Home Entertainment On the Road with Ben Rice and the PDX Hustle

On the Road with Ben Rice and the PDX Hustle

Ben Rice and the PDX Hustle ripping it up in Southern California. Photo: T.E. Mattox.

If you were to run into Ben Rice on the street you’d probably think that guy’s a lawyer, maybe a realtor or possibly an accountant. But when he straps on his guitar, leans into the microphone and blisters those first few chords you realize; that guy is not an accountant! Rice and his bulked-up sextet, the PDX Hustle, recently made a few West Coast appearances on a quick, 10-day romp through the Southwest. The show on this evening answered two primary questions… this is who we are and this is the music we make. What Ben and the band generated was a collective master class in musicianship and versatility. A high-octane and wide-ranging performance over a variety of genres richly coated with blues. So we started our conversation with musical diversity.

You and your band play everything; blues, soul, R&B ballads, rockin’ boogies and I know I heard mariachi in tonight’s set list. Where does that kind of adaptability originate? “My parents record collection, really.” Ben tells me. “My mom was a big Al Green, Isley Brothers fan…George Benson. My dad was really eclectic…I think our first concert as a family was AC-DC, and we went to Metallica and he was a huge Marshall Tucker fan. He had this old, nylon-stringed, classical guitar and this was before any of us played music, dad would come home from the bar and pick up his guitar and just strum. He doesn’t play guitar but he knows if he puts his fingers here and it sounds good and if I put this finger here…I’ve got three brothers and when dad would put the guitar down, there was a pecking order. There’s the oldest brother, then the second oldest…usually I’d get it the next day.”

With that many siblings were there garage bands? “My older brother started a garage band when they were in middle school and they would rehearse at our house. I was like five or six years old and I remember watching them rehearse at band practice. I was mesmerized…the drums, the bass, the guitars and the singers. This is what a PA is and I got guitar lessons when I was seven. My dad told me, when you turn seven I’m going to buy you your own guitar and put you in guitar lessons. And as long as you go, I’ll keep on paying for them. So, I took guitar lessons from age seven all the way through high school. And eventually joined the band and then started my own band with friends. “

Tell us about Jimmy Hale and the last Wednesday of every month? “That was an all-ages blues jam that I found when I was fourteen. The last Wednesday of every month I would drive with my little brother and parents there, and they would let me play along with them. It was my first blues jam where it wasn’t just me and my friends; these were guys who studied blues…both mentors and great friends.”

It carries such a distinctive sound, can you talk a little about the steel resonator you sometimes use? “I got into blues from my guitar teachers and at first it was the sounds, you know? We’re talking about the resonator…when I was 12, I would go to Fred Meyer and it was the only record store where they used to have CDs. And they had a blues bin and a jazz bin. And the blues CDs were like $2.99 and $4.99. And Delta blues compilation albums. And I’d buy those! I’d save up my paper route money and ‘cash-in’ bottles and cans and buy these CD’s. At one point, I had ALL of them. And that’s where I first heard Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House. And that’s where I first heard the resonator. And I wanted, wanted, wanted one. Finally, when I was in college I found one I could afford.” (laughing)

Ben Rice and his resonator

Geographically, the Northwest has produced a phenomenal number of blues musicians over the years. Curtis Salgado comes to mind. “I met him when I was 16 and he heard my band playing and said ‘you have a CD?’ and he gave me his number. A week later he called and had listened to my record…and we talked for hours. He’s a mentor…and I’ve been playing with his band for the last couple of years, as much as I can. It’s a push-pull between his schedule and my schedule. John, our bass player tonight plays with him and Dave; I met Dave through Curtis, too. I saw them working together on a blues festival set and Dave was arranging the horns. It was literally Curtis singing these horn lines and Dave writing them out in the moment.”

The PDX Hustle is Pete Petersen on saxophone, drummer Adam Carlson, John Wolcott on bass, Pat MacDougall on keyboards and Dave Mills on trumpet. Mills says, ‘Ben wanted to start a larger group and he called and asked me to write some horn charts for his band. I did that and now…’ Mills grins. ‘That was a couple of years ago.’

