Chris Cain regards his albums as if they are his children, and, baby, his new one grew up fast on the music charts.
“Raisin’ Cain” is the 15th in a recording career that started in 1987, and the first on the Alligator Records label. Cain’s live band was integral to the sessions held at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studios in San Jose.
The 12 original tunes celebrate perhaps more than ever Cain’s storytelling acumen. A sweet complement to a baritone voice like B.B. King’s and a clean guitar sound reminiscent of Albert King. That’s Joe Bonamassa’s description.
The album won the 2021 International Songwriting Competition the Blues category for “I Believe I Got Off Cheap.” UK tastemaker magazine MOJO named “Raisin’ Cain” the No. 3 Best Blues Album of 2021. This year he had four Blues Music Award nominations including Blues Album of the Year, Contemporary Blues Album, Male Blues Artist of the Year and Instrumental Guitarist.
“I’m just really honored that my tune would even be considered in the running for the Songwriting Competition. It means a lot to me,” Cain said.
After performing at Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley) Bluesdays summer series more than a decade ago, he has been invited back every year, playing the venue more than any other artist. He performed at Bluesdays on Tuesday, June 21.
“That little gig at Squaw Valley has been one of the real joys of my playing days,” Cain said. “I’ve never played anywhere where everybody’s so happy. My band is like a bunch of flowers and if you put water on them, they just bloom. Those folks there are just so receptive to stuff, my band just played their brains out when they’d go there.”
Cain is a longtime favorite of his peers. Dennis Jones said, “He’s magic, a true blues player.” Robben Ford noted that he plays with “an intensity that keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering what he’s going to do next.” The 65-year-old is nominated for two Blue Music Awards, Best Guitarist and Contemporary Blues Male Artist of the Year.
Cain used new songwriting methods for the album, and he knew he was on to something after penning, “As Long As You Get What You Want.” It is a quintessential blues song. It sets a mood, tells a story, and features tastefully exquisite musicianship.
“There never was a time that I didn’t walk in and stumble right on some kind of mess;
So any dreams, hopes or expectations vanished years ago, I must confess.
As long as you get what you want, you might even treat me all right;
As long as you get what you want, we might even have some peace tonight.”
“I thought, ‘These tunes are like nothing I’ve ever done. There are better stories. This is going differently than anything I’ve ever written.’ ” The songs range from frolicky to impassioned blues, a couple of gospels and a funky concluding track that is out of this world.
Save for drums and harmonica, Cain can play any instrument, and he plays keys on four of the songs. His keen ears are the result of growing up in a happy musical household, which is described in the autobiographical “Born To Play.” He was 3 when he saw B.B. King for the first time.
“As a teenager, I was a nut,” Cain said. “Everybody else was getting laid and driving and stuff. And I was locked in a room totally destroying my records.”
After his older brother returned from the Vietnam War, Cain’s listening taste expanded to jazz and records such as Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Wes Montgomery’s “Tequila.” In 1983, Cain enrolled at San Jose City College, where he was a musical gym rat.
“I wanted to see if I could read music,” Cain said. “I’d go to rehearsals all day until there wasn’t anymore classes because I loved the atmosphere. I started playing in the big band. I was in over my head but I got to play with a bunch of guys I loved.”
Blues was Cain’s main calling and his distinct sound came together when he recorded his debut album, “Late Night City Blues,” on Patrick Ford’s Blue Rock’it Records.
Cain picked up a Gibson ES-335 after seeing Robben Ford – Patrick’s brother – perform with one when he was with the jazz group the Yellowjackets. As the recording sessions began, Cain’s Boogie amplifier was blown. He tried out a Music Man RD 112.
“As soon as I plugged it in, it sounded way better than my Boogie, and that’s been the amp I’ve used from my first record until right now,” Cain said. “I found the amp that I heard in my head. That guitar with that amplifier just pals up immediately.”
Perhaps Cain’s greatest onstage thrill came early in his career at JJ’s Lounge in his hometown San Jose. He opened a couple of shows for Albert King, who sternly rejected people’s request to jam with the younger guitarist. Cain was fine with it, saying, “I didn’t want to make him mad.”
However, fate wafted in Cain’s direction.
“I am playing a slow blues and I could smell this pipe smell and he’s standing right by me, and he’s feeling it, going, ‘Um huh, um huh.’”
With Cain’s parents in attendance, the literal blues giant (6-foot-5) with a deep voice and a Flying V guitar challenged the up-and-comer.
“I had watched him for two sessions, so I’m all ‘Alberted’ up,” Cain said. “He takes the first solo and he takes this thing up to 12. He’s trying to crush me like a bug. It’s hilarious. I’m just totally loving it. I’m behind him and he gives me the solo and I play one lick and he whips his head around. I finish my solo and he said, ‘It’s going to get dangerous up here now.’
“Then he takes another solo and, man, he is killing it. It’s awesome. I am standing there like a split watermelon beaming because he playing his ass off and I’m up there with him, so I am having the time of my life. And he gives it to me again and I take another solo, and he turns and looks at me again.
“Afterward, he goes, ‘This is a nice young man. You remind me of another young man, Stevie Ray Vaughan, but he doesn’t have the get-up-and-go that this boy does,’ and everybody goes crazy. It was like I hit a bucket with one second left on the clock.”
Cain played a show in Memphis a year later and he was startled to see King in the audience. “He said, ‘I told you any time you come to Memphis I was going to be there.’ And he did. One time he brought Otis Clay with him.”
A demo of what would lead to album No. 15 captured the attention of Alligator Records’ founder and president Bruce Iglauer.
“I think you’ll find the album to be a wonderful discovery,” Iglauer wrote in a press statement. “I’m confident that it will bring Chris greater fame as a world-class bluesman — fame that he so richly deserves.”
‘Down On The Ground’ at Greaseland
In the past decade, Kid Andersen’s production work at Greaseland Studios has become legendary. He’s made more than 150 albums, including two now with Cain, who describes Greaseland as “Make-A-Wish meets Muscle Shoals.”
“This guy is a genius and he’s got a great bedside manner,” Cain said. “He’s got some psychological stuff that he can do to relax people. Most guys just have a template of how they record everybody and they do it the same way. He doesn’t do that.”
Cain’s bandmates – keyboardist Greg Rahn, bassist Steve Evans and drummer Sky Garcia – played the sessions along with multi-instrumentalist Andersen and his singer and partner Lisa Leuschner Andersen, esteemed drummer-percussionist Derrick “D’Mar’ Martin and horn players Michael Peloquin, Mike Rinta, Doug Rowan and Jeff Lewis.
Notable songs include an Albert King-styled “I Believe I Got Off Cheap,” a humorous Johnny Guitar Watson-veined “Hush Money,” and a gospel, “Down On The Ground,” which features Cain on piano and Rahn on organ.
“Raisin’ Cain” concludes with a song Iglauer reportedly thought might be a Billy Preston cover. And Cain’s “Space Force” is indeed in the style of Preston’s 1971 song “Otta Space.” Anderson happened to have the ARP synthesizer Preston used on the song for Cain to play.
“I feel lucky,” Cain said. “I’ve been wanting to do a record with my band and making it at Greaseland. … Everybody that works at Alligator worked there when it started. They’re like a family. This is an affirmation. It’s like I won the Lotto.”
— Tim Parsons
- Chris Cain
- ‘Raisin’ Cain’
- Label: Alligator Records
- Release: April 9, 2021