Fifteen Minutes With Dean Rosenthal
Apr 02, 2015 04:00PM ● Published by Melissa Lauren
Photo Credit: David Hartcorn
DEAN ROSENTHALLocal Bluesman and Bob Dylan Aficionado
What’s Up? talks with bluesman Dean Rosenthal who is having his 40th Anniversary Party at Rams Head On Stage on Monday, April 6th at 8 p.m. We talk about his evolution as a musician and the positive evolution of the local music scene. You may have seen him perform at The Chesapeake Bay Blues Festivals or your local watering hole. Dean Rosenthal may play the Blues but his sounds will make your ears happy!
Congratulations on your anniversary! You have some friends in the lineup to celebrate, right?
Thanks. I’m very excited. It is going to be a big party with friends in the crowd and friends on stage. I’m going to do a showcase of people I’ve played with over the years. I started in 1975 down on the docks in Annapolis so I’m going to start with some of the people in the Annapolis area that were helpful to me when I started – David Glaser and Jon VanDyke. They were like princes in Annapolis then in a band called, Daylight. They were the music scene in Annapolis. They’ve been a big inspiration, good friends, and a huge help to me over the years. I’m going to showcase a bunch of people that I’ve played with from the Annapolis scene: VanDyke and Glaser, The Jello Boys, The Geckos, Mike McHenry. I’m known for playing Blues and I love it but I like a variety of different music. I’ve never been a big fan of commercial pop music no matter what period it is. I’ve always liked stuff you had to go listen to that you had to go look for.
Not stuff that goes, “Pop!” but stuff that makes you think, right?
Yeah, exactly. I’m also going to be playing with some people from D.C. and Baltimore and some of the people that I’ve done the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festivals with; Mark Winter, Pete Canaras, Tommy Lepson, Chance Jarkowski – all these premier players from out of the area who are not only nationally known but some of them are internationally known. To play with all those guys is a lot of fun! I remember going to see The Nighthawks and Tommy Lepson when I was standing in the crowd. To be at a point when I can call those guys friends now is a big thing.
Are you going to jam and do you anticipate having a fun guitar battle at the show – some call and response with guitar solos?
The musicians who know me, know I’m somebody who doesn’t rehearse. I never have. I always rely on blind faith and the people I play with are good enough that I actually trust them.
Yeah, the great thing about Blues is a lot of it is instinct and then you feel it. You really can’t go wrong.
It is a boxed thing but it is what you put into that box or leave out, you know? And that’s what fun is when you’re playing with guys and you say, “It’s in this key, and it’s this feel, and watch me for the turnarounds.” When you start making eye contact with the guys on stage that is when it’s really cool! You’re all looking at each other and it is really working and you don’t have to do anything. It’s just working. I like to do songs different ways every time we do them. That comes from my Bob Dylan influence. I like to sort of wing it and pick up the feel of what’s going on and if it’s not working, we’ll stop and do something else. People always say, “Are you a Beatles or a Stones guy?” Well, I’m a Dylan guy. To me, Dylan is the hub. Everything comes off of him for me, in my mind.
You do the Basement Band where you all focus on Bob Dylan music. Will your bandmates from that group be joining you?
Some of them will be available, yeah.
When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
I was always interested in music back when everybody wanted to be a cowboy or a fireman or a doctor, I always wanted to be a musician. I was pretty lucky that I was born in the time where I saw a lot of great music through the 60’s even though I was little. I remember seeing The Beatles when they were on Ed Sullivan. I was in the first grade. I remember seeing James Brown on The Shindig. When I saw that I said, “I wanna do that!” I always had an interest in playing an instrument and that goes all the way back to elementary school. I was in the chorus. And then I was really big into Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker. At the end of junior high school I was way into Cream and Eric Clapton and that’s when I discovered Dylan. I went to see The Concert for Bangladesh and I had already heard Dylan and I had the Greatest Hits record. We went to see the Concert for Bangladesh because Eric Clapton and Leon Russell were there and I already knew who those guys were and I was beginning to hear who this guy Bob Dylan was.
What did you think of Leon Russell?
That’s the one person I have opened for a couple of times over the years. I’m a big Leon fan! I always have been. I have a really good Leon Russell story. It is one of my favorite stories. You want to hear it?
A Leon Russell story? Sure! That’s awesome!
