Sunday, April 3, 2016

Phil Varca & The SlamJammers: Then, Now, and Into The Future

April 16th at the Paramount with Robin Trower


“There's nothin’ I like more than opening for an act and playing to a crowd that is there to see someone else. Their people don't know you and they don’t owe you! We only get one chance to make a first impression ... so I love playing for those people ... turning them on to our music for the first time and seeing their reaction!” – Phil Varca

Phil Varca at the Paramount, 2014

In the mid-90s, Long Island was home to a hotbed of vast musical riches, a kaleidoscopic display of talent spanning across a myriad of genres. Perhaps no other band represented the best of what Long Island had to offer in the blues department than Phil Varca & The SlamJammers. Fronted by (you guessed it) guitarist/vocalist Phil Varca there was no mistaking the presence of the real thing when this band took the stage. Although a formidable force on the live music scene since 1989, their debut album, Ready, Willing & Able, was released in 1997 to widespread critical acclaim. I was blown away by the CD, and tracked down the band soon thereafter for a killer performance at a Long Island club. As excellent as the album was, the recording paled in comparison with the blistering set I witnessed firsthand.


Throughout the years, the band has appeared at numerous high-visibility events such as The New Music Seminar, South by Southwest Music Conference, North by Northeast Music Conference, Crossroads Music Conference, BluesStock 1999, and the 2002 Riverhead Blues Festival. In 2014, Varca and company had the honor of opening for six-string powerhouse Robin Trower at the Paramount in Huntington. Apparently, the combination was such a success that they’re going for a second round, coming up on Saturday, April 16th. Once again, Phil Varca & The SlamJammers are getting ready to take no prisoners. It’s a philosophy they’ve lived by for decades, and it has served both them and their audiences well.


I recently caught up with Phil Varca after many, many moons and we spent some time discussing the past, present, and future of one of the best blues bands to be found in this or any other dimension.


NOW – 2016:


Roy Abrams: It’s really cool to see that the band is still around!


Phil Varca: It’s the same guy on drums, Russell Stone. I’ve been playing with him since before this band—since 1985. That leads into another factor as to why we’re still together. The “Ron Wood” of the band (that’s my running joke) is on bass: Tom Porter. He’s been with us for 18 years, and I’ve known him a lot longer than that. One of the enduring factors as to why we’re together for so long is that we’re friends. We were friends before we were in a band. I happen to be really, really fortunate in that (these are) two of my closest friends. I think that is the glue that holds us together apart from other bands. These are guys I would hang out with if we weren’t at a gig. Other bands may be really good but the guys aren’t friends outside of the musical experience; they don’t even like each other.


RA: Has the writing experience changed at all for you over the years?


PV: It’s funny. You know, as a musician and songwriter yourself, you can’t sit down one afternoon and say “I’m going to write a song!” The creative impulse comes in waves, and sometimes it comes in ripples, sometimes it comes in tidal waves, and other times, nothing. I’m in the middle of a good time right now where I have a lot of ideas; that’s been for about the past year. Two years prior, I wasn’t happy with anything that I was coming up with. You can’t force it, you know? I have a song which we’ll be doing at the Paramount that’s been kicking around for about 13 years, (one) that I never finished. It’s a new song in that it’s finally finished, but it germinated from an idea nearly 15 years ago!


RA: In 2014, you performed for the first time on the same bill with Robin Trower at the Paramount. How did that happen?


PV: It ended up being one of those cases of who you know. Somebody that we knew was involved at the Paramount. He said, hey, we have a great band that would pair well with (Robin Trower). It was a stroke of luck, and they ended up loving us. They said, “Oh my God, we’d love to have you back and pair you.” The ironic thing was that the year before they were booking blues and blues-rock acts like mad, but after that Trower show, aside from Jeff Beck, they didn’t have a whole lot that we could pair well with. What I am going to pair with, Rick Springfield? That probably wouldn’t go well! [laughter] So when Robin came back, it was perfect for us, so that we were invited back. I would have loved to have done the Jeff Beck show last year, but he was touring with his own support. We’re a guitar band; people who like us are going to be guitar folks.


RA: In addition to the music, I always liked what you guys projected. It was straight-up, no-nonsense, here we are; it’s all about the music. From a musician’s perspective, again, I remember watching the band at the Branding Iron all those years ago, watching that interplay, in that tiny little space—


PV: —I appreciate you remembering that! You know where a lot of that comes from, Roy? I point back to us being friends, too. When you’re musicians and you’ve played together a lot, you speak a language to each other that’s unspoken; it’s body language. I have the benefit of playing with Russ for 31 years. He and I can have an entire conversation and never open our mouths. He knows from my body language how I want him to pick up, drop back, those kinds of things. It’s the same thing with our bass player, Tom. When you play together for so long, you learn all these little nuances. I think that aside from us being friends, it’s one of those things that it’s the sum of the parts. Could I go out and find a killer drummer and a killer bass player? I guess I could, but then all of those other “x-factors” wouldn’t be there. Believe me; I’m smart enough to know that the music would suffer. I know it. I know it. There’s a chemistry there; you can’t bottle it, you can’t recreate it, it just happens. A lot of that may be non-musical—just the way we interact with each other.


