It’s not hard to find a classic rock band that’s still around after 35 years, especially given the lucrative option of extending a brand name. But in jazz and blues circles, where players shuffle through live dates and recording sessions, it’s more unusual to find a unit that’s endured through the one-nighters and niche record sales.
Yet that’s just where Sugar Ray and the Bluetones find themselves, heading to Scullers Jazz Club on Dec. 4 in support of Living Tear to Tear, the Rhode Island-rooted band’s fine August release of Chicago-
“Nobody’s played together for 35 years, so we really have an advantage in that way,” frontman Sugar Ray Norcia says of his blues crew with 13-year member Mike Welch on guitar and the original rhythm section of keyboardist Anthony Geraci, bassist Michael “Mudcat” Ward and drummer Neil Gouvin.
“It’s almost telepathic at times,” says the singer and harmonica ace. “They’re right behind me, especially Mike Welch. I can’t skunk the guy because his ears are wide open. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing ’cause I get total support.”
That’s “Monster” Mike Welch, who was only 13 when Dan Aykroyd gave him that nickname at the 1992 opening of the original House of Blues in Cambridge. Today, he’s 35, as old as the Bluetones. “I say half-jokingly that my job is just not to ruin my favorite band,” says Welch, who lives in Somerville. “I feel I can be part of that shifting give-and-take communication. Simple, traditional music is very dependent on that to give it life, as opposed to recreating something that’s happened before.”
Like Welch, Norcia favored the blues over pop music from his teen years in Stonington, Conn. “I was lucky enough to find people who were collecting Muddy Waters and Big Walter records,” says Norcia, 60, who went to high school with drummer Gouvin. “We went on sojourns to Boston and bought armloads of blues records, like it was going on a hunt, and we’d go home and spend weeks spinning all these new artists,” he says. “There was something about learning that way. Times change, but I sure do miss those days. I wish more people would immerse themselves and study the genre.”
He also had a resource in his father, who taught music in neighboring Westerly, Rhode Island, and counted Roomful of Blues’ Duke Robillard and Al Copley among his students. “All these guys were playing every weekend down at the Knickerbocker Cafe,” Norcia says of the still-thriving venue where the Bluetones play Nov. 29. “They’d bring in guest artists like Joe Turner and Red Prysock, and I said, ‘Holy shit, this is great stuff.’ ” Norcia-—nicknamed “Sugar” for his sweet voice as a youth, before he picked up the harmonica—eventually fronted Roomful from 1991 to ’98, his only break from the Bluetones.
Norcia first cut his teeth, however, at the Speakeasy in Cambridge, backing blues icons like Big Walter Horton in the house band with guitarist Ronnie Earl and the Bluetones in the ’70s. Chicago guitarists Hubert Sumlin and J.B. Hutto went on to tour with the Bluetones; Hutto even spent Thanksgiving with the Norcia clan. “He really dug the fact that I had a close-knit family,” Norcia says. “We made him feel at home.”
However, Norcia wouldn’t just imitate his idols, even in the case of primary harp influence Little Walter, whom Norcia feted with an all-star cast on 2013’s Grammy-nominated Remembering Little Walter. He honors Little Walter’s improvisational style when he covers his tunes. “It turns some harp players off, like ‘You’re not doing it right,’ ” Norcia says. “I say, ‘Man, you’ve got the wrong idea. Be yourself.’ ”
Sugar Ray and the Bluetones fulfill that role on Living Tear to Tear, which sports originals from four of the band members. The songs range from the swinging “Rat Trap” to the slow blues “Misery,” which balances a slippery rhythmic synergy and stinging guitar lines. And Norcia’s ballad “Our Story” pays sentimental tribute to a relationship that outlasts even the
Bluetones, the 40-year bond with his wife.
“That’s an amazing story in itself, I guess, especially for a traveling, working musician,” he says. “She used to come out to see me. That’s how I met her, in a club.”