Supersonic Blues Machine
A fluid, ever-changing line-up that brings together A-listers and heavyweight musicians, Supersonic Blues Machine are taking the blues where it has never set foot before…
A fluid line-up of A-listers and heavyweight musos, they’re taking the blues where it has never set foot before.
Is it a supergroup? A blues band? A musical jet plane? Whatever it is, Supersonic Blues Machine is not a group that stands still or stands on ceremony. A motley crew of rock’n’roll heavyweights, all moonlighting from their day jobs, they take over the backstage area of Shepherd’s Bush Empire at lunchtime with the enthusiasm of a gang of teenagers given the house keys for the weekend.
During a break while setting up for tonight’s show, the four principals gather for a photograph in the alleyway outside. Lined up along the wall are Kris Barras, 31, singer/guitarist from Torquay; Fabrizio Grossi, 51, singer/bass player from Milan; Kenny Aronoff, 65, drummer out of Bloomington, Indiana; and Billy F. Gibbons, 68, singer/guitarist from Houston, Texas.
There are no managers or minders around as a ragged-looking dude comes shuffling towards them, stops in his tracks and yells at Gibbons: “ZZ Top! Man, are you playing here tonight?!” Gibbons greets him cordially, and poses for a photo with him. But it is not a photo the guy wants. “Can you give me some money for a drink, please?” Tricky moment. Gibbons reaches in his pocket for some change, equably enough. Then Aronoff gives him some more. These guys are jet-set stars, and Gibbons is about as recognisable as a rock’n’roll icon can be, but they are cool and comfortable out on the street. Respect.
Supersonic Blues Machine are in town at the start of a string of European dates to promote the band’s second album, Californisoul. Like their debut West Of Flushing, South Of Frisco, released in 2016, it’s a top-notch collection of new blues-rock songs including cameos from the cream of the latter-day guitar-hero fraternity: Robben Ford, Eric Gales, Walter Trout, Steve Lukather and, of course, the man Gibbons.
The core of the band is the rhythm section of Grossi and legendary session drummer Aronoff. Both of these larger-than-life characters have CVs
that look like telephone directories and energy levels that are off-the-scale. Aronoff is known in the first instance for his work with John Mellencamp, but he’s played with everyone: Iggy Pop, Celine Dion, Smashing Pumpkins, Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alanis Morissette… the list is endless. If he’s sleeping, it’s likely that he’s on a plane. Bassist Grossi has likewise played with stars, ranging from Steve Vai and Neal Schon to Tina Arena and Cypress Hill, while his long list of production credits stretches from Alice Cooper to ZZ Top.
What makes Supersonic Blues Machine different for Grossi and Aronoff is that instead of being guns for hire, it’s their own group and they get to call the shots. And rather than have a fixed line-up, they’ve built up a pool of star singer/guitarists that they can call on to contribute songs to the albums and to play live with them. Grossi likes to think of the ever-changing nature of SBM as somehow akin to the freewheeling example of bands in the 1960s.
“I think it was the best decade ever in music,” he says. “Back then you would have a congregation of stars who were friends; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Pete Townshend and John Lennon all playing on one show. That’s the approach we wanted to have. Always have one or two guys, myself and Kenny, at the core, but everything else rotates. And playing each other’s songs. By switching people all the time, that keeps it fresh.”
“Mind you,” Aronoff says thoughtfully, “You’ve got to have someone who stays put.”
The latest spin of the revolving door has seen the exit of Texan singer and guitarist Lance Lopez, who played on the new album but couldn’t make it for the shows. Far from fretting about this logistical headache, Grossi regards it as a triumph (of sorts). “Lance was doing well as a solo act ten or twelve years ago, then he fell into trouble and he needed a rescue,” Grossi says. “I guess that is what Supersonic provided for him, and we wish him all the best.”
Replacing Lopez for the foreseeable future is the extravagantly tattooed Kris Barras. Introduced to music by his father, who bought him his first guitar at the age of six, Barras developed parallel careers as he grew up in music and as a Mixed Martial Arts cage fighter. “After a while, the fighting was bringing me much more success than the guitar playing,” he says. “I didn’t worry about damaging my hands. I enjoyed fighting, to be honest. I took it as far as I could, and fought in front of some big crowds.”
Having retired from the cage, Barras revived his music career and released his album The Divine And Dirty this year. His label approached Supersonic Blues Machine to see if he could support them on some of their shows. When Grossi heard the record, he flipped. “This guy wants to open our show? No way. I want him to tour with us as part of the band!” Grossi says.
For Barras, the invitation to join SBM was the call of destiny. In the space of a few months he has gone from playing pubs to singing and playing alongside Billy Gibbons. Barras is totally unfazed by this sudden, dizzying change of fortune, and radiates a Zen-like air of calm entitlement as he sits next to the Texan legend in the Empire’s dressing room. Later, when the band play their first gig with Barras as, effectively, the main voice and guitar player for much of the show, he exudes raw charisma and an easy authority. Indeed his stage presence is eclipsed by only one man in the starstudded troupe.
Billy Gibbons is a force of nature. Even spending a few minutes in his company is an education in the mechanics of star power. He says fewer words than any of the others, but, rather like his guitar playing at the end of the SBM show, when he leads the way through a bunch of favourites including ZZ’s La Grange and Sharp Dressed Man, his carefully measured phrases are the ones that count. The band may be a collective, produced and run by Grossi and Aronoff, but, as Grossi puts it: “Nobody tells Billy what to do.”
“Fabrizio and I met on a project fifteen years ago,” says Gibbons. “And I really liked the way he worked as a producer. Then I discovered he was a bass player. This is my guy! He’s got the ears, but he’s also got the hands.”
Gibbons is short-sighted, and to begin with he’s wearing a pair of (not sun, probably not cheap) glasses, which give him a professorial look. These days the beard is the colour of fine sandstone. On the second finger of each hand he wears enormous grinning-skull rings designed by Los Angeles jeweller Ryk Maverick.
Gibbons credits Grossi with awakening a broader desire in him to experiment and expand away from the confines of ZZ Top. “From Fabrizio we went to Queens Of The Stone Age,” he says, speaking in the royal plural. “Very different. Then on to Depeche Mode. Okay, let’s get wired! The draw was the challenge of going to unfamiliar places. And it’s been pretty wide-ranging.”
In what kind of way is all this still connected to the blues?
“I think the word is ‘interpretation’,” Gibbons says. “We didn’t grow up picking cotton on a field in Mississippi, so now it’s all a matter of interpretation. Keith Richards said: ‘It’s only three chords, but it’s how you put them together.’ There’s something in this art of simplicity that has continued to expand and resonate. Add ‘Supersonic’ to the mix and it allows us to take the blues into places that are so non-traditional. Geographically, we’ve found blues fans in Iceland, Japan, Norway, India. But also philosophically… My friend Jimmy Vaughan [of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and brother of the late Stevie Ray] calls that traditional blues-shuffle 12-bar thing the ‘dunta-dunta’. Well, with this band we’re stepping well outside of the Dunta-Dunta.”
ZZ Top will be touring next year to celebrate the trio’s 50th anniversary, and like the vintage hot rods he keeps and adores, Gibbons is firing on all cylinders. How long can this all go on?
“Well, again, Keith Richards said: ‘Follow the steps of Muddy Waters. Do it until it’s done.’”
“We always have one or two guys, myself and Kenny, at the core, but everything else rotates.”
Bassist Fabrizio Grossi
Californisoul is out now via Mascot.
Sonic boomers: (l to r) Fabrizio Grossi, Kris Barras, Billy Gibbons, Kenny Aronoff.