On Stage (Extra): Toronzo Cannon grew up surrounded by the blues

By Denny Dyroff, Staff Writer, The Times

Toronzo Cannon

Some artists pursue a career in music because it’s in their DNA. For others, the path to making music can be traced to environmental sources.

Toronzo Cannon, who will perform on July 24 at the World Café Live (3025 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive.com), is an American electric blues guitarist, vocalist and songwriter.

His path to the music world was environmental.

Cannon grew up on the South Side of Chicago near the Robert Taylor Homes and Theresa’s Lounge where he heard blues artists including Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.

Throughout the history of Chicago blues, the intensely competitive local club scene has served as a proving ground, where only the best musicians rise to the top.

Iconic blues artists from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf to Koko Taylor to Hound Dog Taylor to Luther Allison all paid their dues in the Chicago blues bars before making their mark on the world.

The same holds true today, as newcomers look to living legends like Buddy Guy, Eddy Clearwater and Lil’ Ed Williams for inspiration in taking their music from Chicago to fans across the globe.

Now, Cannon is ready to write his own story as he claims his place as one of the city’s most popular and innovative blues musicians.

“I came in the side door of blues,” said Cannon, during a phone interview last week from his home in Chicago.

“I grew up around it. When I started playing guitar, I wanted to play reggae. All the clubs around Chicago were blues clubs. I grew up in the neighborhood of Theresa’s Lounge and never even knew how famous it was until I got older.

“I remember hearing all these great blues guys like Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. Now, I’m a blues musician. I have had some full-circle moments. I play blues for this age.”

Cannon’s songs have one foot in modern blues and one foot in traditional blues.

Consider the lyrics for his song “Walk It Off” – “She didn’t mean it. That’s what she said. He was an old friend and she lost her head. Now, I know my woman is nice and kind. But now we don’t know if the baby is his or is mine.”

That song is Cannon in traditional mode. If it were a modern song, it would carry on and talk about DNA paternity testing.

Cannon is currently riding the success of his latest album “The Chicago Way,” which was released last year on the world’s premier blues label, Alligator Records.

“The Chicago Way” was nominated for a Blues Music Award in 2017 as “Album of the Year.” Cannon and Alligator president Bruce Iglauer won the 2016 Living Blues Award for “Producer of The Year — New Recording” for “The Chicago Way.”

“The album came out in February 2016,” said Cannon, who was preparing to leave the following day to start his current tour in Canada.

“We recorded at JoyRide Studio with Blaise Barton in October 2105. JoyRide is a Grammy Award-winning studio in Chicago. Blaise is a wonderful engineer and Bruce is an amazing producer.

“My band and I set up and played live in the studio – the way they used to do. The studio has a lot of great analog and digital recording gear.

“I don’t have a preference for either analog or digital. I just go more by what I like to hear. If it sounds good, I say – O.K., let’s do that.

“I have a set band that I use – Luca, Melvin and Dave (Luca Chiellini — piano, Hammond organ, background vocals; Dave Forte — bass; Melvin “Pooky Styx” Carlisle – drums). These guys have been with me for a while.

“We spent three months in the studio. I write all the songs ahead of time. But, there was some tweaking and fine tuning as we were recording.

“When I’m writing, sometimes the music comes first and I say – what kind of words can I put in? I like to do very visual writing – like Bobby Womack or Robert Cray. Sometimes, the words come in first. I really don’t have a set way I write.

“This album is a month in the lives of blues people – things that happen – things that I see in the world around me. The song ‘The Pain Around Me’ is a modern-day ghetto song.”

Like many of today’s newer musicians, Cannon also has a “day job.” His primary source  of income is as a bus driver for Chicago Transit Authority.

“This is my 24th year as a bus driver for C.T.A.,” said Cannon. “I only have two more years to go until I can retire.

“The things I see while driving my bus are inspiration for songs. The whole CD was written on the bus. I get a lot of ideas when I’m driving. I’ve looked back and seen people shooting up heroin in the back of the bus. I’ve had grandmothers fighting on my bus.”

Real-life situations are great topics for songwriters. Cannon has had the benefit of sitting in a front row seat for years and having the ability of transforming what he sees into stellar blues tracks.

Video link for Toronzo Cannon (musician) — https://youtu.be/VSBSY9smvBs.

Video link for Toronzo Cannon (musician/bus driver) — https://youtu.be/Z4A_WO-85eY

The show at the World Café Live will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.


On July 26, Boot and Saddle (1131 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, 215-639-4528, www.bootandsaddlephilly.com) will host a triple-bill with Tristen as the headliner and Steelism and Pilkington as the opening acts.

Like Toronzo Cannon, Tristen also grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the suburb of Lansing, Illinois. Unlike Cannon, Tristen’s musical style is rock/singer-songwriter rather than blues.

Tristen, whose full name is Tristen Gaspadarek, is an American musician and songwriter. When she was eight, her musician father encouraged her to take up the piano.

“My father is such an amazing musician,” said Tristen, during a phone interview last week from her home in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I was always exposed to music and I’ve been singing songs since I was four. Later, I sang in choir, theater productions – anything creative.

