In advance of her two shows June 16 at The Dakota, multi-talented Mindi Abair took some time from a busy schedule to talk about her remarkable career and new album. No Good Deed drops on June 28. You are strongly recommended to check it out. Without a doubt, it will garner its fair share of award nominations. Details for her pair of Dakota shows can be found HERE.
As I prepared for our conversation, I was struck by the sheer diversity of everything this woman has accomplished in a relatively short period of time. If one simply listens to her recent albums with The Boneshakers (a moniker bestowed by Bonnie Raitt) you only get the tip of the iceberg. Abair is much more than a blues titan, Grammy nominated jazz artist, sax queen, pop diva and band leader. She is one busy artist who contributes to her industry as much as she gets from it.
Abair grew up in a musical household in “Tom Petty Country”, north Florida. Her father was a touring musician who built a couple of blue-eyed soul and straight up rock bands. So there was some early immersion; she comes by her talent as a performer honestly. However, her parents never pushed or taught her to play. That came from school band where she fell in love with her saxophone. She showed enough chops to earn a full ride to Northern Florida University. She was a bit limited to a jazz education in that institution before moving on to the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“Berklee was a revelation. I found myself playing in funk bands, R&B bands, pop bands, rock and blues bands in addition to jazz. If you wanted to take courses in writing pop songs, it was available.” Abair blossomed. She was smart and she was dedicated. She graduated Magna Cum Laude.
She put together her own band and headed to LA in the early 90’s to carve out a career. She paid her dues and cut a number of pop and jazz albums that met with critical success. That notoriety, her extraordinary talent and a pile of people skills earned her touring spots with an eclectic list of acts that included Adam Sandler, John Tesh and Teena Marie. In 1999 she hit the big time and landed a gig with The Back Street Boys.
According to Abair, each of her forays onto the road with another act added new dimensions to her own musical voice. Through the first decade of the millennium she continued to release her own work. She garnered her first Grammy nomination in 2013 with the album Summer Horns. But it was really in 2014 that her evolution into who she is today began in earnest. “I felt like I had gained so much from playing on other peoples’ records and felt like it was time to call my friends to play on my own record.” That collaborative effort became Wild Heart and included heavyweights like Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Trombone Shorty, E Streeter Max Weinberg, Keb Mo, Booker T and Greg Allman. Wild Heart rocked harder than previous efforts and earned her another Grammy nomination.
Abair needed to build a new band that could hit the road to promote the album. A band that could catch fire night after night. She began by calling her long time friend and guitar dynamo Randy Jacobs. Jacobs had the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Mitch Ryder, Was (Not Was) and Willie Nelson on his resume. She proposed fusing his band The Boneshakers with her own. Jacobs bit and No Good Deed is now their 4th LP.
The proof that the band of Abair on vocals and sax, Jacobs on guitar/vocals, Rodney Lee/keys, Ben White/bass and Third Richardson on drums could deliver the goods came the very first night they performed together as Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers. She asked that the show be recorded for posterity. After all, who wouldn’t want to hear their first effort with a new band? However, when they heard it, everybody agreed it needed to be released to the public. Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers LIVE blows the walls down. A solid 2 and a half years of solid touring did nothing but add gasoline to the fire.
But how to capture that kind of lightning in a bottle with a studio release? I’m convinced that so many great blues artists never got their due simply because the recording and production process so often employed was sub par. In some cases, early technology couldn’t reproduce what the masters could do. In many more cases, it may have been more racially motivated. Labels weren’t as willing to put the time and money into African-American artists in the 50’s and 60’s simply because they weren’t going to get the crossover sales associated with “race records” As a result, most seminal blues albums don’t capture the fire, spontaneity and passion of blues performed live.
Or because the normal recording process irons it out of the mix. That’s not an issue with No Good Deed. Or for that matter with the first studio effort The EastWest Sessions, which featured Joe Bonamassa and Fantastic Negrito. These two studio offerings leap off the vinyl. I’m reminded of the immediacy of modern albums like those of Bonamassa, Gary Clark, Jr or the Johnny Winter produced Muddy Water’s classic Hard Again.
That’s down to two things, The first is that Abair and her band live tracked the albums in the studio. Rather than building each instrument into the mix one layer at a time, the musicians sit together and react. They play the way they play live. If you’re good enough, you’ll capture something organic as well as refined. Both No Good Deed and the earlier EastWest Sessions were laid down in a mere 5 days. Great musicians just letting it rip and playing off each other.
The other part of that formula for success is the producer. It’s no wonder that the best producers consistently produce hit albums. They have a touch. Certainly, the best producers can also pick and choose the artists with whom they work, They gravitate to the best of the best. It becomes a self fulfilling cycle. In Mindi’s case, both of the above mentioned studio albums were done with super producer Kevin Shirley sitting at the controls. Shirley is well known for his work with Led Zepplin, Black Crowes, Aerosmith and Joe Bonamassa.
“Kevin is a force of nature! A wonderful musician and human being. His greatest strength is that he let’s you be who you are. He has a way of getting that little something extra from you. He does that with everybody! He’ll make a suggestion or ask you try something. It opens the song and you’ll never hear it the same way again.”
