Spotlight on Keyboardist Brian Less - Musical Director for Taylor Hicks

By , Contributor

Photo by Richard Uznanski

Several nights a week, Brian Less can be seen working up a sweat behind his keyboards at Napolean’s, an intimate, ornately-decorated lounge in the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. For the past several years, Less has been the musical director, tour manager, and a musician for Taylor Hicks. He was firmly established as Hicks’ keyboard player years before the soul belter won American Idol and rocketed into the national spotlight in 2006. But his incredible technique and improvisatory skills have ensured his importance in Hicks’ musical conception ever since.

Currently, Less has been playing in Hicks’ band for the duration of a Las Vegas residency that began at Bally’s in 2012, transferred to Paris in 2013, and has expanded out for select dates at other Caesars Entertainment properties around the U.S.

With a playing style that is equally adept as an accompaniment to Hicks’ bluesy vocals or as a solo feature, Less represents the center of a musical storm every time the band is on stage. Sometimes he’s busy striding along on piano during old school R&B tunes, other times he’s trading solos with Hicks on harmonica. Whatever he’s doing, you can rest assured it’s worth listening to. Having seen him as Hicks’ right-hand man in concert numerous times, I wanted to know more about the Memphis-born musician’s background.

First off, how do like living and playing in Vegas for this extended residency?

I like Vegas, but I’m getting tired of living on the Strip. At first it was cool, but now I want to be able to wake up in the morning and go to a kitchen and cook breakfast. But at the same time, you can’t do that on a tour bus. When you’re on a tour bus, you go out for a couple months and then you go home. Basically the hotel is our home. We’ve been there since last June [2012]. It’s the same thing as being on tour, except instead of being on a bus, going city to city, you stay in one place and other cities come to you.

Initially at Bally’s last year, you guys were backed up by a great blues rock band, the Jamie McLean Band. Now you have some excellent musicians—Cody Farris on guitar, Jason Parker on bass, Eric Schauer on drums—accompanying you. How did they come to join the band?

Basically what happened is the Jamie McLean Band had to go their separate ways. Taylor told me, as musical director I need to find the best players I can. I already had Cody and Jason in mind for guitar and bass. But I wanted to use at least one local player, from Vegas, because being part of a residency is becoming part of the community.

Taylor is a big on, you know, if you go into someone’s home you don’t just bring your own crew and tell everybody to get screwed. We wanted to create jobs for people in Vegas, too. We have five people from Alabama. But our sound guy, our light guy, our house manager, our drummer—they’re all from Vegas. I think that’s an important thing. It’s a way to embed yourself in the community. It’s like going to a new school. You want to start new relationships.

When did your career as a professional musician begin?

When I started playing my first few gigs, I think I was 15 or 16 years old. I played in a bar, so my parents had to go with me because I wasn’t old enough to be there. It probably sounded a lot different than what I sound like now.

What kind of music was influencing you early on?

When I was a kid, I thought Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead were like, heavy metal, punk rock, “have your hair in a Mohawk”-type bands. I didn’t really know. I guess my parents didn’t really introduce me to that [music] until I was probably 17. My dad gave me the Grateful Dead, live at Cornell in 1977, cassette that he had. That changed my life. Before that, I was all about Jerry Lee Lewis and Texas blues.

After high school, you left Memphis for college. A big change, I take it?

I went to college in Alabama and I didn’t know anybody. I was this dorky kid with my keyboard—it almost didn’t even fit in the dorm room. My goal was to find a band that played in a bar with people screaming, having a good time. I joined a band called Big Brother Blues. That was the first band that I stayed in that was successful. We played the biggest bars on the biggest football game nights in Tuscaloosa. I was surrounded by really good musicians. You have to surround yourself with better musicians all the time. So I played with them for about five years and then we all took off to Nashville.

How did that go?

For a year and a half I was working at T.J. Maxx as a loss prevention investigator. I get this phone call from Clay Conner [Hicks’ assistant], and he said, “Hey man, I want you to sit in tonight at 12th & Porter with a friend of mine, his name’s Taylor Hicks.” I was like, “I’m really tired. I just got home from work.” I had no idea who Taylor was, you know?

I take it you summoned the strength to go to the gig anyway?

Yeah, I set up my keyboard and we start playing. He got up there singing, and I heard his voice for the first time. That would’ve been 2001 or 2002. So I moved to Birmingham. Taylor and I, right from the get-go, had a musical chemistry. We started doing duo gigs, acoustic gigs, where I played piano and sang backups and he played acoustic guitar and sang lead. Then we played as The Taylor Hicks Band for however many years.

So The Taylor Hicks band was playing a lot in Alabama and surrounding areas and suddenly in 2005, you get a surprising phone call.

Taylor called me one night and said, “Hey man, I’m in Las Vegas and I’m about to try out for American Idol.” And I said, “What’s that?” I had no idea what American Idol was. He was like, “It’s a TV show. If you win you get a record deal.” I was like, “Dude, whatever you want to do, we support you 100%.” As he progressed on the show, I took over the band so the guys could still work. He had been the bandleader. So I got with the band, “Hey guys, let’s start booking gigs. But I don’t know what we should call the band—we’re sitting in limbo right now.” And a light went on, because my nickname is “Little Memphis.”

So “limbo” became Little Memphis Blues Orchestra. It was a very fitting name. LiMBO started doing shows every Wednesday and Thursday and Fox affiliates would come. As Taylor went farther and farther [on Idol], more cameras showed up at our gigs each night. They would interview the band, asking about Taylor and stuff. That’s when life started to change for the band. I can only imagine what Taylor was going through, but the band changed too. LiMBO shows were sold out. Then we ended up at the convention center in downtown Birmingham for the finale. When Taylor won, everyone wondered what would happen next.

That must have been a seriously exciting time.

Yes, when Taylor did the American Idol national tour, LiMBO booked a shadow tour in the same cities the Idol tour played. Taylor would do an Idol concert. LiMBO would start an hour after the concert was over, we would do two sets. And for the third and fourth sets, when Taylor got there, we were back to The Taylor Hicks Band again. And every one of those shows was completely packed out. We were playing places like the Viper Room in L.A. and Hard Rock CafĂ©, really top notch bars that normally, if we’d sent a demo in, we’d never have heard from.

And your partnership with Taylor continued, obviously, well beyond that Idol tour?

After the American Idol tour was over, Taylor called and said, “Do you want to go on tour for this first album?” He had Jeff Lopez already playing saxophone with him, so Jeff and I were the two guys from the original band to go on tour. As time went on, Jeff went his separate way and I stayed in there. As time went by, I started seeing all these people Taylor was hiring and all the money he was paying them, and I thought, “I can do that. That’s prime management organization. Man, I can do that.”

What gig stands out in your mind as a highlight, one of the coolest shows you’ve played so far?

My birthday on the first [post-Idol] tour, we were in Universal Studios Orlando. And they closed the park down because everybody came to the concert. That was pretty wild.

I’ve been able to live my dream. When I was a kid going to concerts with my dad I’d be like, “I want to do that. I want to be on that stage working with those bands.” And now I am. And my ultimate dream is to have my own band one day. Taylor has opened up a lot of doors for me. I’ve learned a lot from him, he’s learned a lot from me. I couldn’t be happier right now, but all I can say is there’s a lot more to come.

For information about seeing Brian Less play with Taylor Hicks, visit the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino website.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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