"Country Living" in Las Vegas: An Interview with Jamie McLean of the Jamie McLean Band

The guitarist and bandleader talks about Live at Gibson and backing up Taylor Hicks for the upcoming Bally's residency.

By , Contributor

For the last several years, the Jamie McLean Band has been among the hardest-working fixtures of the jam band scene. Their gritty style of bluesy roots rock has been regularly energizing live audiences as the band has toured relentlessly since its debut release in 2005. It’s only fitting that their latest release, Live at Gibson, represents their raw, hard-hitting, onstage intensity. The album was recorded earlier this year at the Gibson Showroom in New York City and features special guests Jason Crosby (formerly of Robert Randolph and the Family Band) on keys.

Also guesting on the live album is Taylor Hicks, who contributes vocals and harmonica on the opening track "Country Living." While the American Idol winner has already had an on-going relationship with the Jamie McLean Band for over a year, that collaboration is about to explode in Las Vegas. The Jamie McLean Band will serve as Hicks’ backing band for an eight week residency at Bally’s beginning June 26, 2012. Bandleader, guitarist, and namesake Jamie McLean took a little time out of his hectic touring schedule to discuss all this and more.

One of the great things about the new live album, Live at Gibson, is just how live it sounds.

That was definitely our goal. No overdubs or anything like that. We definitely just tried to knock it out, basically just mix it and print it. I’m glad that it translates that way because that was definitely our intention, to keep it as raw as possible. Even with the studio records, we play the songs basically raw and do minimal overdubs or production. But being in the studio without a crowd, it’s just going to end up being a little more polished.

And you’ve got a DVD of the show coming out later?

Yeah, the DVD was filmed of that show, same night, and it’s all mixed, edited, and ready to go. Since we got this thing with Taylor Hicks over the summer, we decided to hold off and do two installments. The DVD will come out later in the year. We’ll have some clips and teasers that will go up at some point over the summer.

How did your association with Taylor Hicks first come about?

We’ve known each other for a year or so. We did a show when we released Sunday Morning, a release party in New York and we invited John Popper of Blues Traveler. He came out and played with us, he’s on that record. And then Taylor was in town by chance, so he played with us on that show. I’ve sat in with his band a number of times. We listen to the same kinds of music, we get along real well. Some people say it’s a little strange, like why are you working with this American Idol guy? But we’ve got such a common bond as far as the music goes, it’s really easy. We did a little bit of touring together, where it was the Jamie McLean Band doing a set and we’d be up there with Taylor afterwards. We’ve just kind of been expanding our sets a little bit and it turned into this thing in Vegas.

So are you guys pretty excited for the eight weeks in Las Vegas?

We’re super excited. It’s something that’s totally different for us. It’s the first real proper residency we’ve done. And add the fact that it’s in Las Vegas and that immediately makes it even more appealing. It’s a destination. We’ve got a lot of friends and fans that are coming out. We’re hoping to get everybody really rallied out there.

The room at Bally’s is called the Indigo Lounge, but I predict that anyone expecting a stereotypical “lounge act” won’t know what hit them.

Yeah, it’s definitely not your typical lounge show, and the fact that the Jamie McLean Band’s involved means it’s just going to be cranked up that much more. With Taylor, I think he was interested in us but wasn’t sure if we’d be available. But when it came down to it, he was like, “Man, I want you guys because I know you’re just going to be kicking ass every night.” There’s not a lot of preparation that needs to go into this because we’ve already worked with Taylor and us, as a band, are already super tight as the Jamie McLean Band. By the end of that run, we’re really going to be whipping it in that room.

Do you anticipate playing any of your own songs during the show?

We have a preliminary set list, and we’re definitely going to be doing “Country Living” during the show. I know that will be part of it. Hopefully we’ll work some more into it, I don’t know how much room we’ll have. But depending on how it works out, we’ll definitely try to squeeze some more in there. I know Taylor really respects my songwriting and hopefully we’ll do some more of that, but he’s got plenty of material. We all like a lot of the same old soul tunes, so we’ll put some covers in there.

Speaking of songwriting, is that a collaborative process between you and your band mates?

I write the bulk of the stuff by myself, getting the main body of the song together and then bringing it into the guys. Then we sort of flesh it out as a group and make it seem like a full band. I just find that ideas come a lot easier to me when I’m alone. Our drummer Brian Griffin wrote “Natalie” on our album, Completely.

How did you, Brian Griffin, and bassist Ben Mars first come together?

In the very early stages, my brother Carter was playing drums in the band. He’s now a drummer on Broadway for The Lion King, he’s a phenomenal drummer. We had a great musical bond, but it’s hard to get along on the road. At a certain point we just decided we’d rather be brothers than musicians that hate each other. [laughs] So he sort of stepped out and when I was looking around for drummers, Joe Russo, a good friend of mine who plays drums with Furthur, recommended Brian. Literally within the first 30 seconds of playing together it just was very obvious he was the one we wanted to go with.

And Ben, actually we got a call from my brother. We were looking for a bass player at the time. And my brother suggested we check out Ben Mars. He was just out of music school, kind of younger and real eager and hungry. Still kind of getting his playing together and I realized I’d rather have someone like that than a seasoned vet that knows everything and is getting kind of jaded. And it was just the perfect call because he’s such a team player. It’s just the perfect glue for the whole group. That’s been the core band for a few years now.

What influences do you credit to helping shape your guitar style?

I really do pull from a lot of different sources. Growing up there was a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan that I was listening to, a lot of Eric Clapton, a lot of Allman Brothers. Then I went off and studied jazz for a long time. I kind of got over that phase, but kept the best parts of it. And then I always say if I can make my guitar sound like one of the singers that I really respect—I try to make my guitar sound like Ray Charles every night pretty much. If there’s soul coming out of it, I’m good with it. I was in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band for a long time, when I first joined that band I was kind of young and hungry and playing a thousand notes every night. I was listening to these horn players and very quickly realizing that one note, played with all your heart and soul, trumps a million notes. It’s really all you need, one note with a lot of feel. And that’s kind of what I go for in my playing.

What do you have planned for the future?

We’ve been touring behind the live record and now, obviously, Vegas. Last year we started a project to put out four EPs and this live record came along and sort of became one of them. But we’ve got an EP of cover songs in the can that we recorded a couple months back in New Orleans with some special guests. So later in the year we’ll have the Live at Gibson DVD and then we’ll be releasing an EP with some pretty cool cover songs. We’ve got Ivan Neville and also the Dirty Dozen horns and some other special guests. We’ll be touring a lot more after Vegas and we’ve been talking with Taylor a bit more too—just keeping busy!

Live at Gibson is now available on CD or as a download. For more information, please visit the Jamie McLean Band official website. Tickets are currently on sale for Taylor Hicks, backed by the Jamie McLean Band, at Bally’s Las Vegas.

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Chaz Lipp is a Las Vegas-based musician and freelance writer. His new jazz album 'Good Merlin' is now available.

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