The first time I opened for Leon it was in Baltimore and I go backstage to hopefully meet him and when I walked back there, there were these two huge bodyguards and they said, “Can I help you?” And I said, “Yeah, I played. I’d like to go backstage, put my guitar away, and maybe meet Leon.” And this big guy leans in and says… “Leon knows everybody he wants to know!” It’s funny because years later when I opened for him again, his son was in the band and his son and the band were all hanging out. I went up and told the story and his son goes, “Yeah that sounds like him. He sits on the bus and plays Nintendo. If Keith Richards or Willie Nelson show up then he’ll talk to them but he’s done hanging out, you know?”
How old were you when you got a guitar?
I got a guitar when I was in elementary school and I stood in front of the mirror with it like it was a tennis racket and learned all my moves first but it wasn’t until I got to high school – I had to take a music class. It was either voice, or piano, or recorder, or guitar. Those were the options that I had. In guitar class they were playing songs like, “Smoke on the Water” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. Those were the big riffs at the time. I wasn’t interested in doing something that everybody else was doing. I asked the teacher if they had a bass because I was really into Jack Bruce from Cream. It was just me and another kid in one room playing bass and we would sit there and this kid was really into Funk and he showed me how to play these Funk lines. While I was learning to play the bass, that’s when I heard Bob Dylan and said, “Man! I’ve gotta do that!” So I dropped the bass, picked up an acoustic guitar and a harmonica rack, and a Bob Dylan songbook. The thing about my guitar style is that it is still very much rooted around bass lines.
How did you get started playing the local music scene and what was it like 40 years ago?
I used to go sit in with musicians who were already established when I was trying to get started. And I met Jake Turner and I played around Annapolis for a while but there weren’t really a whole lot of places for the kind of thing I was doing. There were really only two clubs at the time – Charlie’s and Pier 7 that offered live music. There was really a clamp on local music in Annapolis. The powers that were in control then seemed like they wanted to stamp it out every time. I had to go to D.C. and Baltimore and started playing up there for a while, played a bunch of clubs, met Herb Wheatley, who’s going to be at the show. The Jello Boys were huge as I was coming up and were very helpful to me and very friendly. I used to play big shows with them at Wilmer’s Park. They were real big and they are still great friends. I was born in Annapolis. I’ve been up and down the road a bunch and now I’m happy playing around town.
Where else can folks see you around town? I know you play Wednesdays at 49 West. That’s every Wednesday except for the second Wednesday of the month.
Yeah, that’s been happening and that is from 5 to 7 p.m. It is me and Tom Frieger who I’ve been working with a lot over the years but I also work with Gary Wright now who is in the Basement Band now and it’s more of an acoustic thing and it gets me back to my roots because when I was in high school that’s what I was into since I was a big Dylan guy. I had my guitar and my harmonica. These Bluegrass guys were coming up because there was a big revival in the Bluegrass scene. The Dylan songs that I played fit perfectly to that because there were only three or four chords to them. The other cool thing about the Basement Band is there’s no PA so there was no setting up. We could just go from place to place and play. I like the aspect of this little Folk club because that’s what sparked my interest – the little Folk scene in New York. That’s what 49 West is kind of like. It’s a nice little coffeehouse. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to New York City.
It is a nice haven for artists. We are lucky to have that spot. West Street in Annapolis is like our very own little Greenwich Village. Are you recording the anniversary show?
Yeah, we are recording it but we’re still going to play these songs and keep it live!
Well, it is sure to be a fun experience. For anyone who is new to the Blues if you had to pick a handful of artists that they should check out that are your ‘Blues Bible’ to inform them, what would you tell them to listen to?
You’ve got your top guys. Absolutely, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Those are the pinnacles. I really like the Zydeco Swamp stuff too. I did a show with Lazy Lester last Fall. I like Sonny Landreth. He’s a great slide player – Ry Cooder and J.J. Cale are two of my main guitar influences. They are unbelievable!
Yeah, when did you first start learning slide guitar?
There were a zillion guys playing guitar around but at that time there were only a couple people really playing slide. I remember hearing the Derek and The Dominoes record “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” and it’s Duayne Allman and when that slide guitar break comes in after the verse – something made me go, “That’s what I wanna do!” I never had the dexterity in my fingers like Mike McHenry does and these guys that zip. So I thought if I just move one finger around, I’ve got it licked! Duayne Allman was probably the first guy I heard because of that song but he wasn’t one of my main influences. Lowell George and Ry Cooder – those are the two guys that I started with. Then I started to go back and listen to Muddy [Waters] and Elmore [James] and guys like that that played slide and started to go backward instead of going forward with contemporary music. I decided to go the other way and carved a nice little niche for myself. I’m lucky that I picked a genre of music that allows me to get older and still play it. Supposedly, in the Blues field, the older you get, the better you get.
