Packed house

Roomful of Blues’ band roster could more than fill a room

New Hampshire Union Leader
May 10. 2017 12:50PM
Roomful of Blues is back on the road, and looking ahead to its 50th anniversary in 2018. 

Roomful of Blues’ latest CD, “45 Live” celebrates 4 1/2 decades of horn-drenched blues and R&B. But that’s so 2013. Guitarist and band leader Chris Vachon is busy preparing to mark the New England band’s 50th anniversary in 2018.

Roomful of Blues comes to Tupelo Music Hall in Derry on Saturday, returning to a venue that moved a town away and doubled in size since the last time the group played there.

But these guys are well-versed in change. Roomful of Blues is the touring-act equivalent of “Saturday Night Live,” with an ever-changing lineup that Vachon figures has included at least 50 members since its founding in the late ’60s.

Roomful alumni include guitarists Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl, harmonica player/singers Sugar Ray Norcia and Curtis Salgado, and cornetist Al Basile, who have all enjoyed solo careers.

The latest incarnation includes long-time member Rich Lataille, who first joined the band in 1970 on tenor and alto saxophone. Vachon, who joined 20 years later, celebrated his 25th anniversary with the group a couple of years ago.

In recent years, the band has enjoyed some stability: Since “45 Live” was released four years ago, Roomful has undergone only one personnel change — not bad considering Vachon has played with six lead singers during his tenure.

“The only person that’s changed is we have a new drummer. His name is Chris Anzalone. He’s a Boston guy,” Vachon said during a recent interview from his Rhode Island home. “(Former drummer) Chris Rivelli was with us for quite a few years. He’s doing a lot of teaching up at Berklee, and he has a music school with his wife, so he decided he wanted to stay around home. So we got Chris, and it’s been working out really well.”

The band also features singer Phil Pemberton, baritone and tenor saxophonist Mark Early, trumpet player Doug Woolverton, bass player John Turner and keyboard player Rusty Scott.

Vachon was thrust into the leadership role in 1998 when more than half of the band quit, leaving it without a drummer, bass player, keyboard player, trumpet player and singer just as the group was about to go into the studio to record the album that would become 1998’s “There Goes the Neighborhood.”

“It was kind of a hairy situation for me because I had already taken the advance from the record, so I had to put a band together to do that record,” Vachon said. “I pulled it off. I got some really good guys, and we went in and made that record. Ever since I’ve been in charge of all that stuff.”

That episode put Vachon to the test, however.

“I remember after we tracked the first day. I was staying upstairs, and I had the only panic attack I’ve ever had in my life, which was just not pleasant at all,” he said. “Once I worked through that everything went really well. I’m still proud of that record.”

“45 Live” is Roomful of Blues’ fifth album for the famed Chicago blues label Alligator Records. The group recorded it over three nights at The Ocean Mist, a club in Matunuck, R.I. Vachon dismantled much of his home studio and set it up in the club.

The set features material from throughout the band’s history, including the title tracks of the albums “That’s Right!,” “Turn It On, Turn It Up” and “Dressed Up to Get Messed Up.”

“What I wanted to do was try to get a little bit from each lineup of the band, even from the beginning, even though I wasn’t there,” Vachon said. “We recorded stuff that had been recorded in the past. I tried to pick things style-wise, beat-wise, and things that sort of represented the career.”

For the uninitiated, Roomful of Blues lives up to its name, digging into a diverse mix of blues styles.

“When we get in front of people we always seem to get a good reaction, whether they know much about it or not,” said Vachon, 59. “We’re not the type of band that plays just the weepy kind of blues stuff. We do a lot of danceable stuff.”

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