It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that ‘math class’ always finds itself at the top of the leaderboard for the title of most unpopular (or in some instances, most despised) high school course.
A good day in math class would consist of one where there were no pop quizzes, no homework and no time spent at the chalkboard in front of the class solving algebraic equations.
But on a great day in math class, it’s entirely possible that the seeds for a top-notch blues band – one that would eventually garner a nomination for Blues Band of the Year at the Blues Music Awards – could be sown. That’s just what happened when budding young guitarists Josh Stimmel and Andy Duncanson first met up in the dreaded ‘math class.’
“I was a senior and Andy was a junior and we met in this math class at the end of the school year. He had this Hendrix T-shirt on and I commented on it and said it was awesome,” Stimmel said. “Well, then we started hanging out and jamming and kind of formed a band. He had a friend, who is now a good, good friend of mine – Chris Breen – that kind of learned to play bass on the fly … and that’s pretty much it.”
The band that Stimmel, Duncanson and Breen formed, the Kilborn Alley Blues Band, recently celebrated its 14th anniversary with a blowout shindig at the Iron Post in Urbana, Illinois.
“That was a blast. It went supremely well, better than anyone could have hoped for,” Stimmel said. “We flew our friend Jackie Scott in from Virginia and she’s a hell of a talent. She can really blow the roof off.” The dynamic Scott and Kilborn Alley forged a lasting friendship when they were both competing in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis a few years ago and they love to play together whenever the situation allows it. Jamming with other bands and musicians is something that Kilborn Alley has never shied away from, even though improvisation can be a scary – yet exhilarating – mountain for a band to climb; especially when the whole process is done on the fly. Despite the potential pitfalls, the thrill ride of jamming with other artists on short notice is one that Stimmel and Kilborn Alley are always ready to take.
“You’ve just got to keep your ears wide open,” he said. “It’s one those things where you can either fall flat on your face or you can rise above and take it to another level.”
‘Taking it to another level’ is something that Kilborn Alley has been heavily invested in for almost 15 years now. There really is no magic number for the expected shelf life of a working, functioning band, but it does seem like most have long-expired before the time they celebrate their fifth – much less 15th – birthday. According to Stimmel, Kilborn Alley’s secret for longevity starts with the group’s bond as friends.
“It’s like a good friendship – sometimes you get along really well and agree with each other and sometimes you don’t. But we’re good friends. There are no egos or B.S. that gets in the middle of things,” he said. “We’re able to talk through any problems that we might have … kind of like a marriage or something. But the bottom line is we’re just really good friends and share similar views on everything from world politics to choices in music … with slight variations. But the core (similarities) is there.”
The original intent of Stimmel, Duncanson and Breen may have been to become a functioning blues band, but that was something that, early on, they reckoned they would have to ease their way into.
“We wanted to do blues, but at that time, we really weren’t good enough to play blues all night,” Stimmel said. “We could a basic shuffle and things like that at that time, but it takes years of honing your skills to be able to play the blues they way they should be played.”
Playing anytime they could and anywhere they were welcomed, the members of Kilborn Alley meticulously went about crafting mastery of their instruments and developed into one of the hardiest working blues bands around. At the core of Kilborn Alley is Stimmel’s inspired and fiery guitar. One of the toughest thing for a budding young guitarist to learn to do is to let the music come to them, instead of them rushing to catch up to it. When called for, Stimmel can blaze up-and-down the fretboard with the best of them. But just as important, when a slower, moodier pace is called for, Stimmel also excels at that, easing up while still playing with the same passion and intensity he unleashes on a red-hot shuffle. That’s the true mark of an accomplished blues guitarist and that’s a technique that Stimmel has certainly embraced, even though some of his early guitar heroes were not known for their slow-pace finesse, or their blues-playing abilities.
“When I was younger, I listened to a lot of metal and stuff like that. Dimebag Darrell from Pantera was one of my favorites … as was Randy Rhoads. A lot of people liked Eddie Van Halen, but I never did,” Stimmel said. “I’d take Randy Rhoads any day over Van Halen. Guns N Roses’ Appetite for Destruction was also an album I listened to a lot and some Slayer and stuff like that.”
When Stimmel began to delve closer into the world of blues guitarists, some familiar names became his new inspirations.
“When I started maturing as a person and as a musician – playing blues and soul music – my tastes changed to the point that sometimes now it’s hard to listen to some of that metal stuff,” he said. “Now some of my favorite guitar players are Son Seals and Johnny B. Moore. He’s (Moore) one of the most under-rated Chicago blues players of all time. And I like guys like Hubert Sumlin and all the Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie), of course.”
Guitarists are a notorious group for being on a constant quest to find their signature – and their ultimate – sound. As part of that journey, a number of different guitar and amplifier pairings must be tried. It’s obvious that Stimmel is still searching for his ‘Holy Grail’ of sound when asked what his favorite guitar/amp combination is.
