Home Entertainment Alex Woodson: Lil’ A and the Allnighters

Alex Woodson: Lil’ A and the Allnighters

23 min read
Lil’ A and the Allnighters at the Old Town Blues Club in Temecula, CA
Lil’ A and the Allnighters torch the Old Town Blues Club in Temecula, CA. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

Alex Woodson comes from a family of musicians, so it only seemed natural for him to become…an athlete? “I grew up playing sports.” Woodson says. “But I was surrounded by music.” And that would make a lasting difference. Alex was initially drawn to the drums, but a ‘live blues’ experience in a small West Hollywood club altered his musical path. A performance from a local blues harp player had a momentous effect. An epiphany that would lead him down a rabbit hole of record collecting and that makes Alex grin when he remembers, “I started buying everything that said blues on it.” That step through the looking glass exposed Woodson to a world of harmonica blues and the masters that created them. After that, there was no turning back!

When we sat down to talk on a beautiful sunny Southern California day, Woodson responded instantly when asked to describe the music he plays. “Blues!” He says…then elaborates. “A form of roots blues. West Coast Blues. To me, it’s Chicago-based with an up tempo swing. It’s got a lot of jazz chords from guitar players…and a little different energy with a swing vibe and an uptown feel.”

What pulled you toward blues? “I come from a long family of musicians and I wanted to play drums. I was around twenty when I bought my first drum set and it was my introduction into playing an instrument. My uncle is a phenomenal drummer and I went to see him play at a couple of clubs. I had a fake I.D. to get in and his band had a lead singer and harmonica player who played some blues. And instead of me watching my uncle play drums, I got fixated on this guy playing harmonica. It was like, ‘what the hell is that?’ I didn’t know really what a harmonica was and certainly not at that level. They were playing blues in this little club in West Hollywood and that’s where I was introduced to the blues. It got me into buying albums and it was there that I stumbled upon Rod Piazza. And that’s what got me into the West Coast Blues.”

************************

“When I heard blues the first time I just remember being
overwhelmed by this feeling of joy
.” 

– Alex Woodson

 ************************

Anyone else in the family musical? “Mom’s an opera singer; my father was a trombone player and led his high school band and played in his college band but right out of college hooked up with Elvis. He toured with Elvis and then Don Ellis and then Percy Faith and then Henry Manicni. There was a lot of swing music in the house. My brother, rest-in-peace, was the prodigy in the family. He had the gift. He had perfect pitch and could pretty much pick up any instrument and play it. He was mainly a guitar player/piano player. We always had instruments; drums, guitars, pianos, basses and trombones and stuff always around the house. So, I grew up playing sports but I was surrounded by music and loved music, all kinds of music. All through elementary, Jr. High and High School I had it all, from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson to all the Rock and Roll but I wasn’t hip to Blues until I got into college. Then seeing my uncle play in that club and it really struck a chord in my heart.”

Do you remember the first record you bought? “The first album I ever bought was Led Zeppelin II and I was probably eight at the time. And I didn’t know it was blues or blues-based. You hear Zeppelin 1 and there’s a ton of blues on there. I didn’t realize it was blues until I heard blues. There wasn’t a lot of blues played in my house. There was big band, swing, and rock and roll and opera. Nobody was playing B.B. King or John Lee Hooker, so those were the first albums I got. But that night in the club when I heard blues the first time I just remember being overwhelmed by this feeling of joy. A lot of people confuse blues with being sad or suffering…I don’t feel that at all. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that. I’ve always said, ‘If you can’t feel the blues, you’ve got a hole in your soul.’ And I feel sorry for people who can’t feel the blues.”

That early exposure to such diversity in music and style, and out of all the directions you could have chosen, you chose blues. “And I don’t think I’m going anywhere else. I’m sticking with the blues. It’s a feeling. I’ve recorded other music with friends, and it just doesn’t reach me like the blues does.”

Lil ‘A’ and the Allnighters performing
‘A’ and the Allnighters leaning into it. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

Did you play in any garage bands during those early years? “When I first caught on to the blues, I wasn’t even a musician…I had bought a drum set. About an $800 dollar drum kit and it was a nice set. I pounded away with my college roommates and whatnot. But when I saw this guy play harmonica, I went out and bought a $15 harmonica. And that was the guy that gave me the John Lee Hooker album and said, ‘go listen to this.’ Then I took a couple of (harp) lessons with him, you know, to learn some technique. But I found it’s really up to you to figure out how to play that thing. I started buying everything that said blues on it. I didn’t know what I was buying. I had a stack of CD’s; Muddy, Buddy, B.B. and John Lee…”

What was the parental response to that? “They loved it, man!”