“I wrote my first song when I was eight. It was about a woman who was sad about her man leaving her. People were asking me how I knew about things like that. My real songwriting began when I was 14 when I started playing guitar.”

After graduating from De Paul University in 2007, where she studied relational group and organizational theories of communication, Tristen moved to Nashville to focus on her music.

Since then, she has released four albums — 2008’s “Teardrops and Lollipops” (Pupsnake Records), 2011’s “Charlatans At The Garden Gate” (American Myth), 2013’s “C A V E S” (Pupsnake Records) and 2017’s “Sneaker Waves” (Modern Outsider).

“Sneaker Waves” was released on July 7. Its first single, “Glass Jar” featured Jenny Lewis, killer vocals by Tristen and a nostalgic feel. The album’s second single, “Got Some,” has been described as dreamy indie-pop.

“We started tracking the album in August 2014,” said Tristen. “I went in with about 30 songs. I was working on it at my home studio.

“Then, I joined Jenny Lewis’s tour as a singer. I didn’t work on my music at all when I was on tour with Jenny. After the tour finished, I came back home in 2016 and worked on it more.

“I like to take my time. I write a lot of songs so I like to get space to make sure it’s the best stuff- — to make sure I really like it. “There is no real pressure to do anything. When I got to finishing it in 2016, I focused on what songs were working. I also looked for what was missing.”

With such a prolific writing style, choosing the songs that make the final cut can be a challenge.

“Selecting the songs to use isn’t that hard,” said Tristen. “There is just a feeling at the very end. Then, you get all the songs that are done and decide on the order.”

Tristen is comfortable with her songwriting style.

“I don’t try to obfuscate,” said Tristen. “There are some allegories. I like to use phrases that have weight and meaning. I want people to see themselves in the songs.

“I try to find repeating patterns – pieces of advice that I tell other people or that other people tell me. I enjoy writing about love.

“Writing is a part of who I am. Every day, I work on it in some capacity. I never stop learning stuff and making things.”

Video link for Tristen –https://youtu.be/q0vLj1ks2fE.


Steelism is an instrumental band based in Nashville that features guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal steel player Spencer Cullum.

Fetzer, who is from Canton, Ohio, and Cullum, who is from Essex, England, met while performing as back-up singers for singer Caitlin Rose on a U.K tour.

They began writing together after discovering a shared interest in classic movie soundtrack composers such as Ennio Morricone and 60s instrumental artists including Booker T. and the M.G.s and The Ventures.

“I’m originally from Canton but I’ve been here in Nashville for 12 years,” said Fetzer, during a phone interview last week from his home in Music City. “Spencer is from East London and he’s been in Nashville for 10 years.

“I was on tour with Caitlin Rose in England seven years ago. I had met Spencer before in Nashville. We got together in London. He knew Caitlin’s songs and joined the band. Steelism came out of us having down time on that tour.”

Steelism’s debut EP “The Intoxicating Sounds of Pedal Steel and Guitar” was released in October 2012. In 2014, the band released its debut full-length album “615 to FAME” in North America on Single Lock Records. It was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and at Club Roar in Nashville.

Last month, Steelism released the follow-up to “615 To Fame” – an album titled “ism.” The new LP is a 10-song collection shows the band drawing inspiration from mid-century modern design, early Brian Eno productions and 70s film scores.

The album has been released on Steelism’s own imprint Intoxicating Sounds, which is distributed by Thirty Tigers. The record marks the first time the band brought featured vocalists into its instrumental canon, with guest appearances from Tristen, Ruby Amanfu, Andrew Combs and Jessie Baylin.

“We’ve always been an instrumental band,” said Fetzer. “Our focus has been on writing instrumentals. This is the first time we co-wrote with other singers. We like to challenge ourselves to do a new thing with each record.

“With our instrumental music, our goal was to make it so you didn’t realize there wasn’t a singer. The new album is very different. This is just one piece of music that is flowing throughout.

“We wrote one of the songs with Tristen who we’re playing with at Boot and Saddle. She has a new record too. It’s fun to be out with both of us supporting new albums.”

“ism” was co-produced Fetzer, Cullum and Jeremy Ferguson, who is known for his work with Lambchop, Tristen, and Andrew Combs.

“We began recording the album in November,” said Fetzer. “We spent a week in the studio in Nashville at Battle Tapes Recording. We did the basic tracks in about a week and then went back later to add guitar and the singers.”

The usual Steelism rhythm section, Jon Radford (drums) & Jon Estes (bass), and Robbie Crowell (formerly of Deer Tick) on keys are heard throughout the record. Legendary “Nashville Cat” studio musician Charlie McCoy (Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde) on vibraphone & harmonica and a lush string quartet provide the finishing instrumental touches.

“With the new album, we focused on the sonic aspect — creating a film score for a movie that doesn’t exist,” said Fetzer. “It was inspired by 60s psychedelic bands and music from old movies – especially movies from the 70s.”

Video link for Steelism – https://youtu.be/QJLVSeF9caQ.

The show at Boot and Saddle will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.

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