Again, the entire touring band seems to take an exploratory and creative approach to music…the soulful R&B, boogie, blues, some Motown and of course…Mariachi? “I think about the band in that manner.” Ben smiles. “It’s a bunch of people around me saying, ‘Yeah! Okay sure, keep going, let’s try that.'”

Dave Mills, Pete Petersen and Ben Rice share a laugh. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox.

Did your songwriting start early? “Yeah…right from the get-go…yeah, I was talking about my dad’s guitar. I didn’t know songs; I just started writing songs to play. At first it wasn’t really full songs, it was riffs and ideas, but the more you write the better you get. A big influence was Robert Cray and I always think of him as a great songwriter.”

Do you write with an instrument? “Yeah, I write with the guitar. Every once in a while I’ll plunk something out on the piano.”

Your career gained some traction back in 2014-15 at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. “There was a time I was thinking about moving to Memphis. A lot of my friends were there, John Nemeth and Tony Holiday, Max Kaplan, Jon Hay and Matt Wilson.”

Recordings…’Live at the Purple Fox Loft?’ “You know that was the first record that I ever made where we sound like the bands that I saw growing up. We had the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland and I would go there every year with my family and that’s where I first saw Curtis Salgado, saw Sean Costello and Walter Trout… But my drummer had just gotten his law degree and he’s like, ‘I’m gonna’ go be a lawyer now.’ Well, let’s go record because this is as good as we’ve ever sounded. It was me and my two best friends who were also monster musicians and we recorded ‘Key to the Highway’ that I actually performed at the finals of the IBC. But my version of ‘Key to the Highway’ is a little bit different and I tried to capture it in the studio a handful of times, but it just never worked out. It is a ‘live’ song and you can hear the audience and the whole room just breathing along with the music.”

At the show tonight you could feel the audience responding, a couple of songs I felt a few Solomon Burke riffs and shouts in there…“Seriously? Oh my God, I love Solomon Burke! My favorite CD of all time, is the one he did called, ‘Don’t Give Up on Me’ and it’s produced by Joe Henry who is a producer and protégé of T-Bone Burnett. And Joe Henry also produced a record for Bonnie Raitt, ‘Slipstream.’ I only know this because I’m a fan of Joe Henry. All of Solomon Burke’s records are like chitlin’ circuit soul singer and this record ‘Don’t Give Up’… is like Solomon Burke is this close to you, just whispering and playing with your ears, it’s like…Ahhh! I’ve really been focused on singing these last three or four years and part of the catalyst was actually Curtis (Salgado) a few years ago saying, ‘you need to learn how to sing.’ And I’m like; I’ve sung for 12 years, what are you talking about? And here’s your vocal teacher and he gave me a number and I called the number. I talked with Curtis and told him he’s not getting back to me…Curtis said, ‘Hound him! Hound him!” (laughing) “It’s a test! You knock down his door.’ And sure enough I said, Hey Tom Blaylock…and now the whole band knows Blaylock’s vocal warm-ups and exercises…but I would sing along with the Solomon Burke record. But for Solomon Burke it was so effortless, just sitting there telling stories and singing these great lines. He sings so high and powerful, low and powerful and your voice doesn’t work that way. You can be loud and forceful or soft and wistful, but you can’t do both.”

In 2018 you release ‘Wish the World Away’ and it picks up three Blues Music Award nominations. “It was my attempt to…I was just going to do a quick, me in the studio with my resonator just singing into the microphone and just put that out and use the sales and funds from that to do a whole band record. That was my plan but of course that’s not what happened. I got in the studio…I spent about a year in the studio, it was Jimi Bott’s studio, the drummer for Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and he plays drums on one of the songs, the last song we recorded. We had finished the record; it was supposed to be just me and my guitar, but this needed pedal steel and background singers…I’ve got a great singer friend in Nashville and we’ve got to get her over here and that’s the title track and it turned into this whole thing and by the end I didn’t really save any money…but shoot, the album came out and it got nominated for three Blues Music Awards. It’s still surreal to say that and Jimi texted me the day of the announcement and said, ‘Congratulations on your two, oh no, three Blues Music Award nominations. I was like, are you messing with me right now, what is that? I’m really proud of that.”

