Young blues guitarist Christone "Kingfish" Ingram comes to Kent

Often when a talented person under 40 plays the blues and starts to bubble up toward the mainstream, he or she gets the “savior” or “torchbearer” or “prodigy” label.

Or they receive some sort of hyperbolic, biologically impossible musical DNA description. Something like, “the [guitarist] plays like the product of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix having an orgy with Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Eddie Hazel while Muddy Waters quietly watches from a nearby closet."

Some artists bristle at those kinds of claims and PR-driven genre boxes, while others seem fine with it because they’re going to make whatever music they’re going to make anyway.

Christone Ingram, dubbed “Kingfish,” a 20-year-old blues singer/guitarist, is in the latter camp.

Ingram, performing at The Kent Stage on Thursday, grew up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the legendary blues town in the delta that counts natives like John Lee Hooker, Sam Cooke, Son House and Nate Dogg, and is just 10 miles away from the fabled crossroads where Robert Johnson was said to have traded his soul for his superior guitar skills.

Ingram’s debut album, “Kingfish,” was just released in May on legendary Chicago blues label Alligator Records, but he’s been seen jamming on television and the internet since he was a tween, appearing on Rachel Ray's and Steve Harvey’s talk shows and getting shout-outs from established artists including Bootsy Collins, and co-signs from Buddy Guy, who sings and plays on Ingram’s debut.

But all the hoopla and talk of mantle-carrying and torch-bearing for the blues doesn’t bother Ingram at all.

“To be honest with you man, I don’t pay it any attention, I just play,” Ingram said while on his way to a private party gig in Arkansas.

“It’s good and everything but I don’t really pay it attention, sooo, yeah,” he said with a laugh.

As with many young musicians, Ingram’s list of guitar and musical influences are still growing and evolving. In addition to expected folks such as Muddy Waters, who initially got him interested in guitar after Ingram's father showed him a documentary about the seminal bluesman, and Hendrix and the Kings (Albert, B.B. and Freddie), he also finds inspiration from other styles.

“I love all that, Living Colour, all of that black punk and heavy funk stuff. I’m into all of that. I seen [funk-heavy Louisiana jam band] Dumpstaphunk live last year, and it was one of the greatest shows ever. I loved it. It’s unique and it’s different,” he said, also name-checking eclectic and funky folks such as Fishbone and the late, beloved P-Funk guitarist Eddie Hazel.

"Kingfish," the album produced by and largely co-written with Grammy-winner Tom Hambridge (Buddy Guy, Susan Tedeschi) sticks pretty close to established blues forms. There are uptempo shuffles (the lead track “Outside of this Town” and “It Ain’t Right”), slow 12-bar workouts (“Fresh Out” and “Love Ain’t My Favorite Word), as well as the low-key acoustic country blues of “Been Here Before” and the citified B.B. King soul sound of “Believe These Blues.”

There's also a slick and soulful AAA radio-ready single “Listen,” featuring vocals and guitar from a former young “torchbearer,” Keb’ Mo.

Ingram says his ears are always open and that just playing the expected stuff and strictly adhering to the tradition ultimately can do the music a disservice.

“You have to move forward if you’re trying to preserve the genre. Still keep it in its roots where you’re not disrespecting the genre, but you have to keep moving forward if you want to keep it around,” he said.

Ingram co-wrote the bulk of the dozen tunes, and many of the lyrics reflect his story, such as “Been Here Before,” taken from a phrase his grandmother and other folks have used throughout his young life to denote his seemingly “old soul.”

As with his predecessors, Ingram spends much time on the road, playing lengthy strings of one-nighters in different states, honing his craft as a player and performer and getting himself and his music in front of new faces and ears whenever he can.

Later this summer, he’ll be doing a run of gigs opening for twee, Columbia-bred indie rockers Vampire Weekend, putting Kingfish in front of folks who may not hear too many blues artists on their Spotify feeds.

“I’m still geeking out on that one. I can’t believe we’re actually doing that one. I’m excited for it because I know it’s going to be a whole different ballgame, a whole different planet almost. I can’t wait to get into it."

Coincidentally, he had just started to.

“When I first heard about them, it was around the same time they called. I didn’t even know they were going to contact me, but I had already started listening to their music. That’s crazy, right?” he said.

Having terms such as “savior” and “torchbearer” flung at him is fine, but as an already seasoned player and increasingly confident songwriter, Ingram says they don’t hold much sway over his future music.

“Who knows what we might do. I love all styles and all genres of music and every day I’m trying my best to find something new I can put into this while also respect and preserve the tradition,” he said.

“All of it will always be rooted in the blues.”

 

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Like him on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1lNgxml, and follow him on Twitter @malcolmabramABJ.