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Brown has won a string of awards in recent years, including Best Young Artist in the 2012 British Blues Awards, which followed nicely from 2011's Best Band and Best Album awards.
Whenever pundits start to write off the Blues as a spent force, along comes a new generation to reignite the flame. So meet Oli Brown - the young British Blues guitarist who is carrying the torch, writes Tim Slater
Norwich might seem an unlikely venue for a triumphant homecoming gig but British Blues guitarist Oli Brown, who was born and raised in the historic East Anglian city, has made it a tradition to wind up a busy year on the road with a gig in his hometown.
The 24 year-old Bluesman returned to the Waterfront venue in Norwich in December 2012 to record and film his current live CD and DVD set, Songs from the Road. The new live album marks something of a watershed for the guitarist, who has developed from a shy teenage prodigy to a fully-fledged member of an elite club of modern Blues virtuosi currently hailing from the UK.
Brown’s rise through the ranks coincides with a remarkable resurgence of Blues to the point where it is increasingly starting to become assimilated into mainstream music.
As Oli himself points out, modern pop artists aren’t adverse to a spot of cut n’ paste when it comes to ‘borrowing’ a cool Blues riff; Kanye West notoriously sampled Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman for his 2005 hit Gold Digger and the resulting crossover sound, whist not convincing die-hard purists, nevertheless illustrates how Blues forms the foundations of a surprisingly large segment of otherwise mainstream commercial music.
Even record companies that two or three years ago wouldn’t have looked twice at Blues musicians are now starting to scramble for promising young Blues artists. Joe Bonamassa’s enormous commercial success over the last two or three years has forced a major change in attitudes, particularly in the UK where Blues was long marginalized compared to its much wider popularity on the European Continent.
But things are changing. Brown has won a string of awards in recent years, including Best Young Artist in the 2012 British Blues Awards, which followed nicely from 2011's Best Band and Best Album awards.
As always, the genre changes with each interpretation and Oli Brown is part of a new wave of young players for whom the sounds and rhythms of modern R&B and Soul music are as much a vital part of his musical upbringing as his early heroes, Hendrix Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Guy.
As a guitarist, Brown’s playing currently seems to draw from the same wellspring as his fellow Brit Matt Scholfield; sharing as it does a deeply rooted Blues feel that is tastefully spiced up with neatly placed modal phrases. The inventive solo on ‘Speechless’ which kicks off Oli’s current live CD and DVD set balances aggressive Hendrixian moves with a neat switch to smooth jazzy-sounding Dorian licks; the tone, phrasing and articulation of which are flawless.
Insisting that he has no deep knowledge of scales or harmony, Oli explains that his prodigious technique is down to one key element, constant practice. His ability to step outside the confines of the pentatonic box stems from his practice of using recording software to isolate any guitar solos that he particularly likes, slowing them down and learning them by ear before gradually assimilating them into his own playing. This process of gradual analysis his given Oli the ability to navigate his way nimbly through chord changes that might otherwise stump those like himself who haven’t formally studied musical theory and his patience and determination have rewarded him with a style that makes him one of the most melodic and accomplished players currently working on the Blues circuit.
Brown's thick raspy lead tone nevertheless owes an obvious debt to Jimi Hendrix but his choice of gear sidesteps the more usual Strat and Marshall combination in favour of a more individual setup. His current amp of choice is a British-made Volt Amp Co Overdrive Super, which is based on the fabled – and ultra-rare - Dumble Overdrive Specials as used by Larry Carlton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robben Ford, to name but a few. The Overdrive Super combines simplicity with an outstanding build quality, plus a couple of cool features that Oli employs to help give his solos an extra edge, both in the studio and onstage. “It’s an amazing amp!” he enthuses, “I just love the clean sounds, it’s got lots of headroom and the overdrive is just fantastic!”
One of the favourite facilities on his amp is the pre-amp boost that bypasses the tone controls; the idea being it pushes the clean channel whilst retaining the amp’s natural depth and warmth. The pre-amp boost mode leaves just the channel volume and the master volume in play, with a switchable volume boost on hand to further enhance the preamp boost’s fat natural tone. The Volt shares stage space with a Blackstar HT Stage 60.
Like many discerning tone-hounds Oli is a fan of vintage guitars, amplifiers and effects “but they are very expensive”, so like many guitarists his current effects setup comprises high quality stomp boxes that still help him capture the vintage tones he loves.
As for guitars, you'll often find Brown toting a Tele, but just as likely a handbuilt Vanquish signature model, which sports a mahogany body and neck and a pair of P90s, played with a thumb-pick. As a major-league big Hendrix fan he uses a Roger Mayer Octavia - a quirky fuzz pedal that introduces an octave above the fundamental note - in conjunction with a Roger Mayer Voodoo Vibe for generating evocative ‘Machine Gun’ style Leslie style chorus effects. Other key elements on the Oli Brown pedalboard are a Black Cat Bee Buzz fuzz pedal - a replica of the original Roland Bee Baa fuzztone with improved circuitry that reduces the original unit’s propensity to produce excessive noise and thus improve the overall tone and an Xotic EP Booster, which Oli insists he leaves switched on all the time. “It’s an amazing pedal, hands down.” Oli says, “It adds so much character to the guitar, it seems to open all of the guitar frequencies ranges, it opens out the bottom and the top. It makes the guitar sound bigger and I love it for that reason alone. That pedal would go with me everywhere.” These are on a board along with a collection of contemporary faves which include pedals by T-Rex, Wampler and Boss.
It's always premature to write off the Blues as a living force for guitarists and it looks like, thanks to a new generation of players like Oli Brown, that's its time is coming round again.