You said one of those albums was Alphabet Blues from Rod Piazza. “I had no idea who Rod Piazza was; it just said blues on it. And that was one that I had a couple of keys in. I had a C harmonica and B flat and I could play along with a couple of tunes on there. Long story short, I went to see him play live at a Little Walter Tribute show up on Sherman Way at ‘The Country Club.’ It was great; it was Johnny Dyer, James Cotton and Junior Wells. I was just about to leave before Rod came on, but I said, ‘no, I’ve got this guys CD, so maybe I’ll just catch a song or two,’ because he was headlining. That was a night that changed my life forever! About a week or two later they were playing at Jack’s Sugar Shack on Pico. I thought the guy was from the South, I didn’t know but I saw a flyer and found out the guy was from Riverside and he was playing four nights in a row the following week. So I was there every night sitting about three feet from the stage and after the second night we started talking.”

What other harp players jumped out to you? “William Clarke was a big influence. Lester Butler from the Red Devils, an L.A. guy I used to go check out. He still blows my mind, great player. I try to take a little bit from all of them and blend it. Junior Wells, James Cotton, even Chester…Chester Burnett. He was a simple player but it was cool stuff. Rick Estrin is another one, he’s so much fun to watch. Kim Wilson and George ‘Harmonica’ Smith; he was a monster. “

You’re an L.A. guy? “I went to North Hollywood High.” He smiles. “And was born and raised in Studio City. Just the proximity of where we lived, I grew up with a ton of celebrities and musicians. My best friend is Shauna Morrison, Van Morrison’s daughter. I grew up with Dweezil and Moon Zappa and Glen Campbell’s kids. Not to mention all the cats that would drop by my dad’s house. Billy May, Quincy Jones…people would just come by.”

You really didn’t have a choice, you had to play music. “I had no choice, man!” (laughing)

Let’s talk a little about your latest project. “So the title track from the album is a blues song that I wrote called, ‘Hip Ya.’ We have three guitarist’s sharing tracks: Mark Amparan, Billy Bates, and Geoff Gurrola. Johnny Minguez plays drums and Brion Munsey is on bass. Our former bass player, Art Kraatz just recently left the band and it didn’t work out to get him on the session. We recorded at Kenny Huff’s house in Brea, (CA). We did 10 tracks at Kenny’s house, he’s got a nice little studio and we like to record live. We didn’t do that many takes. On our first CD, ‘Special Project’ we did almost all the tracks in one take. Kenny took over the master bedroom and turned it into a studio.’ (laughing) It’s a pretty unique setup but he’s getting a darn good sound out of there.”

Who’s producing? “Kenny Huff is mixing it and Kenny, Art Martel and I are producing it together.”

Hip ya! CD from Lil A & the Allnighters
The new CD from Lil A & the Allnighters is called Hip ya!

This will be your 2nd CD, why now? “It was a long-time coming. It’s been eight years since ‘Special Project’ and people that come to the show keep asking, ‘when are you putting out another CD?’ My downfall is I don’t have the time and I’m not a songwriter. Things pop into my head and yeah that’s a good idea for a song but our band is so spread out, and I’m juggling so much with work and kids…livin’ life.”

You say you’re not a songwriter, but I’ve heard you improvise and create on the fly. “I think it’s more of the how? How do you do it? The process…I probably could take a few writing classes. There are definitely a few riffs I come up with and say ‘that’d be a great intro.’” 

How do you feel about the new CD so far? “I’m actually pretty darn proud of it. Again, I wish I had more time. I wanted to do four originals, we were shooting for 10 or 12 songs and we ended up with 10.”  

What does the road look like for the future? “We’ve got a lot of things coming up and another part of the reason for the CD; we’ve become real good friends with B.B. and the Blues Shacks out of Germany. They’ve just released a new album and they’re going to bring it to the States. They’re playing at the festival in Doheny and Lil’ A and the Allnighters are playing the Doheny pre-party. The Blues Shacks have hosted me on three or four different trips to Germany and we’ve hosted them a few years back and did the Russian River Blues Festival and other things. So we wanted to have something new to hit the streets with and tag-team it together.”

You’re doing a show in Temecula at the Old Town Blues Club with them as well. “Yep, we’re opening for B.B. and the Blues Shacks and they’re bringing some of their German friends, Till Seidel. Till backed me when I went there last time, so this time we’re going to back him…Till’s a phenomenal guitar player, singer and songwriter.”

Alex Woodson
Woodson lighting it up in Southern California. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox

Playing ‘live’ seems to be your comfort zone. “Yeah! I don’t really get nervous. The second that first note hits, you’re home. It’s give and take. You’re giving it to the people and they’re giving it back. You’re making music, you’re getting this good, soulful feeling out of your system, surprising yourself, humiliating yourself at times, but you can’t take yourself too seriously.”

What is it about the blues that continues to motivate you? “It’s a feeling, it’s a release. It’s great to make people feel good and in return the fans make you feel good. The blues is alive and well. It’s never gonna’ leave me and I don’t think it’s ever gonna’ leave us. It’s camaraderie; positive energy, good feelings, good vibes and the people you meet. It’s a great community of people.”

Amen.

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