I ask Laith Al-Saadi what seems like an obvious question. I ask him to quantify the impact Jimi Hendrix had upon him as a musician. “Oh, absolutely, (Hendrix’ music) was a turn-on moment for me. But it’s because I had to find him on my own!”
Al-Saadi celebrates the release of his new EP, A 75th Birthday Tribute to Jimi Hendrix, this Friday at the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor. For anyone who followed his 20+ years in the Michigan music community, or for newer fans who encountered him just last year as a finalist on NBC’s The Voice, you know he can (and will) shred on that Fender! This weekend’s concert, along with the EP, (out now on iTunes and other platforms), is Al-Saadi’s opportunity to further expand audiences’ perspectives regarding the blues…., and, particularly, the electric-blues!
“All of the music I listened to as a kid was through my older sisters and my brother, like the Beatles. The Beatles were the gateway for me; they were the reason I started playing music.” Al-Saad first picked-up a guitar at age 13, but that’s also when he started his own discoveries. “But I have an affinity for the psychedelic era because it was the stuff I sought out on my own. Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, those weren’t things that were getting much airplay in my household.”
Hendrix was, of course, a blazing comet of rock ‘n’ roll brilliance that burned away too briefly; his imprint, however deep and permanent, can seem reductively compartmentalized by predominant collective nostalgia into him just being a face-melting soloist. Al-Saadi, who just turned 40 earlier this month, can look back on a music-filled life lived with demonstrated intention on cultivating versatility as an artist; blues, jazz, rock, Tin Pan Alley, roots, folk, he explored it all. But still, for Al-Saadi, it always comes back to that shooting star of the 60’s: Hendrix! Perhaps, he considers, for one reason above all: “his energy!”
“The energy he had, live, was just insane,” said Al-Saadi. And it’s the influence of watching Hendrix’ way of giving himself over to the music, to the moment, that manifests most evidently in the ecstasy and emotional “fire” of any Al-Saadi set. “Obviously, anybody that plays the electric guitar owes a lot to Jimi Hendrix. But I think for me, as a player that’s rooted in the blues, as someone who still believes that the blues is constantly evolving, and being someone who was born in 1977, I’ve never been a purist! To me, Jimi Hendrix is an extension of the blues. Jeff Beck? Eric Clapton? All these people we herald as the great rock players, they’re really more the evolution of the blues.”
For those unfamiliar with format of The Voice, Al-Saadi was competing against other unsigned talents on national television, in a contest decided by the viewing audience. During live elimination episodes, an artist can perform an “Instant Save” to sustain their run. Al-Saadi chose, fatefully, Hendrix’ “All Along The Watchtower,” and it got him through to the final four. Afterward, fans new and old alike sent Al-Saadi requests to properly record the song, but he hesitated.
“I love Hendrix way too much,” he remembers thinking to himself, contemplating a full-length album just so he could encompass every one of his favorites… An EP, he said, “Is a great place to start.”
But one enters the studio with intention of doing a Hendrix cover and one feels intimidation. Even if that one is Laith Al-Saadi. “Yeah…,” he said, “that was a thing! That was for real. You get in the studio and you say: ‘I’ve played this stuff my whole life…, but what’s the point of recording it?’ My whole philosophy with covers is: either you do it extreme justice, or you make it entirely your own. I’m a Student of Hendrix! I spent so much time trying to play (these songs) and get this stuff right, along with all the other stuff in my repertoire. I’ve been playing in bars for half my life, so I do feel like I’ve been able to put my own stamp on it. So it was daunting to get in the studio, because what was the point if I couldn’t really do something to take these to another place.”
One perfect example of his shifting the gravity of a song’s original energy came with his recording of “Manic Depression.” The goal was to record with just two tracks and keep as much live energy in the recording’s performance as possible. The happy accident of the recording engineer distracted by a phone call led to the tape of a previously laid-down solo to continue rolling during the live call and response vocals, so Al-Saadi just took off into a second solo, improvising an interwoven pattern on the spot, which is incredible to listen to… He even got creative enough in the heat of the moment, with his drummer giving him wild-eyed encouragement, to reference the solos symmetry with a quick rocking riff of the refrain from “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” on top, (or as kids know it, “The Ants Go Marching Two-By-Two Hurrah…”)
Remember that Al-Saadi is a student of many styles, but particularly, he’s a jazz diplomat in the country of the blues. He got his degree in jazz from U-M and had some formative experiences performing in venues as part of Ann Arbor Community High School’s formidable jazz program. But he fronted the group Blue Vinyl, where he got to share stages with icons like Buddy Guy. What he does with Hendrix’ songs on this EP is add the signature flourish of jazz, the adventurous and extensive solos, the kind of fret-exploring measures that sound detached and yet contemplative at the same time in their phrasings.
His renovations to these tunes are done with a palpable amount of care and craftsmanship; it’s more so that he’s adding his own favorite hues to the walls, rather than knocking anything down. In fact, you could say a lot of extra colors are spilled in with his reconstructions, spreading these originals out into two and three additional minutes of playtime. These are organic evolutions of classic Hendrix songs, but it’s in homage to how Hendrix’s lasting impact isn’t just in how he reinvented the electric guitar, but in how he advanced the evolution of the blues.