Yeah, it’s like a fine wine – Blues musicians or a fine whiskey, I should say.
(Laughing) Yeah, it can also turn into vinegar. I’ve been fortunate that the style of music that I play is kind of ageless and timeless and it has its sort of moments when it goes up and down in popularity but there’s always an undercurrent of people playing it. I was telling somebody the other night, “I’ve made a career out of playing music that nobody wants to hear, you know? It’s a bunch of this old timey stuff.”
Are there any young musicians out that you have your eye on that you’re impressed by that are doing Blues or other types of music?
I’m not strictly a Blues guy. I’ve tried to play all different types of music that I like. I always come back to the Blues because I love it! There’s such a big thing in Annapolis now with all the new bands coming out. You go to Eastport a Rockin’ and you see some of these young bands that are really killing it! I like all of them but I really dig Skribe. I think Skribe is really cool. Not only a good musician but he’s a great artist and he doesn’t take himself too serious. That’s another thing, the music that I’ve always liked are the songs that have a little humor to them. That’s why I’ve always liked Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, and Randy Newman, and even the Dylan stuff – songs that have a satirical twist to them. When I first heard Dylan I was 13 or 14. I didn’t know then that he had this poetic genius. I thought the songs were really funny. He’s talking about all these weird characters and it sounded like they were having a blast. It was this – I don’t care if you like my music or not, this is what we’re doing . And that’s always been my ‘Dylan Philosophy’. I like what I’m doing, I hope you do too but if you don’t, I understand.
Take it or leave it but we’re having fun, right?
Yeah, exactly. I try not to take myself too seriously. And that’s what is fun about Annapolis! There are a bunch of little places that allow me to come and do what I do. I don’t play popular contemporary music. I play old songs that come to me. I don’t have a set list. I’ve been really lucky to live in this area. I really feel tight to the whole Maryland thing.
Yeah, we’re lucky to have you and people should really check you out. And although you admit you need help setting up a website you are on Facebook, right? So you’re not completely out of the woods with social media, right?
I do have a grip on the Facebook thing. But if there are any kids out there that want to help me get my music online, let me know.
Maybe you’ll trade some guitar licks for some technology tricks, right
Yeah, I started giving lessons and for years I didn’t give lessons because for me, giving lessons was scales and stuff and why the A minor goes to this and I have no idea how that works. I’m self-taught. I can put a record on and tell you what they’re playing and what key they’re in and what’s going on and play it. But I didn’t give lessons until somebody pointed out, “I want to learn how you learned.” So I started giving lessons and it’s been a lot of fun! And through that I learned I really like producing. I produced a couple records for this really cool 80-year-old Country singer who came to my house because he wanted to learn more about how to play like Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers. And sitting around playing with him I was like, “Wow! You’ve got some really cool old songs!” I produced his record for him. Tex Callons is his name.
Wow! What a Country name!
Yeah, how ‘bout that! And his original songs are really good! That’s what really caught me and we played – we did a couple covers on the record but his original songs – it was like, one Country hook after another.
Is he going to play the anniversary show with you?
Well, I hope he’s going to be there. I don’t know if he’s going to get up or not but I hope he’s going to be there. He’s a character and knew some really off-the-wall songs. The cool thing is with these young guys I’m learning new stuff about different rhythms and the whole Hip-Hop beat. I know plenty of guys that know how to swing and shuffle and play a second line but I don’t know a whole lot of guys that are playing the more progressive beats that people are playing now. Noel White from Hudson Street Sound has been a huge help to me with that. I go to him and say, “Noel, I want to play this old song but can we bring it up to date a little bit?” There’s a bunch of guys who are doing that. There’s been a big resurgence in the whole Folk and Blues scene, which is really cool. There’s a bunch of guys playing stringed instruments now; upright basses and mandolins and things like that, pedal steel players. It’s cool that people are interested in that kind of music again.
What’s Up? Media’s Community Events Editor and former WRNR and WTMD DJ, Melissa Lauren writes the weekly What’s Up? Events Blog and E-Newsletter every Thursday. To subscribe visit WhatsUpMag.com.