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A conversation with Andy Watts, Israel’s ‘blues ambassador’

January 12, 2021
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A conversation with Andy Watts, Israel’s ‘blues ambassador’ (Photo by Victor List, courtesy of the artist)

It’s been suggested that you have to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues. For guitarist, singer, songwriter and bandleader, Andy Watts, the blues is a way of life (“certainly here in the Middle East,” he jokes), and his dues were paid up a long time ago. Watts has been proclaimed (by Blues and Muse magazine) Israel’s “Ambassador of the Blues,” which is probably accurate when you consider Watts’s longevity as an Israeli blues performer and the fact that he has repeatedly brought many of America’s greatest blues artists to his country.

Watts’s fifth album “Supergroove” is a fully charged dose of the blues, tinged with rock, soul, funk, and R&B, that he says is a reflection of his live show. Produced by six-time Grammy nominee Kenny Neal and released on Neal’s label, the album features ten tracks of Watts with his 9-piece band blazing through five originals and interpretations of five blues classics from Freddie King, Joe Louis Walker, Rick Estrin, and Watts’s greatest influence, Peter Green, the late founder of Fleetwood Mac.

Guests on “Supergroove” include Blues Hall of Fame inductee Joe Louis Walker, singer Eliza Neals, Roy Young, and Israeli vocalists Danny Shoshan and Gadi Altman.

Since its release last fall, “Supergroove” has charted impressively around the globe. The record has been holding steady on the Roots Music chart for 17 weeks, reaching a peak of No. 6. It hit No. 9 in the U.K. and went top 20 in Australia.

Watts, 56, was born in Sweden and moved to Israel when he was 20 years old. He toured the United States roughly 20 years ago, which included a show in Portland, Maine that he says left him with warm memories of the state’s enthusiastic blues audience and a bellyful of lobster.

It’s winter in Israel but on the January day when he called from Tel Aviv for this interview, the temperature was in the ‘80s as his country was in the process of entering its third lockdown since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

The Maine Edge: I’ve been listening to “Supergroove” and am very impressed with your guitar work, the songs and your band. What was your overall goal with this record?

Watts: It’s a natural follow-up to my album “Blues on Fire” from 2018. I feel very fortunate to have a nine-piece band on the stage. I have a full horn section, B3 Hammond, drums, bass, and two other vocalists with me. It’s a studio recording but what you hear on “Supergroove” is also what you hear live. My purpose was not to do something on the album that I cannot recreate with my live band.

The Maine Edge: What is the blues scene like in Israel? How aware is the average Israeli person when it comes to blues music?

Watts: The Middle East, by nature, is a great place to create blues music (laughs) for other reasons. If you look at the music scene here, blues is not considered mainstream music but there’s a big melting pot here. Israel is a crossroads for many people. Because of that, there is a pretty large blues, jazz, and rock audience here. Most venues I play with my big band seat about 400. We try not to have more people on the stage than in the audience (laughs).

The Maine Edge: Your version of Peter Green’s “The Supernatural” (from John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers’ 1967 album “A Hard Road”) is what drew me in to listen to your album. I’ve never heard anyone else try to pull it off, but you did him proud.

Watts: He was born with the natural ingredient of less is more, he never overplayed. I had to learn that. It’s what is played in the space in between that is the music. You have to be in the right state of mind to play “The Supernatural” because it’s so deep. The sound of Peter Green was in his fingers, but it helps if you have the equipment to inspire you. What you hear is an old Les Paul with PAF humbucker pickups and a 1966 Marshall amp on 10 which gives you the feedback you need for that song.

The Maine Edge: Where did your love of the blues come from?

Watts: Tuning into American blues stations on the radio when I was 12 or 13 years old and finding out about Albert King, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix and Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. All of them brought me into the blues where it stuck. I never took any lessons. I don’t read music and I’m proud of that because it gave me the freedom to break the rules. I never play the same solo twice. When I play live, it’s a reflection, a mirror image of the energy that I feel from the crowd.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been bringing some of America’s best blues artists to Israel to widen the awareness for blues and to grow the audience here. I brought Joe Louis Walker to Israel three times, the late Lucky Peterson twice, Johnny Winter, may he rest in peace, Bernard Allison, Rick Estrin, and many others. Part of the experience is that we all went to Jerusalem together.

The Maine Edge: What does your intuition tell you regarding a return to live music this year?

Watts: I do think we’ll be able to get back to performing in front of audiences this year. I think the vaccine is a game changer. I’m not too keen to play now for 10 or 20 people, I would rather continue to write and record and wait until we can get back to full speed. I’ve been using all of my free time to write a new album that I’m working on now. I hope we’ll be up and running with live shows here in Israel by May.

(Andy welcomes all blues fans to his website: https://www.andywattsguitarslinger.com.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 January 2021 13:35

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