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February 7, 2023

Blues Performer Navigates YouTube, COVID, the Metaverse

Matt Schofield’s first gig at the Raven is long overdue

The blues ain’t what they used to be, that’s for sure. No longer played by a solitary vagabond with a Stella and a bottleneck, or a sweaty quartet in a dank Chicago club, or even a spot-lit superstar on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, today’s blues artists are found battling it out for “likes” in YouTube videos and sharing their licks through online how-to classes.

But when Matt Schofield plugs his well-worn Stratocaster into his signature TwoRock amplifier on Friday night, Jan. 27 at the Raven, he will summon the spirit of BB King, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a host of others in the deep tradition of electric blues, done up big and loud and with a heart full of soul.

The lines and licks roll off the fretboard in a cascade, a swell of sound that carries a story between its notes, a drama if not a journey that goes beyond the song’s lyrics, reaching into the core of every listener in the room to pull at the heart the same way those guitar strings are bent and struck. The music is dynamic, emotive and ceaselessly inventive. “I can’t play the same thing twice anyway. I’m not even good at that,” Schofield told the Tribune recently.

The audience waiting for the Elvin Bishop show recently at the Raven watched a YouTube clip of Schofield rip through “Don’t Know What I’d Do” and rewarded the video with an extended ovation. Schofield was pleased to hear of it, but not surprised. 

“You know, things have changed in the last 10 or 15 years,” he said on the phone from Jupiter—Florida, that is, where his off-road home is. “Once upon a time, you would’ve been removed by security for bootlegging your video. And now it’s like, almost all my gigs are on YouTube in their entirety.” 

But he acknowledged it’s a double-edged sword. “It just spreads the word; that’s the best we can do. Cause we’re not getting paid for anything these days,” he said with a laugh, ruefully aware of the limitations of being a blues musician in the 21st century. 

“I sometimes feel like I fell in the cracks of the music industry. My first record came out in 2003, just a live thing we put out (The Trio Live), right at the beginning of Napster and all of that,” he said. “In terms of physical copies, I sold more of my first record than my last record, you know what I mean?”

Growing Up Blue

Schofield was born in Manchester, home of The Rolling Stones, and grew up in the Cotswolds, home of composer Gustav Holst. From the time he was 11, he lived with his father part time in Placerville, and it was there that he watched a video of Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King and Albert Collins jamming. The die was cast.

That “heart full of soul” a few paragraphs ago was a reference to The Yardbirds, the British band in the 1960s that spawned three of rock’s great guitarists—Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and the late Jeff Beck. The talk with Schofield was just a couple of days after Beck’s death. 

“I kind of came to appreciate Jeff much later on,” he said. “He wasn’t one of my guys, you know. I largely grew up listening to B.B. and Muddy Waters, and Albert King and Al Collins and those guys. I kind of bypassed the British blues stuff.” 

Those American blues legends were inspiration for Beck and Clapton too. But what separates Schofield from all of them is his age: He’s just 45, about half the age of many of his idols, if they’re even still alive, which most of them are not.

Still, that means he has had the chance to incorporate into his frame of reference some younger blues players too, such as Robert Cray, Robben Ford, Jimmy Vaughan and his brother, Stevie Ray. That latter’s influence, especially in Schofield’s vocals, is striking. 

Guitar Detour

One of the key signatures of a blues musician’s persona is what kind of guitar he or she plays: That first generation for the most part played hollow-bodied Gibsons, while the later lot rips their licks on a Fender Stratocaster.

As does Schofield. “I’ve used a bit of everything over the years. I was a Strat guy in the first place, and I took a quick detour and, but I’m firmly a Strat guy,” he said. 

Why? “It feels good. And it does pretty much everything I need it to do. I can travel with one guitar, and that’s the one I can cover all the bases on, you know?” said Schofield. He admitted he loves the Gibson 335s, often used in jazz, and enjoys a Fender Telecaster, the rockabilly stalwart, but… “I can kind of get a Strat to sound like all of them, but nothing else can sound like a Strat.” 

Cutting Through the Noise

Schofield is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s best blues guitarists, but he isn’t seen much in the North Bay. There was one gig in Petaluma at the Mystic in 2011 (“I think we had like 30 people who hadn’t a clue who I was…hopefully we’ll do a little bit better this time”), and he has played Sweetwater in Mill Valley several times, but that was all pre-COVID. Getting his touring game back on track has been time-consuming. 

So how does a talent like Matt Schofield cut through the noise and get the recognition, and audience, he deserves?

“Uh, with great difficulty?” he answered. “I mean, in my case, you just keep doing it. You know, this is what I do. It’ll be 32 years this year since I did my first concert. I was 13. And I’ve just done it ever since. Just kept doing it.” He just finished an Australian tour, and Healdsburg is in the early part of a domestic loop that includes Yoshi’s in Oakland on Jan. 29. 

“You have to be like an entrepreneur these days as well,” he said. “It’s no good just playing guitar, you know. I say I used to play guitar; now I spend all my time running a small business.” One sideline is a series of blues guitar lessons through the site TrueFire, an opportunity Robben Ford turned him onto.

Still, all this is just so he can do what he likes to do, what he needs to do: play the blues. “I don’t say any of this as a complaint. I get to play my guitar. I get to play the music however I want to play it. You know what I mean?” he said.

Schofield still gets out to play with friends in the local “little sweaty dive bar.” But as a performer, his preference is the small art-house theater (like the Raven), where people will actually listen, and become part of the experience. 

“People say all the time at gigs, ‘Man, I’ve been watching you on YouTube, but it was so much better tonight.’” said Schofield. “And I say, well, there’s an element of this that you just can’t record… 

“I don’t care if you put on a Metaverse headset. There’s no way to replicate that experience of actually being there in the moment. Because in order to be improvisers, we have to be in the moment,” he noted.

Matt Schofield performs with his longtime drummer, Kevin Hayes, and bassist Dewayne Pate, on Friday, Jan. 27, at 7:30pm at the Raven Theatre, 115 North St. Some tickets are still available at raventheater.org.

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