Sean Carney Band brings jazz-infused blues to Oregon Express
By Rusty Pate
From the hardcore purists who only listen to old 78 rpm Son House records, to the casual listener whose only experience with the genre stems from the ridiculous 1986 Ralph Macchio film “Crossroads,” virtually everyone has heard the blues, even if they swear they haven’t.
Sean Carney took the long way to becoming passionate for this form of music. He grew up surrounded by jazz players. His father played jazz and classical bass. One uncle was a professor of jazz studies at the Ohio State University and a renowned trombonist who worked in Dayton in the 1970s and 1980s. The first music that really made him want to play, however, was about as far from those two styles as one can get: heavy metal.
At 13 years old, Carney was the prime age for the average metal fan. Another uncle, Dave West, took it upon himself to broaden young Sean Carney’s musical horizons.
“He was appalled by my musical tastes back then,” Carney said. “So, he made it a personal mission to turn me on to as much blues as he could, because that’s what he loved. I guess he was on to something, because he converted me pretty quick.”
The first bluesmen to grab Carney were Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, but he soon graduated to the more sophisticated jazz leaning heavyweights like T-Bone Walker and Robert Lockwood.
“I was really taken by the sound of those big, hollow-body guitars with both of those guys, especially T-Bone Walker,” Carney said. “You always see these pictures of him playing these ES-5 Gibson guitars. The sound and look of those guitars just really fascinated me.”
With a family full of musicians, playing out with his uncles was the first logical step in Carney’s career. At the age of 20, he stepped out with his own group, Sean Carney & the Night Owlz. During this time, a DJ in Carney’s hometown of Columbus found out Christine Kittrell lived in the area.
Kittrell recorded in the 1950s, eventually playing with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Little Richard. Carney sought out Kittrell and found her in poor health. He befriended her and eventually convinced her to return to the stage. They worked together for the next decade.
“She was probably the biggest influence on me,” Carney said. “I was really fascinated by her old recordings and I was just amazed I met this person and this person was my friend. She really took me under her wing and spent a lot of time and energy with me.”
After Kittrell passed away in 2001, Carney began working with Dayton’s own Teeny Tucker. It was during this time he first began to dabble in songwriting. While the typical blues player rarely strays from the standard three chords and 12 bars, Carney constantly tries to avoid this trap.
Granted, that structure can still be found if his tunes are boiled down to their skeletal remains, but his jazz background allows him to embellish tunes differently than many million-note-a-minute virtuosos.
“I think that influence helped me push my blues boundaries a little bit,” Carney said. “I add some passing chords in there and some chords that might be out of the standard blues vocabulary. I try to escape the three chords a little bit without getting too far away from the blues form. It seems like my songs always have some kind of weird little twist in them somewhere.”
Once his confidence in his songwriting skills began to show, he began pumping out originals with his own band. A real turning point for the group came in 2007 when they won the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Carney also took home the Albert King Award and perhaps the best trophy ever: a Gibson ES-335 guitar.
That award raised Carney’s touring profile significantly, not only in the states, but also abroad. He still tours Europe regularly, having just completed a run in December of 2013 and is slated to return later this year.
According to Carney, there is a noticeable difference between U.S. audiences and their European counterparts.
“One of the really stark contrasts I’ve seen, especially in France and Belgium, are these listening audiences where the entire room is quiet, nobody is talking and they’re focusing 100 percent of their attention on the music,” Carney said. “You can hear a pin drop at any given point.”
He was quick to add it wasn’t necessarily a better or worse experience than a rowdy American crowd, but the first few times playing in front of quiet onlookers really blew his mind.
Carney’s upcoming trip to Dayton will include two new rooms his group has never played in: Oregon Express on Friday, March 7, and Riff Raff Tavern on Saturday, March 15. The three-piece band will include Marty Romie on bass and Carney’s uncle Dave West, who first turned him on to this music in the first place.
He promises a night full of his take on jazzy blues – two genres that, on the surface, might seem worlds apart, but for Carney they are like siblings.
“As far as I can see it really came from the same place,” Carney said. “I think they just grew up to sound different.”
The Sean Carney Band will play on Friday, March 7, at Oregon Express, 336 E. Fifth St. The show is 21 and up, doors at 9 p.m. The Sean Carney Band will play Riff Raff Tavern on the Canal, 130 N. Patterson Blvd. on Saturday, March 15. Doors open at 9 p.m. For more information, please visit seancarneyblues.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com