By Annette Hinkle
Jake Lear is an impressive guitar player who, despite the fact he was raised in Vermont, Sag Harbor and East Hampton, has a love of (and a talent for) blues and roots music from the Mississippi Delta.
It’s an incongruity that Mr. Lear can readily explain.
“My parents were big music fans,” says Mr. Lear. “I started listening to Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf records around the house — also a little bit of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn.”
“It’s what I’ve gravitated toward since I was young,” adds Mr. Lear who picked up his father’s acoustic guitar in 9th grade and within a year, had graduated to electric.
A largely self-taught musician, when he was young, Mr. Lear took some lessons from Sag Harbor-based musician Jim Turner, but perhaps the most defining moment in his musical career can be traced to a single night at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett.
It was Mr. Lear’s 13th birthday.
“Buddy Guy was playing and my dad took me there,” he says. “He had just released his album ‘Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues,’ right before this. He was driving around in a van and played the Talkhouse before it was renovated. It was really small in there. We were so close. He put his drink on our table and played for three hours.”
“That night it felt like everyone was being entertained,” says Mr. Lear. “That made a huge impression.”
This Friday, it will be Mr. Lear’s turn to entertain. To that end, he will be performing a post-Thanksgiving concert at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor. It’s a gig that came about thanks to another love of Mr. Lear’s — books.
“I read a lot and I was in there and saw a sign that said they had classes on Dante,” recalls Mr. Lear. “We had been in Italy a bunch of times and my wife was influenced by Michelangelo. It was winter and I thought it was something to do.”
Canio Pavone, the founder of Canio’s Books, taught the course, which was all about Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
“It was awesome. I loved it and that’s how I ended up there,” adds Mr. Lear. “Canio’s is a great place with super nice owners. I asked if they wanted me to do an in-store performance. That’s how I ended up there.”
It’s been an interesting journey for Mr. Lear and his wife, artist Anna DeMauro. After living in Memphis, Tennessee—epicenter of the blues—for five years, they learned they would soon become parents and decided to move back to the East End to raise their daughter, Lucia, now 19 months old.
“I was doing music full-time and then we decided to move back here,” says Mr. Lear. “All our family was up here. I didn’t quit music, but I’m not doing it professionally now. In Memphis, it was four to five nights a week and some traveling on the road.”
It was also in Memphis that Mr. Lear cut two albums, “Diamonds and Stones,” and “Lost Time Blues” and played regularly for crowds on Beale Street with his band including bass player Carlos Arias and drummer Roy Cunningham.
Mr. Cunningham, who played with blues guitarist and singer Albert King, comes from an illustrious musical family. His younger brother Blair has played drums for the likes of Paul McCartney, the Pretenders and Mick Jagger. Mr. Cunningham’s other brother, Carl, was a drummer too. He died in the 1967 plane crash that also took Otis Redding’s life.
“Roy was a big influence for me,” says Mr. Lear. “He’s passionate about music and performing, and to have someone who’s such a good drummer is amazing. Blues is pretty simple and sometimes it can be hard to find a drummer who wants to play it. Rhythmically he had a sense of it.”
Mr. Lear also drew inspiration for his music from the energy-filled vibe of Memphis itself, the very heart of where the blues originated.
“The scene down there has a lot of heritage,” says Mr. Lear. “The Stax Museum is there, also Sun Records, then there’s the International Blues Society — and the Mississippi Delta is 15 miles away.”
“Mississippi, being hill country, you get music that’s a little more rootsy — almost like one chord blues, more like a country blues,” explains Mr. Lear. “It’s raw in a way, and I had just gotten into it before I went down there. For a lot of players, that’s their thing. In Mississippi you have R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Fred McDowell. That music had a big influence on The Black Keys and they took that influence and brought it to a new audience.”
But it was Beale Street, the home of the blues, where Mr. Lear spent a great deal of time making music while he lived in Memphis. Lined with some of the country’s most famous blues clubs and restaurants, Beale Street also has a number of outdoor venues where local musicians regularly entertain the crowds that descend on Memphis in search of it’s iconic sound.
“There are a lot of international tourists there,” says Mr. Lear. “It’s a thriving scene, though it’s a big stop on the tourist circuit. Beale Street is blocked off for traffic. We played street shows on Fridays and Saturdays.”
“It was a completely relaxed environment. No one was telling us what to do,” he adds. “There is pressure to perform, but it’s casual in a way with a lot of freedom.”
Freedom is what blues is all about, and while Mr. Lear writes original songs and lyrics, he admits that much of the emotion of the music comes through sheer improv.
“The fundamentals of blues are pretty simple, after that it’s feel,” admits Mr. Lear. “In Memphis, I learned a lot of different styles from Roy and all the different musicians on Beale Street.”
Though he’s not making music full-time anymore, Mr. Lear is still driven to be a blues man. In the coming year, he’s planning to do some more songwriting and recording, and of course, performing. That’s good news for Canio’s listeners, who, this Friday, can expect some fine examples of post-turkey electric blues.
“I want to do stuff I don’t normally do,” says Mr. Lear. “I’m going to be playing songs of older blues musicians like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Furry Lewis plus a few of my own.”
Jake Lear performs at Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor on Friday, November 28, 2014 at 5 p.m. For more information call (631) 725-4926 or visit caniosbooks.com.