The veteran Grand Rapids guitarist, performer and instructor fronts an intriguing new trio with mandolinist Jason Wheeler and percussionist Brandan Grinwis, mining American roots gems.
‘Rhythm is the Focus’: Singer-guitarist Junior Valentine with mandolin player Jason Wheeler. (Photo/Anthony Norkus)
Over a career spanning more than two dozen years, Junior Valentine has played countless gigs with a bevy of bands steeped in R&B, blues and rock, taught guitar, bass and ukulele to more than 400 students and toured the country.
But the Grand Rapids guitarist and singer with a vast repertoire and an encyclopedic knowledge of roots music has never collaborated with a band quite like this.
Junior’s Gumbo: From left, Jason Wheeler, Brandan Grinwis and Junior Valentine. (Photo/Anthony Norkus)
A “chance encounter” with young, progressive bluegrass mandolinist Jason Wheeler and a Facebook inquiry from percussionist and Grand Rapids Community College instructor Brandan Grinwis has produced an eclectic trio unlike anything else in West Michigan – a rootsy, rhythm-happy outfit that meshes elements of blues, R&B, funk, Island music, folk and bluegrass to simmer up a tasty stew of styles.
It quickly became such an inspirational merging of talents that they just wrapped up recording a new album with Rockford engineer and producer Al McAvoy.
For the ever-gregarious Valentine, 59, it’s an invigorating new venture that leans heavily on his extensive performance experience with a variety of bands as well as his in-depth knowledge of American roots music which reaches back to the 1940s.
BUILDING ON IDEAS, WITH A HEFTY CATALOG OF INFLUENCES
“This whole project sort of just begot itself,” says Valentine. “I had an idea in the beginning, then another idea and another idea. It turned out to be a really good project. It’s got a lot of variety of tunes.”
It also has great variety in approach, as displayed this week on Local Spins Live, when the trio uncorked a distinctive acoustic cover of “Mercury Blues,” a song written in 1949 by K.C. Douglas and Robert Geddins, and recorded by a host of artists over the years. Check out the podcast of the show here and watch a video of their performance below.
Valentine’s musical odyssey – which has included fronting Junior Valentine & The All Stars and playing with Hank Mowery & The Hawktones – began as a lad with a guitar who “listened to lots of records and tried to pull the piece off, whatever it was.”
And Chuck Berry’s 1958 classic, “Johnny B. Goode,” got it all started.
“When I was a kid and you were hanging around the periphery of some band … and you said, ‘Can I sit in,’ and they said, ‘Yes,’ you had to know a song,” says Valentine, who graduated from Greenville High School. “ ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was the entry point.”
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A world of influential music followed, from guitarist Duane Allman’s riveting rendition of “Statesboro Blues” to the seminal blues of Elmore James.
Wheeler and Grinwis (Photo/Anthony Norkus)
“At the end of the day or in the morning when I wake up, I’m a rock n roll guitar player. You can put so much in there,” Valentine suggests.
“So, I like blues, but I like rhythm and blues even more, which is music that’s dance-oriented. When I expand it past that, it’s just anything with a groove, anything that’s body music. The bottom line for me is rhythm. I like to solo and all that stuff, but I’m a frustrated drummer. It’s what I first wanted to do – just rhythm music, wherever it comes from.”
That attitude and appreciation of American roots music drives the new trio, captivating Wheeler, best known for his work with Grand Rapids bluegrass band Fauxgrass, and Grinwis, a GRCC instructor who’s performed with symphony orchestras and the Badenya Drum and Dance Ensemble.
“We got to doing some picking and exploring some material that he was more familiar with than myself,” says Wheeler, who first met Valentine through a mutual friend, Jerry Douthett, who often organizes house concerts in the Rockford area.
EXPLORING AMERICAN ROOTS MUSIC WITH UNIQUE INSTRUMENTATION
“Learning all of the history behind these tunes has really drawn me into enjoying what we’re doing and not thinking so much about what the differences (are) between me coming from a bluegrass world and him coming from a blues or rock ’n’ roll world – kind of just dropping those boundaries or whatever and exploring these tunes a little bit.”
That exploration has mined an unusual mix of artists, including Bob Dylan, Bo Diddley, The Paragons, Mississippi Fred McDowell, The Coasters, Little Feat, Solomon Burke, Professor Longhair, Muddy Waters, The Rolling Stones, Hound Dog Taylor, The Everly Brothers, Led Zeppelin and Willie Dixon.
The trio on Local Spins Live (Photo/Anthony Norkus)
The trio’s instrumentation stands out from other groups, too, with Valentine playing six- and 12-string open-tuned slide guitars, Wheeler on mandolin and Grinwis on percussion rather than a “typical trap drum set.”
“Most important, this is not a blues band. This is a roots/rhythm band. The rhythm is the focus. I want peeps to dance,” Valentine insists, noting the best way “to sum up this project is ‘Junior’s Gumbo.’ ”
The trio plays Schuler Books and Music, 2660 28th St. SE, at 7 p.m. Friday, April 25. The next day, on Saturday, April 26, Valentine and Grinwis play Grand Haven’s Chilly Blues Festival at the Kirby Grill, 2 Washington Ave., from 2 to 6 p.m. Admission to both events is free.
For more about Valentine and the trio, visit his website at juniorvalentine.com.
Story and podcast at LocalSpins.com: Junior Valentine, Jason Wheeler and Brandan Grinwis perform “Mercury Blues” on John Sinkevics’ Local Spins Live on News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW) on April 16, 2014 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Slide-Guitar Savvy: Valentine, with Wheeler and Grinwis (Photo/Anthony Norkus)
Green Room Warmup: Valentine and Wheeler. (Photo/Anthony Norkus)
The Local Spins Live gang (Photo/Anthony Norkus)
Email John Sinkevics at email@example.com.
Copyright 2014, Spins on Music
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FS ~ 4/26/2014 – 5/18/2014