Studio music is packaged, sculpted and sanitized, plus a pinch of pitch correction and a dash of compression can turn even the ungifted into the next mega super star. But do not despair my friends. The news is great! The un-sterilized immediacy and primal energy of live blues burns ever more brightly, drawing the fervid attention of musicians and fans alike. Crackling with life, blues is attracting fans from across the demographic spectrum thanks to the persistence, commitment and talent of hard working groups like the Wisconsin-based Altered Five Blues Band (link to website), recent winner of the 2015 Grafton Blues Challenge and recipient of an International Blues Challenge Award for “The Best Self Produced CD (Cryin’ Mercy) of 2014.”
According to guitarist Jeff Schroedl, “Our music is song-driven contemporary blues; we try to carry on the tradition and help push the evolution of electric blues. All of us (vocalist Jeff ‘J.T.’ Taylor, bassist Mark Solveson, drummer Scott Schroedl, and keyboardist Raymond Tevich) meld together a wide range of influences including blues, jazz, rock, Memphis soul, Motown and more. Fifteen years ago, Mark and I were doing a lot of jazz on guitar and upright bass. Then we transitioned to the blues, initially arranging a lot of songs to the blues idiom, and as an outgrowth of that we started composing and performing our own material.”
Today, the Altered Five Blues Band repertoire includes a mix of original material, blues standards, and blues arrangements of songs from other genres as a strategy to broaden the audience and attract new fans from outside the blues family. Adapted songs like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” or the Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends” resonate with people who aren’t necessarily steeped in the blues. Hearing live the Altered Five versions makes a strong case that the adaptations are so seamless and effective it is hard to imagine the songs another way.
The band’s original material also tends to feel as if it has long-standing membership in the classic blues catalog. All of the benchmarks and idiosyncrasies of the genre are present and accounted for. Style-wise fans can expect a feast. Getting it right is due in large measure to the deep and diverse experiences of each band member. For example, vocalist Jeff Taylor grew up with Gospel. As a result his singing sizzles with joy and conviction. It is both engaging and infectious, leaving no doubt that live performance is a bubbling kettle and the audience is essential to the recipe.
Solveson’s visceral bass drives each groove forward, providing the solid foundation while drummer Scott Schroedl (Jeff’s brother) locks-in with Solveson, adding the pulse and dazzle. Thirteen years as collaborators has generated a high degree of intuitive understanding across the band. It’s a beautiful thing! Blues Bytes magazine declared the Altered Five rhythm section to be “the funkiest rhythm section outside of Memphis.”
Tevich and Jeff Schroedl shoulder the heavy lifting solo-wise. Each has a lot to say, but to their credit they also tend to stay out of each other’s way. Their playing is smart, technically sophisticated yet not overblown.
They play to serve the song. Tevich utilizes classic blues keyboard voices including piano, Rhodes, and B3 organ, while Jeff mainly relies on “Strat-type” guitars, splitting the signal between two classic American style amps for a delicious clean-to-swampy tone.
According to Solveson, “I’d say most typical blues audiences trend older, as we also do, but at many of our shows there is a broader age mix. The younger people who show up typically are kids who’ve been introduced to the blues by someone older, like parents. As a result, they tend to really appreciate our music.”
“We play to our strengths,” says Jeff. “Building a wider audience requires consistent playing and developing our sound. We want to evolve our music to reach more people.”
Industry recognition and recording success have also expanded the band’s reach. Accolades keep coming at an accelerating rate. Identified as “a festival favorite” in 2012 by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Altered Five’s live performance reputation serves them well in a city where music festivals happen non-stop, weather permitting. At the 2014 WAMI Award Show the band walked away with the “Blues Artist of the Year” award and the band’s third album, Cryin’ Mercy won “Best Self-Released CD” at the 2015 International Blues Challenge. It hit #3 in the iTunes Blues Store and #1 on the Roots Music Report radio chart. Previously, the band’s second album, Gotta Earn It, was featured on the iTunes Blues Store site
Nominated for two Blues Blast Awards (Contemporary Blues Album of the Year, and the Sean Costello Rising Star Award) Altered Five will be performing at the IBC Blues Challenge Next Year
Solveson says, “It feels good. Success with the last album is encouraging, but the music business side of things is also important. A ‘tongue in cheek’ remark from event organizers is ‘Wow! A blues band that shows up on time…’ ” Taking care of business counts for a lot with this band.
There is recognition across the board among band members that blues music is an art form that is subject to ongoing development. Blues is a living thing, especially in live performance. Over time, blues has gained complexity and sophistication, fueled by a wide array of influences, and it will continue to evolve. The Altered Five Blues Band is intent upon adding to the story.