Return of the King
Cadillac-raised troubadour Luke Winslow-King has come home.
By Ross Boissoneau | Feb. 2, 2019
When Luke Winslow-King takes the stage at Old Town Playhouse Feb. 9, it will be just voice and guitar, and Winslow-King is completely OK with that.
“Playing solo — it’s a different approach and repertoire,” said Winslow-King. “I relate to the audience a different way.”
Winslow-King will open the second of two nights of shows by his friend Joshua Davis. Miriam Pico opens the first night (see sidebar).
Winslow-King’s career is marked with the ups and downs typical of a traveling musician. He grew up in Cadillac, then went to Interlochen. While touring the country with Seth Bernard and Daniel Kahn, performing the music of Woodie Guthrie, his car — with all their equipment — was stolen in New Orleans.
Despite the harsh welcome, Winslow-King fell in love with the city and its music, going on to study at the University of New Orleans and then St. Charles University in Prague in the Czech Republic. Following Hurricane Katrina, he relocated to New York City for a couple years, where he was a music therapist for developmentally disabled persons at the Institutes of Applied Human Dynamics, in the Bronx, and taught at the La Velle School for the Blind. His return to the Big Easy coincided with his self-titled debut album.
In the years since, he performed with numerous musicians in New Orleans and toured across the country, sharing the stage with the likes of Roseanne Cash, Jack White, Taj Mahal, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Chris Thile.
It hasn’t all been upbeat. While visiting northern Michigan in 2014 he was apprehended with less than a gram of marijuana. “Today it would be legal,” he said. Winslow-King, technically a resident of New Orleans then, was considered by thejudge to be a flight risk. He spent two weeks in jail — much of it in solitary confinement because of a peanut allergy.
Davis was among those who petitioned the court to have him let out of jail. “That was a milestone in our friendship,” said Winslow-King. “Josh and I have been friends for 20 years. When I was in high school, Josh was up and running with Steppin’ In It, and I was a fan.”
He wrote songs while incarcerated, and then more when he was released and found his marriage disintegrating. Those songs became the bedrock of his previous album, I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always, as well as influencing his newest album, Blue Mesa. Winslow-King said he didn’t intend for Troubleto define either his marriage or his musical philosophy, but it was what came out of that time. “Most of the songs revolve around that topic,” he admitted. “I wrote it out of survival, to get on with life.”
On Blue Mesa, Winslow continues his journey. The opener, “You Got Mine,” was written with friend and musician “Washboard” Lissa Driscoll (who passed away in September 2017). “Break Down the Walls” stems from his time in jail and shortly thereafter, as he moved through his divorce. When told that the first notes recall Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” he launched into an explanation of the chord changes and diatonic melodies of both songs, evidence of his music education background. “You can compare me to Bill Withers all day long,” he said.
Most of the album was recorded while Winslow-King and his band were on tour in Europe. His guitarist, Roberto Luti, hails from Italy, and the band had almost a week there between dates. Luti suggested they check out a local recording studio he knew of, and that’s when and where they recorded Blue Mesa.
Winslow-King is comfortable in many styles. He had a blues band when he was growing up, then studied classical music at both Interlochen and in college. He incorporated the smorgasbord of sounds he found in New Orleans, from old-time jazz to country and Zydeco. Now, with Blue Mesa, he’s come almost full circle.
“It’s danceable, back to the roots of blues rock,” he said, mentioning Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan as inspirations for the recording. “It’s music people can relate to,” he said.
The sessions included a full band, aided and abetted by horns and additional vocalists. For this show, Winslow-King is excited to be performing solo, just him and his guitar. He said the laid-back vibe allows him to experiment with his music. While he has an idea of the songs he intends to perform, he might change his mind based on what he’s sensing from the crowd. “There’s a long list of songs I prefer to do solo. I have a song list, rather than a set list. I’ll take requests.”
Tickets are $30 and are available at www.mynorthtickets.com.
Old Town Playhouse Solo Series
Davis headlines, Pico opens
Two nights, three performers, four shows. Joshua Davis has enlisted friends Miriam Pico and Luke Winslow-King to open his two concerts at Old Town Playhouse Feb. 8 and 9. All will be playing unaccompanied.
Davis is celebrating the release of his latest recording, Live at the Robin, a solo show from the Robin in Lansing. “I love playing with bands, sharing the music with people on stage. But there’s something about solo, playing off the cuff,” he said. He said one of the perks for the performer is the ability to shift mid-stream without worrying about whether the rest of the band will follow. “Halfway through I can change tempo or the song, do something I’ve played only in my living room.”
When he decided to do a solo show, he thought of playing at a different venue. “I was talking to Gary [Bolton, building manager] at Old Town Playhouse and thought of Old Town Playhouse.” Then there was the question of expanding the show with an opening act, and he thought of his friends Miriam Pico and Luke Winslow-King. “Miriam and Luke were the first to cross our minds. I admire both of them, love their music and thought it would be fun to collaborate.”
Well-known for her own collaborative efforts with keyboardist David Chown, Pico she said she is doing more solo work these days. “I’m excited,” said Pico. “I do a lot by myself now. It’s mostly originals.”
That doesn’t mean the music will be unfamiliar to the audience. Pico said she always does a couple things the audience will know. “There’s always a singalong. That’s everyone’s favorite part of the show,” she said.
The concept of concerts at Old Town Playhouse isn’t new, but it is unusual. “When we did Always, Patsy Cline, it brought in a different audience,” said OTP Executive Director Phil Murphy, referring to the musical about the late country legend which was performed at OTP in 2009. The country music fans in attendance were not the typical OTP audience, which suggested that maybe there was a way to use the facility to serve other interests.
Enter Judy Harrison and Rebooted, her country and classic rock band. “Judy had been kicking around the idea [of a Patsy Cline show] and did two shows a year apart. It brought in that other audience again,” said Murphy of the musical revue Remembering Patsy Cline.
Last year, the playhouse hosted the local tribute group Peter, Paul and Mary Remembered. “They’re coming back this year,” said Murphy. The facility also hosted The Accidentals.
The playhouse’s availability is limited. In addition to performances, rehearsals and set designing preclude using the venue for many other activities. And though the production for a concert is a less involved than that of a play, a one-night show usually means a day for setup and one for teardown. So these two shows are actually four nights.
Murphy said in an ideal world, those attending a show at Old Town Playhouse for the first time might consider coming back for one of its plays. “We’re a producing theatre. We don’t want to get into the concert business, but it’s something we can do occasionally. There are other venues, and we don’t want to step on their toes.”
Showtime each night is 7:30. Tickets are $30 and are available at www.mynorthtickets.com.