At its inception, blues was a folk music, performed by working-class nonprofessional musicians who picked up a guitar after coming home and taking off their muddied overalls. Most major artists of the genre worked blue-collar jobs for years before they reached any measure of success. Muddy Waters drove a truck; Howlin’ Wolf was a sharecropper; John Lee Hooker worked at an auto factory.
In this great tradition comes Bob Gabig of Bellevue. By day, Gabig, 60, hangs wallpaper and paints houses. By night, he is one of the fiercest guitarists in Pittsburgh, and his long-running band, The Blues Orphans, maintains a performance schedule that would wear out a bunch of 20-somethings fueled by the unsteady belief they’ll “make it.”
“It’s the actual act of playing the song that I love,” says Gabig. “It’s looking at the audience and all those faces.”
But Gabig and his eight-man band aren’t out there resuscitating “Hoochie Coochie Man” and a handful of other standards every weekend. They’ve released five albums of new material in the last 16 years. They are promoting their fifth, Hystericana, with a CD release show on Fri., Nov. 22, at James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy on the North Side. (It’s one of two establishments they play about once a month; the other is Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley.)
Hystericana has an impressive array of humor and poignancy. Gabig gets grumpy about modern technology in the tracks “Smart Phones, Dumb People” and “Text Myself.” Pittsburgh references are plentiful, as he ribs a waterfront attraction as a money succubus in “Rivers Casino” and mocks the tendency of old-time yinzers to hole up in their own neighborhoods in “Across the River.” There are moments of topical anger in “Plastic Soup” and “The Bubblin’ Crude,” which are about ocean pollution and oil-dictated foreign policy, respectively.
The sound is a throwback mix of blues, bluegrass, and occasionally soul. It’s full-bodied, thanks to the efforts of all eight seasoned musicians in the band but particularly the horn section of Mark Custer on cornet, Ian Gordon on trumpet, and Hill Jordan and Nelson Harrison on trombones. The band is rounded out by Gabig’s brother Andy on the harmonica and the rhythm section of Dave Yoho on drums and Dave Erny on bass.
The Gabig brothers have been on a 40-year mission to absorb their genres, which exist continually on the periphery. “Back in the ’70s, we were rolling across New York and New Orleans just to get a taste of that kind of stuff” recalls Andy Gabig.
The band, which the two founded in 1974, also toured far and wide. “No one would book you in Pittsburgh in the ’70s unless you were punk or funk,” says Bob Gabig. “We used to fool ’em by playing our instruments really fast to sound ‘punk’ or by doing funk versions of George Jones songs.”
Despite not identifying with any scene, they developed an audience in the city gig by gig and released their first CD, Neighborhood Beat, in 1997. Bob, who estimates that he has written 400 to 500 songs in his lifetime, has a very working-class reason for the delay. “It cost a lot of money to put out vinyl,” he says. “It wasn’t until CDs that we could afford to get some of my songs out there.” Hey, Howlin’ Wolf waited until his 40s to make his first recording.
“We’re still thinking like 25-year-olds,” says Bob Gabig. “We’re still wondering if the next song could go somewhere—and if not, it beats just sitting around drinking.”
The Fri. Nov 22 release party for Hystericana (which the band bills as “hysterical new Americana”) begins at 8 p.m. 422 Foreland St., North Side.