Bobby Bryan doesn't take his role as a bandleader lightly. Sure, when he's up on stage at Adair's Lounge, 121 W. Main St., leading his polished blues quartet through its paces, he's as insouciant as can be. Stage patter flows freely from his mouth during engaging (and, at times, appropriately salacious) intros to each song, and he sings just as easily in a smooth tenor voice. When he presses down on his wah-wah and steps back from the mike to show off his quicksilver guitar skills, his hands look as if they've been molded to the neck of his red Stratocaster.
But that polished musicianship didn't come overnight. In fact, the Los Angeles native spent the better part of 20 years easing into the role of a blues man.
"It's not about playing a million notes," says Bryan, who got his start playing five sets, five nights a week at Babe's & Ricky's Inn, an L.A. blues institution. "You can't learn all the stuff you need to lead a band without a certain amount of experience. I'd been told, ‘When you're 35, 36, that's when you'll get it. And I'm finding that to be true. Now it's almost as if the conversation I'm having with my guitar just automatically comes out on stage."
That easy conversation is evident all over Bryan's excellent debut CD, Stranger Blues. Whether he's working a harder blues groove on the Elmore James chestnut from which the album takes its title, oozing through the R&B-flavored evocation of urban alienation "The Devil's Playground" or making like Robert Cray on the slow burn of "Save Your Tears (For the Next Fool)," Bryan displays remarkable facility on the fret board. On the full-blown version of Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" that closes the 11-song set, he stretches out stylishly, crossing gutbucket blues with Hendrix-inspired psychedelic rocking.
And unlike many younger blues players, Bryan comes across as completely natural in his vocal style. He isn't playing at being a blues man. He is one.
Bryan's mentors read like a who's who of the blues. Back in L.A., he went to high school across the street from Albert Collins' home and managed to cadge a few guitar tips from the late Texas legend. Bobby Blue Bland's longtime bandleader Wayne Bennett also offered him advice, and told him that one day he'd be a good guitar player. "Not as good as him," Bryan smiles, remembering Bennett's qualified praise. "But a good guitar player."
At Babe's & Ricky's, Bryan met up with Arkansas Larry Davis, who took him out on the road for his first extended tour. By that time, Bryan had earned a couple of degrees and was working full-time as a college adviser in the California state university system, but he was still a kid in the blues world. Davis made that clear from the first.
"He took me under his wing," says Bryan. "But at first I didn't think he liked me. I went for a year dealing with Larry where he never called me by my name. His name for me was ‘Hey, motherfucker!' And there were constant threats to get fired if I didn't play right. It was sort of an old-school sink-or-swim situation where no one's ever going to be nice to you. Later on he was nice, though. I'd go over to his house, he'd give me voice lessons and we'd hang out and listen to music."
Bryan came close to breaking out as a bandleader during his time in Southern California. But somehow, while Keb' Mo' and the other young players he'd backed were putting together national-level careers, things never clicked for him.
In 1999, when he followed his wife-to-be Maria to Madison, where she'd been accepted into a graduate program, it looked like Bryan might have to put the blues on hold. But after getting a job as a social worker at the Dane County Jail and settling into his new life in the Midwest, he discovered a whole community of talented, supportive musicians who helped push him closer to his dream.
"People said, ‘Man, there's nothing happening in Wisconsin,'" he says, recalling the move. "‘There's no music scene there. What are you thinking?' But I was fortunate. This has been a really good place for me to learn."
Bryan's first exposure to area clubs was as a sideman. He played with everyone from jazz singer Jan Wheaton to hip-hop fave Rob Dz, and for the first time in his career spent time refining his act.
"I'd never rehearsed with a band before," he says. "Instead of rehearsing, you'd just go out and play the show."
Once Bryan decided the time was right to assemble his own band, things came together quickly. He knew drummer Rick Flowers from Dz's group, and they'd already clicked. When his first bass player didn't work out, he met transplanted Chicagoan Lon Walker the next week. Steve Skaggs' stirring organ fit right in, too.
The shows at Adair's helped tighten up Bryan's new crew, as did regular rehearsals. Watching them elicit ecstatic cheers from a racially mixed crowd of college kids, middle-aged working stiffs and young couples dressed up for a night on the town, you can't help but be impressed. This is plainly one of the most professional acts of any stripe in Madison, and Bryan is one of the most self-assured showmen you're likely to encounter in local watering holes.
Ironically, even though Bryan now has the tools to win over just about any crowd, getting shows for the band hasn't been easy. These days he's getting good word of mouth around town, but he's still relatively unknown among area blues fans.
But having spent 20 years perfecting his act, Bryan isn't about to let a temporary problem with name recognition set him back. In fact, he thinks his Madison band could be his ticket to something much bigger than local fame.
"I've always been around other people who've made it," he says. "I just have to believe that at some point my turn will come as long as long as I continue to do it. I always hear from people: ‘You're as good as anybody out there.'"