Aaron Williams remembers the last show his father, longtime Madison blues organist "Cadillac" Joe Andersen, saw him play. It was near Christmas 2008 at the High Noon Saloon.
"I remember him sitting in a corner watching us," says Williams. "He had this intense stare and little smile like he was saying, 'You're going to do it.'"
Anderson died six months later following a three-year battle with cancer. Soon after his dad became ill, Williams, 26, decided to start his own band. "I knew I had to keep playing," says Williams. "I knew that's what I was meant to do."
Since he formed the blues-rock outfit Aaron Williams & the Hoodoo in 2007, Williams has emerged as one of Madison's hardest-working musicians. He plays more than 180 shows a year. He describes himself as a self-employed traveling musician, not a recording artist.
But the drive to make music isn't something Williams has always felt. He didn't pick up a guitar until he was 16. He didn't start jamming with other musicians until he enrolled at UW-Whitewater.
"My dad tried to get me to play when I was in middle school, but I never took to it," recalls Williams. "After that, he never really pushed me. I think he thought that if he pushed me, eventually I would have rebelled."
As it turned out, Williams spent five years being his father's sideman. Their first project was Cadillac Joe & the Blind Wolf Blues Band. "That was your typical guitar, organ and harmonica blues band," says Williams. "We dropped the name Blind Wolf [in 2004] and called it the Cadillac Joe Band Featuring Aaron Williams. That's when we started playing festivals all around the Great Lakes."
His dad did all the songwriting. "At that time I was learning how to be in a band and play with other musicians," says Williams. "My dad explained a lot to me about what it's like to be a front man - how you treat the audience, how you treat the band."
It was like going to a music college, says Williams. "I really appreciate that my dad taught me those things. It was like he really wasn't my dad; he was a band member. It was an absolute blast."
After forming the Hoodoo in 2007, Williams wrote songs with more emphasis on rock, less on blues. High-energy rock fuels the band's 2009 debut CD, It Ain't Easy.
"I really like the sound of the old '60s and '70s power trios like Hendrix and Cream," says Williams. That's something Williams says he has in common with his drummer, Eric Shackelford. The Hoodoo is also supported by the bass guitarist "Z."
"He holds us together and settles us down," says Williams. "He's our anchor."
Besides his father, Williams says he's had another important mentor - Beth Kille of the former Madison rock band Clear Blue Betty. "She's played an important role in my development as a songwriter," says Williams. "She used to tell me that the only problem I had was that I was unsure of myself. She said that each person has to have their own motivation, and that I needed to find mine."
In addition to their frequent tours, the Hoodoo have made the Brink Lounge their Madison home base. They perform there every other Wednesday. Their next Brink appearance is Jan. 27.
The Hoodoo's blues-based sound is out of fashion in 2010 as the prominent strains of rock borrow heavily from folk and electronica (Dirty Projectors, MGMT, et al.). But that doesn't bother Williams. "I could never be a pop star," he says. "I just want to pack my bags, travel and play like musicians used to."