This comment summoned an image of the eight-year-old Henkel, sitting around the trailer park playing blues ukulele for mud hens and marsh hawks. Woke up this morning, my propane tank was gone… I was about to ask him about that when he began talking about his guitar collection and his several Dobro steel guitars.
“I do my Robert Johnson primitive blues stuff on those, but I find myself mixing it up now with funk, jazz, and Latin rhythms. I got totally into western swing at one point, which I still mix in there.”
Henkel performs with horn players at his gigs at the Gordon Biersch Brewery on Mission Center Road, material that Henkel himself has arranged for horns. He also plays at the Morena Club every Thursday night and at La Casa del Zorro in Borrego Springs with sidemen Billy Watson, Dave Castel de Oro, Rodney Ratelle, and George Sluppick.
“My CD that came out in October is my sixth record release. Out of 17 songs there are 5 or 6 that are four-part horn orchestrations. It’s called Robin Henkel, Highway.” The title was inspired by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and the river scenes and imagery in that book. “I used to stare out at route 15 at Pomerado Road just before dawn, and I thought to myself, ‘This is the modern, mechanized river.’ ”
Henkel took jazz arrangement lessons from Hal Crook, who teaches at the Berklee College of Music. “I’ve had some wonderful teachers like Howard Roberts and Peter Sprague.”
At this point Henkel falls into a chord pattern and stops speaking as if remembering something one of his teachers had taught him. I watch his fingers carefully. He is playing a deceptively simple-sounding blues song, but the punctuating licks are figures that would not only never occur to me but would take me a year, more or less, to parrot.
- He sings with a surprisingly true voice.
- I keep on walkin’ just tryin’ to drive my blues away.
- I’m so glad that troubles don’t last always.
- You used to be my sweet gal, you soured on me.
- We won’t be together like we used to be. Keep on walkin’…
- I got coffee grinds in my coffee and a boll weevil in my meal
- A tack that’s in my shoe that keeps stickin’ in my heel.
- I keep on walkin’, just tryin’ to drive my blues away.
- I’m so glad that trouble don’t last always…
The song is Henkel’s own arrangement of a Blind Boy Fuller song. It’s called “Walkin’ My Troubles Away,” and it appears on the new CD with Johnny Viau on horns.
Henkel hands me back the guitar and the lesson resumes. Chunk, dunt, chunk, dunt. But I find myself immediately falling back into the pocket, nailing it dead center, and it no longer sounds stupid or boring. It is the heartbeat of a man with a love gone sour, a tack in his shoe, limping along the side of a highway, smiling to himself because hard times don’t last.
At the end of the half hour, I find myself with a sense of accomplishment. I learned how to play the two notes. And play them right.