RA: What is the band’s performance schedule like these days?


PV: We’ve been trying to do shows not only in New York, but also in Florida. For all these years, we’ve been self-sufficient. We’ve done it the old-fashioned way: knocking doors. It takes its toll on you. After 27 years, I still have to get on my hands and knees and kiss someone’s ass to get a gig! [laughter] Sometimes it can wear you down, but I’ve been trying to connect lately with the folks at LiveNation because they control quite a few local venues and many times they’re looking for local support for a lot of acts which we would fit well with. If ZZ Top comes into town, we could pair well with them. If Joe Bonamassa comes in, boom! We would fit well with him. Jonny Lang—I could go down a list—Government Mule … all jam and guitar-oriented bands that we would fit well with and actually help sell tickets. That was another thing the Paramount noticed (at 2014’s pairing with Robin Trower): there were more ticket sales when they added us to the bill.


An interesting back story on Joe Bonamassa: In 2003, I was actually his liaison when he came to Long Island to play the Riverhead Blues Festival. I was his contact when he had an entirely different touring band and the promoter, who was running around like a chicken without his head that day with a zillion things, said, “Look, will you be Joe’s contact when he comes into town?” I had to help set him up, get him paid, and all of that jazz. Also, Joe’s manager and financial backer, Roy Weisman, happens to have a mutual acquaintance/friend with my bass player, Tom, in Florida. Back when Joe played the Riverhead Blues Festival, I know what he got paid—they got paid $1,000! And now, he’s playing the Royal Albert Hall! [laughter]


We want the show to be full; we want it to be a successful event. I don’t look at it as a moneymaking venture for us. I use it as a stepping stone into repeat gigs with the Paramount, and hopefully more recognition with LiveNation. Ultimately, I have no illusions. I’m 50 years old, I have this band, and if I can do support gigs even in this region—even if I did it on the East Coast, I’m fine with that. I’m not chasing a record deal, I’m far beyond that. I play music now for the enjoyment of it. I’m back to doing it for the reason I started to in the first place: because it was fun. Some people bowl. Some people watch football. This is what we do. We don’t listen to the new trends for “new sounds” … we play the same stuff that we’ve always liked, with the same grooves, with a lot of intensity. We’re a live band, so we want to show a lot of energy and let people go, Wow! These guys make a lot of noise for three people!”


THEN – 1997:

From Musicians’ Exchange—by Roy Abrams

There seems to be a resurgence of sorts regarding blues-oriented music on the Island, and if Phil Varca & The SlamJammers have any say in the matter, it’s a trend that will continue to expand. After reviewing their debut CD, Ready, Willing & Able a few months ago, I knew I had to track these guys down. I had the opportunity to take in a full set at one of their recent gigs at The Branding Iron in Wantagh, so I can confirm what appeared in the CD review once again:

This is one f---ing hot blues band!


Even though the majority of the set consisted of blues covers, guitarist/vocalist Varca, bassist John Dunn and drummer Russell Stone succeeded in transforming them into unique renditions. Whether it was an Allman Brothers tune, something from Stevie Ray Vaughan or the venerable Albert King, the trio displayed a finely attuned ability to listen to and play off of each other so that the interplay of musical ideas was a constant flow.


Dunn & Stone (does this sound like a law firm?) provided Varca with a foundation of blues bedrock that set the guitarist free to put his instrument through the kind of workout that practically burned the frets right off of the fingerboard. Time and again throughout the set, the room erupted in applause after a particularly astonishing display. Varca has absorbed the nuances of his many guitar idols, but his real talent shines through in the way he’s able to place his own stamp on his influences. Personally, I feel that Varca could be on stage or in the studio with any of his heroes and he wouldn’t be out of place in either environment. Then again, the vibe that’s happening with The SlamJammers is one that could well spread outward in giant waves. Oh yeah, they did throw in a couple of tunes from their album, “Maybe” and “Come & Get It”, and both tracks were well up to the standards of the classics they covered. Guitar fans, blues fans, music fans: Go see this band!



From Long Island Entertainment—by John Blenn                                                 

...The triumvirate of sizzling guitarist and lead vocalist Phil Varca, bassist John Dunn and drummer Russell Stone are inspiring players all, but what distances these guys from a very strong field is that they write their own material. Trading in universal, blue collar songs that hit on the day-to-day stuff that gets on our nerves, Varca gets his guitar to do some serious talking while the dense rhythm section drives home every song with power and finesse, depending upon need.  With a reverential respect of the blues, Phil Varca & The SlamJammers deliver the blues with equal parts sincere respect and fresh ideas. This ain’t tourist blues, but the passing fan will dig it. If you eat and sleep the blues, you already have this. If you don’t, don’t pass up one of the best albums that Long Island will produce all year. Expect big things ... you'll get ’em.

—Roy Abrams
     Long Island, NY

©2016 by Roy Abrams

 All Rights Reserved—Contact for permission to reprint

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