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RJ Howson gets ’raw’: interview

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RJ Howson at Skipper's Smokehouse COURTESY

RJ Howson performing at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa. The singer, songwriter and guitarist's CD release show is Saturday, October 12, at the Cabana Inn in Sarasota. COURTESY PHOTO

RJ Howson finishes a mahi sandwich and sips from a bottle of beer as the sun washes over the waters of Sarasota Bay. It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday and we’re occupying one of the colorfully painted picnic tables at Star Fish Co. in Cortez. A couple hours from now, Howson will host his weekly blues jam at nearby Aces Live, the top blues club in Bradenton and Sarasota Howson has performed there as a singer/guitarist/bandleader, and as a sideman, probably 100 times during the past three years.

Howson has also performed at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, one of the most venerable blues clubs in the country, and numerous other venues usually within a tankful of gas from his home on Longboat Key; and before relocating here in 2010, the famed blues clubs of Chicago. Saturday's gig, though, at the Cabana Inn, is special. It’s the CD release show for Howson's solo debut album "Raw."

“I feel like basically it’s been a really long pregnancy,” he says with a grin. “At the same time, though, it really feels right to have it out now.”

RJ Howson at Star Fish Co. by Wade Tatangelo

RJ Howson at Star Fish Co. in Cortez. STAFF PHOTO / WADE TATANGELO

On Saturday, Cabana Inn attendees can purchase “Raw” for $10. The CD features 80 minutes of music spread across 11 tracks recorded live by Fred Bovino during a show in March at the amphitheater along Bradenton Riverwalk. Lenny Long at Roseland Park Recording in Sarasota mastered the disc, which features winning clarity and separation while also capturing the energy of the festive, outdoor context.

The album finds Howson singing with convincing emotional punch while playing hot licks on his Gibson B.B. King Lucille, which he augments with a vintage distortion pedal and equally old, powerful and warm-sounding Fender amplifier. Howson writes solid originals with titles like “Carry Me Mama,” “Lookin’ for a Lover” and “Sweet Soul Sister” but really connects with the audience when playing songs made famous by his heroes.

The centerpiece of the album is Howson’s rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer,” a pro-marijuana anthem most famously performed by the Rolling Stones and special guest Buddy Guy in the Martin Scorsese documentary “Shine a Light.” Howson’s faithful version of Buddy Guy’s masterful, slow-burning ballad “A Man and the Blues” is another standout on “Raw.” Check out the liner notes to the CD and you’ll see Buddy Guy’s name also appears in the “special thanks” section.

Howson paid his dues as a sideman in Chicago and one night while accompanying Doug “The Arkansas Razorback” McDonald at Buddy Guy’s Legends club, Howson stepped to the front of the stage to solo.

“I’ve got my eyes closed and I feel a tap on my shoulder and think it’s the bass player,” Howson says. “It’s Buddy Guy! I just about fell over. I tried to hand him my guitar and he said, ‘No, no, keep playing, I’m just going to sing.’”

Howson has probably told that story dozens and dozens of times - and can you blame him? - to family, friends and especially, to fellow musicians. I’ve heard Howson tell it twice. Each time his eyes glow with ecstasy as he gets to the part when Buddy Guy taps his shoulder and then, those same eyes on that boyish face, almost dampen.

RJHowsonRAWfrontoutside4

CD cover of RJ Howson's album "Raw."

“There were tears in my eyes that night,” Howson says. “It was the realization of all my dreams as a musician.”

Although Howson will always cherish his years in Chicago, he began thinking about moving to Manatee County after meeting Damon Fowler in late 2008 through mutual friend Scott Cable, who had produced Fowler’s nationally acclaimed breakthrough album “Sugar Shack.” The recording sessions took place in Chicago.

Howson and Cable visited Fowler at his Bradenton Beach cottage and then, in 2010, Howson and Fowler became neighbors. For about three years they lived less than a block apart before Fowler relocated his family to Lakeland and Howson moved behind Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant on the Manatee County side of Longboat Key. Fowler is also thanked in the liner notes of “Raw.”

“Damon’s help has been invaluable,” Howson says, “his acceptance and encouragement and bringing me into this great music community.”

So, on Saturday, Howson will finally have his CD release show. In the next 10 days alone, he has gigs on Siesta Key and Anna Maria Island; in Bradenton and Sarasota. In the future, Howson hopes to perform at blues clubs and festivals nationwide, using his new CD to grab the attention of bookers and promoters who demand a physical product, a professional album, before even considering putting someone on their stage.

“It’s a good step in the right direction,” Howson says of his CD.

RJ Howson CD release show, 9 p.m. Saturday; Cabana Inn. 2525 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; $5; 955-0195; rjhowson.com

RJ Howson CD release show
9 p.m. Saturday; Cabana Inn. 2525 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; $5; 955-0195

Wade_Tatangelo_by_Mike_Lang_HT_06212013 Wade Tatangelo has been an entertainment reporter, columnist and reviewer for more than a decade at publications nationwide. He is a Hershey, Pa., native who grew up in Tampa and graduated from the University of South Florida. Wade joined the Herald-Tribune in 2013. He can be reached by email or call (941) 361-4955.
Last modified: October 16, 2013
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