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The difference between mesas and mountains: Luke Winslow-King’s soulful Delta blues comes to The Mill

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Luke Winslow-King and Roberto Luti w/ Brian Johannesen

The Mill — Friday, May 10 at 9 p.m.

Michigan’s Luke Winslow-King plays The Mill on May 10. — Victor Alonso

Luke Winslow-King sings like the Michigander he both once was and now is again, influenced as he’s been over the years by New Orleans and a lot of other places in between. He’s a modern day music journeyman who mixes elements of traditional country, World War II-era blues and classic Delta soul.

He’s playing a stripped-down duo set with Italian slide guitarist Roberto Luti at The Mill on Friday, May 10. Brian Johannesen opens. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door.

Winslow-King was born in Dubuque, Iowa, but raised in Cadillac, Michigan. In 2017, he moved from New Orleans back to the Cadillac area, his home now in the neighboring historic logging village of Harrietta. Growing up in a musical family, he started playing the bars around Cadillac when he was still a teenager. (His dad chaperoned.) In 2001, when he was 19 years old, he dropped out of college and went on a tour across the country singing Woody Guthrie songs with two of his friends in a show called “From California to the New York Island.”

What happened next might fit best into one of Winslow-King’s traditional blues numbers: Their touring van was stolen, with all their instruments tucked in the backseat. They eventually got the van back, but not the instruments. So, there he was stranded in New Orleans, a moment in time he says transformed him into who he is today.

“That incident afforded me enough time to fall in love with New Orleans. I ended up stuck there for a couple of weeks, and I made friends, and I saw what my life could look like there,” he says.

He called New Orleans home for 15 years after that, enrolling in the University of New Orleans and earning his rent busking on the streets by day and playing the bars and clubs at night. He dove into the New Orleans music community, playing with the likes of New Orleans legends “Washboard Chaz” Leary and George Porter, Jr. of the Meters. Back then, Winslow-King says, everybody was accessible and if you were good enough, you could sit in with almost anybody.

“In the days before Hurricane Katrina, the people that were really well-known and famous were still available,” he says. “There were less people on the scene and their was less chaos. I think the scene was more open then. I was lucky to go there when things were a little bit more loose and wild. It’s different now.”

The classically trained, street-tested Winslow-King soon began writing his own songs, releasing his self-titled debut in 2008. It was followed by three records over the next six years, including Old/New Baby, which was recorded at Preservation Hall in New Orleans’ French Quarter. He got married to his bandmate, Esther Rose, and toured the country and Europe. In many ways, 2016’s I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always is a journal of his divorce, replete with the grief stages of pleading, anger, remorse and, eventually, optimism.

“I wrote it out of survival. I was recently divorced and just heartbroken. I was around the world travelling and I was trying to make music that made sense for where I was, trying to get out of the situation I was in. I kind of played and wrote my way out of it,” he says. “A lot of the songs on that record are very visceral and close to the surface. I’m glad to have that record behind me. I hope I don’t have to make another one.”

His follow up, last year’s Blue Mesa, is not its antithesis, but it does paint a fuller portrait of Winslow-King at 36 years old.

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“There’s still some relationship strife in Blue Mesa, but there is more optimism, there’s more varied subject matter. And there’s a little bit more blue and green mixed in and a little less red and black,” he says. “It’s a little more impressionistic and a little more inviting for a wider audience.”

It’s full of moments of both traditional and modern blues reflection, blended with some pure damn fun, like the retro-blues stomper, “Chicken Dinner.”

The title track is straightforward folk, ruminating on big, capital “T” time through the image of the barren stretch of desert known as the Southwest.

“I wrote ‘Blue Mesa’ leaving Flagstaff, Arizona at dawn. I actually saw mesas a hundred miles off in the distance,” he says. “It’s about seeing how nature can heal and change emotions. That’s part of the chorus: ‘This desert was once the ocean floor / I want to feel your waves lap upon my shore.’ Looking at things from a greater perspective and not just being caught in your own little bubble of that moment or that emotion or that day, but trying to look at things on a grander scheme often helps you through an emotional situation like that.”

He says when he’s back home in Harrietta about three or four months out of the year, he keeps busy working on new music in his home studio and, “you know, keeping the woodstove roaring.”

“It depends on the season,” he says. “I do a lot of canoeing in the summertime and a lot of cross-country skiing in the wintertime.”

To be back home in Michigan now, after establishing his life and career in New Orleans, gives Winslow-King a chance to come full circle and find new inspiration in the place where he began.

“When I first started out, I was influenced by friends and neighbors who played around town. I guess I still am,” he says. “But now, I find most of my inspiration in nature and in humanity and in relationships. Now, I kind of go inward a lot. I spend a lot more of my time on my own, reading and writing and practicing.”

Winslow-King won’t be denied, knowing now that trouble don’t last and that mesas only form when all the rest falls away.


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