Ball is stamping his feet, waving his arms above his head and
shouting, "El Monte! El Monte!" It appears to be an
ancient ritualistic expression of the Chumash Indians, and as
I recall, the Santa Ynez region is ripe with their native American
culture. He leans closer and, with a twisted grin, starts poking
me in the head and chest with his finger. Okay, definitely not
Chumash; they were hunters and gatherers, but not nearly this
aggressive or demented. It might be 'Sour Mash' and he's possibly
consumed a finger or two over his limit!?
While I ponder this, Tom continues to laugh and
flail his arms when his musical partner of now three decades,
Kenny Sultan, steps over to us and begins to describe one of their
most memorable European concert experiences. "We were
playing in the recreation room of a mental institution in the
Netherlands," Kenny relates. "It was for the
criminally insane and the rec room was the only place where they
didn't monitor the patients. They just sort of let them be themselves.
So we had twenty people, kind of, sitting on our laps and pulling
at our hair and poking us."
Welcome to the world of Ball and Sultan. 'Good
Time Blues' journeymen working the 'fringe' elements of the wrapped
too tight. "There was one guy," Tom adds, "who
could speak only two words of English. The only thing he could
say was, 'El Monte! El Monte!' He would come up to us, poking
our faces and guitars and chests and yelling, 'El Monte! El Monte!'
A pretty interesting guy."
"We were playing," Kenny continues,
"and everybody really wasn't getting it. And this one lady
was laughing at the right spots, like on 'Bloodshot Eyes' and
'Chicken Ala Blues.' I'm going, ok, she must be staff, you know,
cool. Then Tom left the stage and I'm doing my solo, obviously
an instrumental ... and she's STILL laughing! That's how it was
AND we had to STAY there. That was our accommodations for
the night. On the hospital grounds. They put us up in, I don't
know what you'd call it, a bunkhouse. We did our laundry there.
That was interesting, a lot of folks watching the dryers go 'round.
It was a good gig, a memorable gig."
Memorable in that Steven King - Ken Kesey kind
Tom and Kenny on any given Sunday play the
Cold Spring Tavern in Southern California
It should be clear to you by now: Tom Ball and
Kenny Sultan are not your stereotypical bluesmen. In fact, one
is hard pressed to call them bluesmen at all. Sure, they play
every type of venue you can imagine (And, as previously mentioned,
some you can't.), from open air music festivals in front of 50,000
plus, to their favorite haunt, an original stage coach stop in
the mountains above Santa Barbara, California called the Cold
Spring Tavern. When off the road, these prolific musicians have
recorded thirteen CD's, eight as a duo, and to-date five additional
solo projects between them. As writers and historical purists,
both are published authors that continue to teach at the college
level, produce instructional playbooks on harmonica and guitar
and share their many talents in workshops and music seminars.
It's really not too much of a stretch after you learn it was a
shared love of Blind Blake, the Rev. Gary Davis and beer that
brought them together. And the fact that they both have a tremendous
amount of admiration and respect for the originators of the genre
doesn't hurt either.
"I used to hang out at the Ash Grove."
Kenny says. "My older brother used to take me there, on his
dates. I was 11 years old and he'd take his kid brother. I remember
going to see Furry Lewis, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin'. Everybody
else was listening to the Monkees and I was listening to Howlin'
Wolf. Lightnin' was great! I remember seeing him at the Ash Grove,
just sitting up there with his big, black electric guitar. Sitting
up there smoking, in a smoke-filled room with sunglasses on....really
funky. He was great. You hear him play and you know it's him."
Pairing the harmonica with acoustic guitar, Ball and Sultan are
inevitably compared with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and this
makes Tom smile. "As a harmonica and guitar duo, it's
impossible to escape those comparisons. They were the consummate
and most important guitar and harmonica duo. We had the pleasure
of working with Brownie, he was real easy to get along with, very
sharing with his music and a gracious man. Sonny had passed away,
unfortunately, but he's the main man for the non-electric, unamplified
style. Nobody comes close to Sonny Terry. He's already done everything
anybody could even think about. He's the man."
Tom and Kenny perform, you immediately recognize there is more
to their artistry than blues. Much more! Their unique combination
of style and musical arrangement give a distinctive signature
to the more traditional sound; what Kenny calls 'Good Time Blues'.
So if you must make comparisons, you'll have to mention Hank Williams,
Sr. and Bocephus, Scott Joplin, Wynonie Harris, Snooky Pryor and
John Nicholas. Add a touch of Bill Monroe and Utah Phillips for
good measure and you have the basics of Ball and Sultan.
don't dwell on the depressing side of life. We keep it up tempo
and we deal with light subjects." Kenny says. "Blues
can be fun and humorous, they don't have to always be sad and
about your troubles in life. I'm not sure we're blues musicians
exactly. Obviously we love blues and play blues, but we play a
little folk, ragtime, country and bluegrass as well. When I think
about blues players, I think about Lightnin' Hopkins, Sonny Terry
and Brownie McGhee. They would come out and play Blues. Tom and
I play a lot of different styles. In reality, we're musicians
who like the blues and incorporate that in our music, but we do
a lot of different things. We're not down and out....we live in
Nodding in agreement, Tom adds. "We never
worked in any coal mines. People that have the true claim to the
blues are Son House, John Hurt, J.D. Short, Blind Blake, Bukka
White. Those people lived the blues. They had troubles, they had
pain and suffering. They worked on levee camps and were sharecroppers
and had a real reason to sing the blues. Kenny and I enjoy that
tradition in so far as it's a soulful tradition, an important
American tradition. But we learned the blues mostly from old 78
records. We don't profess to be something we're not," says
Kenny, we're ourselves on stage, we don't put on any act up there."
Smiling he adds, "That's why our business card says 'Good
So the next time you find yourself in Southern
California, take a break over by the Cold Spring Tavern near Santa
Barbara. Most any Sunday you can find something cold to drink,
a nice hot meal and I guarantee some of the best music this side
of the Delta. And if you see Tom and Kenny, tell them 'El Monte'
If you would like more information on Tom Ball
and Kenny Sultan or, (I've always wanted to say this) 'for a good
time' visit their website...