Abair related how her collaboration with Shirley came about. “I was sitting one day with my friend Ken and we were talking music. I was telling him how I wanted to find somebody who could make us the best we could be with that first Boneshakers album. He said: ‘I know just the guy. Let me talk to Kevin Shirley.’ ”
“I thought, yeah right. If only. A couple weeks went by. He called me saying: ‘Kevin is in his studio right now. He’s leaving town in a couple hours but if you get over there right now, you can talk to him.’ I immediately jumped in my car and headed up to his studio in Malibou where we talked music. Four or five weeks later we were in EastWest Studio with him.”
The experience was positive from both ends. When the time came to record No Good Deed, the band knew just who they wanted to work with. “I loved making this record because each of us brought so much to it…we all complete each other musically, and it feels so natural after so many years playing together. I am so proud of what we did!”
For his part, Shirley was also up for the project. “When you get a band that is unique and talented as these guys, you really want to get them playing together.” When you listen to Shirley produced albums you will consistently hear this conservatively produced, honesty and immediacy. He clearly understands you need to let the storm erupt if you’re going to capture the lightning.
While No Good Deed stays within the broad confines of the driving Blues Rock/R&B/Soul road map, it’s also a bit of a departure from previous efforts. In this one, the award winning sax queen has produced an album that is undoubtedly vocal first. Abair has worked hard on her vocals. Obviously, she can sing. She has no shortage of recording credits to her name. Yet, she’s been taking singing lessons in an ongoing pursuit of perfection. It’s evident here. Abair takes nothing for granted. Bonnie Raitt would be impressed.
When I asked her if she approached vocals and her horn differently in the studio, she shared an interesting perspective. “Well, for one thing, vocals make you a better person because your body is an instrument. You have to keep it healthy. It’s a sport and it’s very physical. You really have to take care of yourself. Whatever you did the night before tends to be reflected the next day. So staying out late or doing anything that will take something out of you the next day has to go.” When you record albums the way The Boneshakers do, fast and raw, you need to get it right and get it right fast. “Vocals are really emotional and they take a lot out of you, if you are giving it your all. You need to be 100% right to capture what we want on an album.”
There’s no doubt Mindi Abair is a dyed in the wool road dog. She’s been touring hard for over 25 years. But if you think of her simply as a musician, you’re only seeing the tip of that iceberg. She’s run her own radio program, worked on American Idol, founded the organization Pretty Good For a Girl and is currently a Grammy Trustee.
The Idol stint, where she played sax for two contestants while Steven Tyler was a judge, led to an offer to hit the road playing sax and singing back up in Aerosmith for their 2012 tour. “When an offer like that comes, you can’t say no.” When I agreed that this was rock and roll at its big time best, Abair laughed and shared a confession she’d made to Joe Perry. “I told him that I felt really awkward because when I watched him on stage I realized that as a young player, I’d copied all his moves. The way he’d sling his guitar around. That’s what I unconsciously did with my sax.”
I asked her if she could share that one special moment every successful artist remembers. The moment where the seasoned pro, for a brief second, again becomes the little girl, looks around and marvels: Can you believe this? That was easy for Mindi to answer. “I played one night with Bruce Springsteen. Clarence had suddenly passed away. It was such a shock because he seemed so indestructible. These guys leave a pound of flesh out there each and every night. My friend Max Weinberg called and asked me if I wanted to do this particular show with him. He said: ‘You already know every note of every Springsteen song anyway!’ I think I was in a complete daze.”
If you want to get a better sense of the type of person Abair is, rather than what kind of musician she is, look beyond what she does on stage. Look to the work she does as a Trustee of the The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. She first learned about the business side of the Grammy’s when asked to take part in a special program recognizing women’s contributions to the industry. She became enamored with the Grammy Foundation. The Foundation seeks to bring resources to and augment school music programs around the country. As we are all aware, many are being reduced or eliminated through a lack of funding. “My career came from my high school band. Although my Dad and Grandmother were professional players, I found my love of performing music there. I felt this was an important cause and I wanted to do whatever I could to give other kids the same opportunity.”
She began by winning election to the The Recording Academy’s California Chapter Board of Governors. That led to two years as President of the Los Angeles chapter. For the past 4 years, she has worked as a National Trustee of the organization. Abair is particularly proud of the work they did last year in organizing and passing the Music Modernization Act. That legislation brought a wide consortium of stakeholders to the table and represents an important first step in restoring some of the fairness and integrity in the way artists are paid for their work.
“The evolution of the way we access music has happened far more quickly than our ability to make it fair for all parties. Listening platforms like Spotify are a tremendous resource. A young musician can simply access rock guitar, soul saxophone or Cannonball Adderley to learn anything. I use it all the time. But musicians get paid at the same rate they did in the 1920’s and that needs to be addressed.”
Every band has cities or regional pockets where they develop a home away from home. A locale that offers unfettered support. Abair immediately pointed to the Twin Cities. “I’m not just saying that. People in the Twin Cities get it. They know the difference between the real thing and posing.”
She’s no stranger to The Dakota and loves the venue. “I’m somebody who really loves good food and wine. And that place can really get rocking. It’s nice that people can come to a venue where they can sit down and have a really nice dinner and then rock out.”
There’s no doubt her fan base will be waiting for her. She’s doing two shows on the 16th. For a band that throws down as hard as they do live, how’s that going work? Abair laughed and admitted: “We’ll be tired!”
After all, it’s what road dogs and blues masters have been doing for a century. Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers are the latest in a proud lineage of bands blasting down the walls. And then they’ll load up, head down the road and do it again. If you want to be there when lightning strikes, don’t delay. Tickets are going fast.