What’s in the water up in the Northwest, so much musical talent; Paul DeLay, Terry Robb… “Mitch Kashmar is up there, too. A guy from the Bay Area, Daniel Castro moved up to the Portland area. Mike Osborn who used to play with John Lee Hooker is up there. Tony Coleman, B.B. King’s drummer is up there. Paul DeLay is probably one of my favorite songwriters and I really didn’t get into his stuff until they did a tribute show. I met him once when I was a kid and he was really a sweetheart of a guy. His band played together all the time and would come up with all these wacky, cool arrangements of their songs. When they did the tribute everybody in the original Paul DeLay band said, ‘nope, that’s a lot of work and we can’t recreate that…so they did a tribute and they made a musical out of his music catalog and the first time they did it, they had Sugaray Rayford playing the Paul DeLay character…he’s a freight train!”

Ben Rice making the connection. Photo: T.E. Mattox.

You are a student of music, jazz theory, blues…do you still teach music? “I had to stop teaching. I love teaching and there were a couple of times where I was teaching private lessons and had gone on the road and I’d be like…I need to just focus on being on the road and I let my students go. Then I’d teach one lesson and go, what am I doing, I love teaching. This is so fun, sharing music with people so I’d build up my lesson studio again and have 15 students and go on the road, and realize this is where I need to be, and I’d let all my students go, again. The second time I did that, I got a call from the local university that they needed a guitar professor…that’s what I want to do!” (laughing) “My friend was the head of the jazz department there and he said, ‘we need someone who can teach guitar students here…I’m in, and I did that for two years. And then I added horns and organ in this band and I started doing this full time. I have to be all in. I used to play as a trio; the Purple Fox was a trio band. When we played Gator by the Bay (San Diego) we were a trio band. I was worried about personalities and scheduling but it got so much more enriching to have this many people, and all the great stories.”

You work with and collaborate with so many people, R.B. Stone. “Yeah, he’s a good friend and at Jimi Bott’s studio. He was going to put together an all cigar box record. It was me, R.B. and it was supposed to be J.P. Soars and Matt Isbell. Well J.P. had just put out a record and Matt Isbell had just put out a record. You know putting out a record…when you pour your heart and soul into something, day in and day out and once it’s out and somebody hears it…you’re just exhausted. So, R.B. and I connected and wrote songs, all of them and I loved it. I think the first song, ‘Hot Rod Mama’ R.B. said, ‘Here’s an idea, I don’t know’ and he sings ‘she’s a red hot mama, she likes going fast. I go take a shower and in the shower I go it’s not red hot mama, its Hot Rod Mama and here’s the song. I sang it in the shower.” (laughing)

The dance floor was never empty. Photo: T.E. Mattox.

Creative sparks from the collaboration effect. “It’s a lot of fun and there are so many people and I’m always learning. Curtis (Salgado) has a new record out and he and I collaborated on a couple of the tunes along with my friend Josh Huff, who came up with this guitar lick. You need to come over to write this song and we got together maybe, eight times. Digging out what is the song and Curtis is just relentless, he’s so persistent in pursuing ideas. It’s so great and such an inspiration to watch. John and I were like, we have four notes we want to start with…” (laughing) “I have another group I collaborate with called ‘Cosmic Gold’ and we’re putting out a song per month. Just singles. It’s me, my friend Andy Worley and Lindsey Reynolds who’s a fantastic singer. Vyasa Dodson just joined the group and he played guitar with Curtis for a long time, two or three years. He also had a band called ‘the Insomniacs’ who were on Delta Groove.”

How did you get involved with United by Music? “Oh, yeah. It was based out of Gig Harbor, Washington but they had a group in Portland, too. They needed someone at the very last minute to go to the Netherlands. I had run into Amanda Gresham, the founder, she and her mother, Barbara Hammerman were inspired by Candye Kane’s work in the Netherlands program and they wanted to bring that to the states. United by Music North America works with people on the spectrum, neuro diverse and neuro-typical people with exceptional musical talent. You can check out United by Music at UBMNA.org if you want to know more about them.”

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