blues forms. Have you run into any of that here?

TU: LOL Yes, just once. There’s a fellow from Germany in SL who hates me playing anything other than the old traditional blues. He still comes to my shows but if I am not playing the dobro when he rezzes he leaves. *giggles*

TN: Let’s talk tech for a minute. What equipment are you using these days in your SL performances?

TU: I use a Marshall MXL 990 recording condenser mic for my vocals, a Marshall 991 condenser mic for my acoustic guitars, and a Line 6 PODxt for my electric guitars. That’s all mixed on a Behringer Xenyx 1202 FX mixer. The acoustic guitars sound better if a mic is on them rather than straight in.

TN: Okay...that implies multiple guitars. Which ones do you use the most?

TU: I use the electric guitar more, usually a Fender Stratocaster. I have two. One is a 1977, and one is a 1979.

TN: Both pre-Japan then.

TU: Yes. I only buy American-made Strats. And for acoustics I use a 1933 Gibson or a late model Ibanez acoustic/electric.

TN: Great, thanks! The reason I asked is that your sound is very clean, but it's obvious that you are using some degree of effects.

TU: Yes. And I also have a Regal dobro. That’s the POD xt. It's an amp/effects modeler.

TN: Yes, and boy does that sound killer!

TU: It's awesome. And the software lets me control everything on it from my computer.

TN: You just recently started using the dobro in your SL shows, right?

TU: Yes. The dobro is something I have had for a long time but I would consider my self an electric blues player. I only started using it after I experimented with the sound.

TN: In my humble opinion, adding the dobro gives your show a very tasty new dimension in the sound.

TU: Thank you.

One of the things that I love about going to see Tone Uriza in Second Life is that, just as he describes here, he’s not afraid to move away from the traditional twelve-bar blues format, even within a song which is usually confined to that form. He’ll shift into an off-time signature, or move into modes which are jazzier and freer than straight-ahead blues.

He opened one recent SL set with the Booker T. Jones/William Bell classic “Born Under a Bad Sign” and held pretty much to the straight-up 4/4 time, only tossing in some very natural guitar accents and little syncopations here and there for color. Yet he completely owned his remake of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Koochie Man”, tossing in references to ‘7,000 lindens’ and other localizing lyrics which the audience, of course, loved. (By the way, Tone had no idea that I was going to use the Muddy Waters story as the opening of this piece, and I was thrilled to find him playing three songs from the Father of the Blues on the night I was there to cover his set).

Then there’s the dobro. By way of introduction to some, the dobro is essentially a guitar with a metal resonator plate attached where the sound hole would normally be. It provides a sustained metallic sound perfect for blues, bluegrass and other “earthy” styles. It’s either plucked or played with a slide. Big Daddy usually tosses a couple of dobro songs into his set, my favorite being the haunting Lowell George song “Willing”. And like he said, he plays a model of dobro which gives him darn near 100% sonic control. During “Willing” this puts the instrument front and center with a gorgeous tone and vibrancy not available on the old Opry-style dobro (traditionally played through a microphone).

Another amazing component of Tone’s show is the vocals. He sings in a rare high, soft-yet-powerful voice. But underneath he somehow lays in an awesome gravelly texture. It gives the songs crystal clear lyrics, combined with that world-weary longing that helps the singer to tell the blues tale. Like many of the great things in music, it turns out that his singing came from necessity.

TN: Tone, a lot of your fans comment on your voice. You have developed a wonderful style of singing.

TU: It's funny because I never intended to be a singer. But I have always liked being independent and self-sufficient so I started doing it all from running my own band, owning my own PA, and booking myself. So that eventually led to doing all the singing as well.

TN: Not the first time I've heard that said!

TU: Yup.

TN: What do you think it is about SL that makes this music scene so dynamic and entertaining?

TU: Well, in the real world you are judged so much on appearance whether you are good or not and SL has leveled that playing field immensely. Here you are judged purely on your sound, and how hot you can make your avie! *giggles*

TN: There’s a benefit to understanding how to entertain, as well. And you score very highly in both the sound and the entertainment areas. One of the things I love about your shows is your audience. They LOVE them some Big Daddy!

TU: Awwww. Well I feel very blessed. I so enjoy playing the blues for people. Over the years I have questioned myself about my commitment, wondering if I do it because I really love the music or if I need the attention.

Now that I have been doing it for almost 30 years and I am going to be 55 in January, I have realized that the happiest moments in my life were when my family got together at my uncle's house and everyone would bring out the instruments and sing together. And ever since then, every time I get onstage whether real or virtual, I am trying to recapture those moments. So the audience is always a part of my shows, like my family. And I treat them that way. Perhaps that is why they love being there.

TN: Yes. And your shows contain not only great playing and singing, but a lot of laughter.

TU: Yes. My family loved to laugh. I want everyone to walk away happy, because I do every time I get to play.

TN: One of the things that your audiences seems to enjoy is making YOU laugh, too.

TU: *giggles* I'm probably one of the few performers that the audience likes better when I mess up and blow it in the middle of the song. But it is all an "in the moment" thing for me.

One of the things that all this experience has taught me is that perfection is boring; and fun almost never is.

I also want to say that I never imagined that the two things I enjoy in life the most would come together for me. I love playing music and I love playing with computers. So Second Life has been a natural fit from the very first day.

As the close of the hour neared, some requests were shouted from the crowd about “that dog song”. Tone cranked the volume and the distortion waaaay up and launched into Muddy Waters’ monster blues piece “Baby Please Don’t Go”. Leaning hard on the bottom strings he sliced through the opening riffs using almost a Texas boogie feel. Then, shifting to a darker voice, all low and growly, he snarled and moaned his way through a ten-minute tale of kink and desire, with stops along the way at spanking, oral love, dog-style sex, and shackles. Cranked to the max, he ended with a laugh and a howl, leaving the audience breathless.

The crowd erupted into wild applause and some even wilder comments. “Holy yummyumms, that was great, Tone!” said one woman. And from a couple dancing in the back: She - “We need some private time after that song!” He - “Woof.”

TN: Could you go a little deeper into your relationship with your SL audience? How do you feel about them? What would you like to say to them?

TU: I am very blessed to have an audience in Second Life. At a time in my life when most of my peers are struggling to maintain their audiences in RL, I am reaching more and more people on the internet. I play everyday and can pay my bills because of my fans and audiences. Do you have any idea what that means to a musician?

It means the world to me. Thank you guys so much! It reminds me of how lucky I am.


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