Hoboken vocalist Meredith “Babe” Borden is rejuvenating the blues. While some bands strive to incorporate every musical influence into their sound – so much so that often times the music loses much of its power – Borden and partner Jon Catler have focused on mixing breathtaking vocals and fantastic guitar licks. The result is an integrated sound of energized blues, with Borden’s voice serving as a fourth instrument.
The band Willie McBlind features Borden, guitarist/composer Catler, bassist Neville L’Green, and drummer Lorne Watson. They will perform songs from their recent acclaimed album, Find My Way Back Home, at the Blue Apple Blues Festival this Thursday, April 3 in Manhattan.
The night will include many well-known musicians like Hugh Pool, who frequently plays at the Hoboken blues bar Scotland Yard; the Stone Crazy Blues Band; Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane and others.
The show starts at 7:30 p.m. and closes with a collection of the artists called the 13 O’Clock Blues Band at midnight, which includes Catler, Borden, Pool, Dane Johnson and others.
A house of blues
Borden and Catler are producing the festival at Crash Mansion, at 199 Bowery Street. Yet this isn’t the first blues festival for the pair. In 2005, they ran the Hoboken Blues Be-iN festival at Frank Sinatra Park in August.
In addition to her remarkable singing voice that includes a 3-octave range, Borden is an accomplished actress. Her experience in musical theater is extensive, having traveled all over the world for various productions including the rock musical Hair during a European tour in 1994-95. A gifted performer for 20 years, she has many credits and is a company member of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players.
Borden has worked with Catler for 13 years, which is clear when one hears their almost magical blend of chords and voice.
Borden said that it seemed to be the right time for a festival and for the band Willie McBlind, which has been together since 2004.
She said that in New York, blues festivals seem to be disappearing, while in New Jersey the scene is thriving. “It’s kind of appropriate that we are performing a few doors down from [the now defunct] CBGB,” said Borden. “We aren’t doing the traditional blues. We are doing cutting-edge blues.”
She said that in addition to the press from the album, Catler has gained notice for his redesigned microtonal guitar, which allows for 64 notes per octave including both consonant and dissonant sounds not heard on regular guitars.
Catler’s newest creation is called the 12-Tone Ultra Plus guitar, which is a standard guitar with extra frets added. That guitar, among others, is available through Free Note Music, which Catler owns and Borden is the unofficial partner.
“Microtonal guitars are hitting the mainstream now,” said Borden. “With blues being the natural fit for microtonal output, it seemed to be the right fit and time for us.”
Catler, who is an accomplished composer and guitarist, has traveled and performed extensively in the United States and Europe. He has performed on many albums such as La Monte Young and the Forever Bad Blues Band, Crash Landing, Birdhouse, among others.
A performance to remember Borden said they hope to hold the festival annually and possibly take the show on the road.
“We don’t have a specific venue in mind,” said Borden. “It would be great to do it at Scotland Yard or Maxwell’s.”
Borden said that they have the set list planned, which includes songs from the debut album (“Train” by Catler and “Pony Blues” by Charley Patton) and Catler’s original rearrangements of some blues classics.
“We like to start off our set with an instrumental, which is pretty much a blues tradition,” she said.
One song that has particular importance to Borden is “It Don’t Make Sense, You Can’t Make Peace” by Willie Dixon. She said that Dixon sent the song to Congress during the Reagan administration as a plea for peace. Willie McBlind will perform Dixon’s song at the show.
“I’d say it is one of the most important songs on our new record,” said Borden, who said the new album should be finished late fall. “I lost my mother to cancer this past year, so there is a verse that has special meaning to me.”
The verse reads: “You can make a transfusion that can save a life. Why you can change the darkness into broad daylight. You can make the deaf man hear and the dumb man speak. But it don’t make sense, can’t make peace.”
Pool, who plays the second Tuesday of every month at Scotland Yard, will open the show. Pool has played at dozens of notable venues like B.B. King and the Bottom Line and he performed with greats Johnny Winter, John Mayall, Leslie West and others.
At the Yard, Pool normally plays with Keith Christopher and Matt Mousseau.
Pool also co-owns Excello Recording studio in Brooklyn, which he bought in 1998.
He travels frequently for international gigs, but while home he splits his time between playing and making albums at his studio, he said.
He engineered Willie McBlind’s debut album, Find My Way Back Home, which was recorded and mixed at his studio with the exception of tracks 4 & 5.
Pool said that he likes “the immediacy and the simplicity of expression” in blues.
“People have a misconception of what that is,” said Pool. “If [a blues musician] started singing and they heard a screen door slam that would be the first line. It is very difficult to do. Sometimes people try to make it sound profound and meaningful and they make it sound trite.”
He added, “But what I love about the blues is the level of sophistication that is really easy to miss – that is what I was drawn to. For the same reason I respond to a Bob Dylan song is because of the simplicity of the language and the ability to convey that. That’s what I love most about it.”
Pool also plays with blues maven Christine Santelli, who books the talent at Scotland Yard and created the local scene.
Pool has played on three of Santelli’s albums including her latest, Tales from the Red Room, which he also recorded.
Pool said that the blues scene in Manhattan has changed considerably with all the music venues closing down. “Places close down and I just haven’t found places that I want to play,” said Pool, who is considering promoting his own night. “The whole thing with five bands on the bill – give me a break. I’ve made hundreds of records – recorded, played on, mixed on, and they act like the talent is disposable. It’s horrifying to me. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been blessed. I have a wife, two kids, a house, but in New York there just really isn’t a scene anymore.”
Yet the scene is still alive at Scotland Yard, where Pool said he loves to play. And New York will get a large shot of it on Thursday when Crash Mansion is alive with the considerable talent filling the room.
Pool said he expects that the blues festival will be a good gig.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Pool, who added that the music won’t be the stereotypical blues – it will be an experience.
Jersey City resident, musician and former engineer at Grisly Lab, Dane Johnson, will perform with the 13 O’Clock Blues Band. While working at the Grisly Lab with partner Matt Cusak, Johnson engineered and recorded tracks 4 & 5 on the Find My Way Back Home album.
Willie McBlind’s bassist L’Green, who is originally from Australia, also calls Jersey City home.
Borden said that L’Green has been with the band since the beginning.
“He’s extremely dynamic and masterful on his instruments,” said Borden. “He’s played with blues bands to symphony orchestras, so his musical talents are quite deep.”
A night to remember
The doors open at 7:30 p.m. for the Blue Apple Blues Festival at Crash Mansion, 199 Bowery (at Spring Street) in Manhattan. Tickets are available at the door for $15. For more information, visit: www.microtones.com or www.blueappleblues.com or www.crashmansion.com In addition, copies of the Willie McBlind’s fantastic debut CD Find My Way Back Home is available at Tunes on Washington Street in Hoboken.
Borden said that she hopes that the night of blues expands their minds.
“We hope that it expands their musical minds and are blown away by the music,” said Borden. “We want to give them a mind-bending experience.”
Diana Schwaeble can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.