Influenced by blues pioneers, Steve “Lightnin” Malcolm plays musical patterns in its most primitive form, but to make it he uses modern technology.
He recently jumped off his riding lawn mower so he could sing a guitar riff into a smartphone.
“The songs just come to me,” Malcolm said. “I’ll be riding down road and I hear them in my head. I’m not really responsible for what I make up. It just happens. I just try to grab the best stuff. If I have two days off in the hotel with nothing to do, I think I will do a bunch of writing. But I can’t. It happens when I least expect it.”
The Tahoe-bound bluesman said he has put about 60 ideas into his phone since it was purchased a couple of months ago. He estimates he’s written almost 400 songs, including 14 on his diverse and outstanding second solo album, “It’s Rough Out There.”
Featured on Sunday’s bill at the Crystal Bay Casino with the North Mississippi Allstars, Malcolm applies Hill Country sounds to different styles on his new record, including R&B, soul, hip-hop, country and reggae. Although NMA’s Luther Dickinson lends a hand with a slide attached on a couple of tunes, most of the record’s songs are simply Malcolm and drummer Stud, the grandson of T. Model Ford, a bluesman who was estimated to be in his mid-90s when he died last summer. The guitar-drum dynamic is what concertgoers hear when Malcolm is not playing with the North Mississippi Allstars.
“I keep the music raw and stripped down,” Malcolm said. “There’s a lot to it. Luther is the baddest slide player I know, but for the most part it’s just drums and guitar. It’s the old-fashioned Mississippi style, but we learned how to play it on modern equipment to make it sound full.
“The rhythm, the bass line and the groove are where the focus is. Too much of music now is focused on the lead and the lead is just like icing. You got to get the rhythm going first and then everything else will fall in line.”
Malcolm has followed the blues since he was a boy, captivated by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and the Chicago sounds. A native of Missouri, he moved to Mississippi and went deeper into the blues by studying Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Guitar Slim, Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller.
“As I started playing, I met R.L. Burnside 1993 when I was about 17,” Malcolm said. “He blew me away. He was so cool. Then Junior. Their music is really ancient. It goes back to the most ancient, primitive patterns. It goes back so far, it’s so universal, it actually goes modern.
“If I played Chicago style structures, it’s harder to actually play more original music. You couldn’t make reggae to it; you couldn’t put Caribbean beats to it. The old tribal beats, it’s so universal. It really is like a world music. Hill Country is the way you push the strings, it’s like a snare drum. It’s the same thing with reggae music. The guitar is almost more like a drum with notes.”
A career highlight for Malcolm was serving as musical director for the Big Head Blues Club’s “100 Years of Robert Johnson” tour in 2011. Fronted by “Big Head Todd” Mohr, the album and tour featured Hubert Sumlin, best known as Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who played with Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton. Edwards and Sumlin both died in 2011.
“It was amazing to play with somebody who had actually played with Robert,” Malcolm said. “I was the only one who could play with him. Nobody else could follow him. I grew up playing with them old guys from Mississippi, they all had their own style, their own way of changing. Once you find out their style, it’s really not that hard if you listen. A lot of guys just play and count but you’ve got to feel it and you will know when the change is coming.”
Whether listening to his new album or seeing him live, people know what to expect with Lightnin Malcolm: Authentic music with deep roots with a contemporary delivery. Tahoe Onstage recommends purchasing “It’s Rough Out There.”
‘It’s Rough Out There’
Buy CD: LINK
Concert: Sunday, Feb. 2, with the North Mississippi Allstars in the Crystal Bay Casino