And Al-Saadi knows that “the blues” can be misconstrued as something fixed in the past. “That doesn’t mean it stops evolving,” he said. “Which is as a music of extreme self-expression, a music that utilizes whatever is available to the artist at the time; it is sometimes crude, but also elegant, and baroque.”
“Look at how it evolved around the country! You have representations of the sounds of entire regions in their true forms, like with jazz, you had bebop happening in New York at the same time that “the cool school” was happening in California. But with blues, you have Delta played by people who maybe didn’t read music but still played, and played with whatever was around, even bottles and knives, on shitty guitars with washboards… But then you the blues in New Orleans with Haitian and Creole musicians who grew up speaking French and palying in orchestras, and you have W.C. Handy and Ragtime evolving at the same time that you have Count Basie and Duke Ellington.”
The sounds coming out of Kansas City in its seminal days of blues and jazz (40’s/50’s—Big Joe Turner, Charlie Parker), was representative of the life and times of its residents at that time. The blues, he said, evolves right along with the people who meet with it and communicate with it. “The blues was evolving even back when John Lee Hooker and other players came up from the south to Detroit and Chicago. At some point, purists seem to want to pretend that it’s supposed to be a certain thing, but I don’t think the artists making it were ever under the impression that it was supposed to be any one thing, other than a common ground.”
Blues is the common thread, he said. And even as extraordinary as Hendrix was, you can still trace his style to the blues. “Jimi is an innovator, and somebody that represents an era that I love very much. The music occurring between 1964 and 1975, where you have so much energy, particularly around the Civil Rights movement, feeding the fire inside of the artists of that time and what they were responding to. Obviously there’s turmoil, but a lot of beautiful things coming out of that too. Jimi, like the Beatles, championed that love-conquers-all mentality. Besides that! He reinvented the instrument! But kept it rooted in such a beautiful bluesy tradition, with all this R&B thrown in as well, seeping into all this rock n roll and psychedelic carnage.”
You can tell how passionate Al-Saadi is just by that last quote, alone. But you can HEAR it in “All Along The Watchtower,” when that signature melodic growl crests up over a tidal guitar wave and an exerted “yeah…yeah…YEAH!” belts out before a superb solo takes over, you just sense not only just how much fun he’s having, but how much reverence is resonating through his body and soul as he’s playing it in that studio. That solo, just like the one in “Axis Bold As Love,” just about requires a seatbelt to listen to on your headphones…, or if you’re walking, it stops you dead in your tracks. Because that’s what Al-Saadi does, not just with his guitar but with his voice as well – he takes your breath away.
And, finally, it goes without saying that no one has a voice quite like Al-Saadi. His television viewers certainly got a sense for his aptitude for the expressive lower-range rumble of blues-rock, but his range for styles, of course, goes beyond that. But finalists of The Voice who aren’t voted as winners wind up in a strange, but mostly beneficial spot, whereas they won’t be signed to Universal with a flashy deal, they still have developed a new, sizeable chunk of fans that will be following their songs online, on streaming services, and eventually on tour.
Al-Saadi has been able to tour to cities where he’s never been and see front row audience members singing along to his own original songs. Al-Saadi has, we repeat, been a professional musician his whole life, with a full album of original material released in 2005 titled Long Time Coming. Voice Judge Pharrell was very enthusiastic for Al-Saadi and told his own Twitter followers to buy his album, resulting in it having an extraordinary resurgence in the charts.
Al-Saadi looks back on the last year with lasting amazement at how much The Voice permeates pop-culture, enough to sustain him upon a rising tide that lifted him away from his not-so-long-ago groove of playing several nights a week around his hometown of Ann Arbor, and Ypsilanti. He admits he misses those opportunities, especially locally, to just play! To just play a venue… But life after The Voice means that his appearances are quantifiably more anticipated than before… The question he asks himself, the question that motivates him to continue working as hard as he can, is how long until that Voice “aspect becomes irrelevant?”
“I’m not a big Voice watcher,” he admits. “I didn’t expect it to be a catalyst to take my career to the next level. It’s one of those things I’m incredibly happy I did and for the exposure. I think I’m getting a lot of people who are turned on to me through it, but I’m also not playing for pop-audiences; I stayed pretty true to myself when I was on the show and I’m still playing for the blues-rock audiences.”
The reality is that he doesn’t get to perform as much as he used to… But that he’s been able to tour and have great shows in cities across the country. “Just a little bittersweet,” he says, his voice warm, reverent, and contemplative.
This Friday’s performance in Ann Arbor, just as any Al-Saadi show in Michigan, is meaningful. “I’m born and raised here, and I will always be a Michigander,” he said. “I love Ann Arbor, and Southeast Michigan’s music scene is something to be proud of. I did a bunch of cool stuff for a 20-something-year-old around here, including leading the Detroit Lions pep band for two years, and before that getting to play with (Motown legend) Johnny Trudell. I feel incredibly tied to the area. We’ve always had phenomenal music coming from Detroit and Ann Arbor. So, I want to continue to contribute to that scene, and support it, and continue to make people here proud.”
This Friday’s show features Brian Stoltz (of the Funky Meters, Neville Bros., and Bob Dylan’s band), direct from New Olreans. Also, Al Hill (IBC winner from Bettye LaVette’s band), along with Jeff Trudel, Mark Damian, and David Stearns. BRIAN STOLTZ