Robin Henkel hoots, hollers, walks out into the audience with his guitar, sits at their tables, and tells stories. He favors the raw end of what his instrument can sound like, and when he sings it comes out in an unexpected baritone.
Henkel is a self-styled blues man, a revisionist, and an expert in performing the country music of the Delta. As such, he makes both bottleneck slide and lap steel guitar look easy. Favoring the use of severely dated axes that look to be on their last leg, Henkel plucks solos from them like a man taking aim with a bow and arrow. It’s the high tension he keeps on the action of the strings, he explained once, that is partly responsible for his distinctive sound.
And while it is true that the two-time San Diego Music Award recipient has, for a number of years, looked upon the acoustic music of the Mississippi Delta of the 1930s and ’40s as his muse, Henkel is also a student of country swing, funk, fusion, bop, and Americana.
That’s where his side project for the past couple of decades comes in. It is a dual sax with trumpet-guitar-bass-and-drums horn band. “Robin Henkel with Horns” performs at Lestat’s in Normal Heights on Sunday, February 28.
What’s in the works?
“I’m creating arrangements for my horn band. I’ve sat at the piano for a long time, harmonizing and reharmonizing the diminished chords in [Duke Ellington’s] ‘Caravan.’ I’m also in the second semester of Spanish at Grossmont College.”
How long have you been playing guitar?
“Fifty years. I’m 58. My mom says I started when I was 6, but what does she know?”
How did your style develop?
“As a kid I listened to and played Josh White songs. Musically, he was like a father. Later, I thought Jimi Hendrix was the ultimate best, and although I do not really sound like him today, his phrasing and style made some core-level impact on me. Phrases that I learned when I took lessons from Peter Sprague in the late 1970s still pop out all over the place in my playing today. Last and most certainly, the influence of the country-blues guitarists — Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Lightnin’ Hopkins — has left a stamp on my style.”
You remind me a little of Bob Wills…
“Around the early 1990s I picked up a Bob Wills tape. It caused me to reminisce that the ‘ah-ha’ sound that my dad used to make was possibly imitative of Wills. His music is so contagious.”
Which of your originals is your best?
“I have particular fondness for ‘Mahtochiquala.’ Also, ‘Egg’ is a standout, and so is ‘Paddy Cake.’ You rerecord a lot of your songs. Each new recording carries with it the possibility that this will be the one. When combining the skills and sensitivity of the musicians with the recording process, there is always the factor of chance that each new version will be special.”
No more home videos at gigs?
“Sometimes it’s hard to find a peaceful balance between being egotistically self-indulgent and just sharing what I have to offer. Maybe I should get the videos going again.”
Did you get into music to get rich?
“No. Apart from loving music and wanting to make it my career, my agenda was probably to be popular and meet women.”
Where do you shop for clothes?
“I’ve purchased cowboy shirts in Nevada and Utah. I get those shiny pants at Lee’s Menswear. You can buy a pimp suit there. In American Pimp, one of the retired pimps had become a blues singer. He said one of the reasons he liked playing the blues was because he could wear the same clothes as when he was in the game.”
Last five books read?
1) Mexicanos: A History of Mexicans in the United States by Manuel G. Gonzales
2) The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel León-Portilla
3) A Pictorial History of the Confederacy by Lamont Buchanan
4) From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans by John Hope Franklin
5) The Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story by Peter Wyden
Favorite bands or performers?
“Miles Davis playing bop or pop fusion such as Birth of the Cool and Tutu is great stuff. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Stone Flower is wonderful. My interest in Duke Ellington has been growing. While going through my records from the 1970s I found several by George Duke and realized how much I still love his infectious rhythm. Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man,’ Chick Corea’s [band] Return to Forever…this could go on for a long time.”