“I would be hard-pressed to say what my favorite combo is, because I haven’t tried them all. I probably haven’t found it yet and may not until I’m 60,” he laughed. “I always liked the Fender Super-Reverb – that’s an awesome amp – and I like my rig right now, which is a Gibson 325 through a Peavey Bandit.”
Stimmel and Duncanson are each unique conversationalists on their respective guitars, but when the two are blended together is when the music that Kilborn Alley creates really hits another gear. According to Stimmel, the way that he compliments Duncanson, and the way Duncanson compliments him, was a fairly organic process right from the beginning – one that didn’t require a whole lot of experimentation or hair-pulling.
“It was a natural thing, something that just really kind of happened on its own. We really kind of learned how to play guitar together anyway. I mean, you can sit around and play guitar at your house by yourself, but you really develop your chops by playing out and jamming with other people,” he said. “We both leave our egos at the door when we’re playing guitar. I mean, you don’t have to be the number one show-stopper. You keep your ears open and go from there.”
Kilborn Alley spent much of the two months leading up to last Christmas overseas, playing the blues for rapt audiences in London, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany.
“It was a great trip. They (European audiences) really seem to appreciate having the American roots of this music coming over. Just about every time we’ve been over to Europe, we’ve had great audiences,” Stimmel said. “They’re there specifically to see the American bands play the blues. Sometimes, over here (United States), people are there in the clubs just to be out and to be having some beers with their friends. They’re not really there to see the band. But we do have wonderful fans over here that come out to see us whenever we’re through their town.”
Whether playing in Hamburg or playing in Chicago, Stimmel acknowledges the overall age of most of the blues crowds that he sees these days seems to be getting collectively older, meaning that it’s imperative that bands work that much harder to try and make sure their music is getting heard by the next generation of music lovers – the young adults.
“When we play for the younger people, they usually love it. But then they go home and forget about it (blues) and go back to listening to whatever kind of crap is on the radio now,” he said. “So what we have to do is to rope in and keep that younger audience, otherwise we’re going to be playing for the geriatric community and that’s about it. It’s on all of us (blues artists) to keep building on the fanbase that we have now.”
Another strike against the blues these days is the quality – or lack thereof – of the music, something that Stimmel is quick to point out.
“Oh, the quality of blues music now – as a whole – is nowhere close to what it was back in the 1960s. Not close. The musicians need to step up and raise their game,” he said. “Some of the stuff that tries to pass off for blues music these days never would have made it back then. It would have got smoked. Magic Sam would have called that crap out and kicked it right off the stage. And another thing bands need to really work on is getting the vocals right. The blues is a vocal music and I think that’s something that’s been forgotten over the years as well. Guitar heroics are cool, but in the blues, it’s all about the vocals.”
Kilborn Alley is currently working on material for a follow-up to 2011’s appropriately-titled 4 (Blue Bella Records). Blue Bella head honcho Nick Moss has carved out quite a reputation as an in-demand producer and has formed an excellent relationship with Kilborn Alley over the course of much of the band’s recorded history. Moss is also a monster guitar player in his own right, and it would only be natural for a guitarist laying down tracks to be a bit nervous at first to see a producer like Moss looking at you from the other side of the studio glass.
“On our first album, it was a little intimidating, because Nick is one of the best blues guitarists out there, no question. Really, he could play any kind of music and be excellent at it. I remember the first time we were in the studio, we were all really just nervous,” said Stimmel. “But to ease things up a bit, Nick went and got a bottle of Jim Beam from his garage and said, ‘Here, take a couple of swigs off this and let’s ease it down a bit, guys.’ And each time since, it’s just been easier and easier. We’re all more comfortable with our own identities, as well as with Nick’s presence. He’s just an excellent producer and we’ve done some good work together. He’s just a good guy to have in your corner.”
Stimmel probably couldn’t have dreamed after that initial meeting with Duncanson in his high school mathematics class that over 14 years later, the duo would be band-mates in a real-deal blues band. While he might not have dared dream that big, Stimmel did know that somehow, some way, playing the guitar was going to be at the center of his future plans.
“Once I got into it, I knew that I was going to continue to play the guitar,” he said. “I just knew that I was going to be playing music. I’m kind of lazy by nature, so being in a band, whether you’re playing with your family or your friends, or whoever, forces you to get better and practice and play. But I hope we (Kilborn Alley) continue to make good music and continue to put out albums. Hopefully, we’re not even close to our prime right now. I want to keep getting better and keep striving for more.”
Editor’s Note: Full disclosure – I am a longtime fan and friend of Josh Stimmel and Kilborn Alley. I am extremely impressed with his abilities especially his right hand picking style and most impressively, his tone, which is created with only his fingers, the strings of his guitar and an amplifier. No pedals!
If you have not had the pleasure of hearing this amazing Blues guitar player, check out this video of Kilborn Alley playing their song “The Breakaway” at Don Odell’s Legends.
For more Kilborn Alley, check out their song “Wandering”:
Photo by Bob Kieser.