Slam Allen Gets to the Soul of the Blues
Slam Allen is a man who can speak about his spirituality in paragraphs, almost like a preacher ready to teach his congregation about the path to enlightenment. He is an evangelist who just happens to use music as his pulpit. It’s no wonder that soul music is infused so deeply within his blues. Soul music comes directly from the church, and those sounds bring his songs about love, about earthly pleasure, about perseverance and triumph to a spiritual level.
Vocalist-guitarist Slam Allen – who leads his band into the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs on Friday night – was gracious enough to spend some time with us talking about his career and his spirituality during a short break from performing on the Norwegian Epic cruise ship:
Q: So how did you wind up playing with James Cotton?
A: Well, it was right after 9/11, and things had kind of dried up around the area, and I decided I wanted to try something new. A friend of mine said, “Come to Chicago.” So I said, “Okay.” I’m always looking to do something new and keep things moving, so I went out to Chicago. That particular week, James came to town and needed a band. I knew one person who knew another person who knew another person, and I got the call. So I went and rehearsed with him one afternoon that week, and I’ve been with him ever since.
Q: It’s rare to a gig so quickly.
A: Yeah, I was in the right place at the right time.
Q: It sounds like that’s probably what happened with most of your career, right? Being in the right place at the right time?
A: (laughing) Yeah. You know the man upstairs, he looks out for me, and he calls me to great things. You know, like this cruise ship, I was just playing a club in New York City, Terra Blues, and the manager there had a friend who was an agent. He was looking for a blues band [for the cruise] because the band they had, something happened, and they couldn’t do it. I was just at the right place at the right time, and that’s what started me on the cruise ships.
Q: Is there anyone in particular you point to as an influence? I hear a very heavy ’60s and ’70s-style soul music influence.
A: Yeah, my dad, my uncles… ever since I was born I’ve been around it, but I grew up listening to B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, you know, and on the soul side people like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin. You know, you name it, I was listening to it. And then later on in life, I got into Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan… anything that had a feeling or captured my ear, I’d listen to. After a while when I was developing my style, anything that really appealed to me, I would play. Blues happened to be something that picked me. Blues and soul, that’s what I like to do. I play anything that makes people feel good, that’s what I’m gonna try to play.
Q: I can tell just talking to you that you’re very fluid and think off the cuff. Some people struggle to figure out what they want to say about themselves, but you seem to feed off yourself as much as you answer the questions I ask you.
A: Yeah, I learned to have a conversation with someone by listening to other people.
Q: So you feel that in your shows you’re having a conversation with the audience?
A: Oh yeah! I get directly involved with the audience, as if they were in my living room. I go out into the audience, I talk to people, make jokes… I try to make people feel like they’re part of the show and not just there at a show. That’s a thing that, after a while, that’s just become me. I had to learn that not everybody’s going to like you. Maybe two or three don’t like you, but there will be a hundred that will love you.
Q: So you work hard for the people that love you, and don’t worry about the ones who don’t like you that much?
A: That’s it, you know. I’m a spiritual person, you know. Basically my thing is since I was 13 years old, all I wanted to do was to make people happy. My main work is spreading love, spreading love back to the world. I’m one of these people who feels that love will heal Mother Earth, so I try to spread as much love as possible. And hopefully I’ll get inside some people’s hearts and love will spread and spread and spread, until we have a better world for ourselves. And it’s all through music.
Q: So do you think there’s a way that your spirituality comes out in the music, besides the way it comes out in your show?
A: Yes. I firmly believe that when I play, I’m channeling this energy. For a while I wasn’t aware of it, but when you’re on the cruise ship… I’ve made a grown man cry. When you have an ability to make a grown man cry, man, it’s a gift. You’re breaking through whatever a person is feeling, you’re making them feel better. You’re evoking an emotion. And I’m very humble about it, and I know that it’s a gift coming not from me, but from a power that’s higher than myself. I never took it for granted. I just figured that’s what I was here for.
Q: When was it that you realized that you had this ability?
A: For a while, I wasn’t paying any attention to it, and I couldn’t understand why people were really liking me. I figured I wasn’t really doing anything different from what everybody else was doing. When I stopped and really looked at it, I realized I was. I had a spiritual awaking that really opened me up to where I could feel other people’s emotions. I could go out in the room, and I could actually feel the people in the room. As I grew older and realized my gift, I could feel other people’s energy and give my energy back, and it opened me up to a lot of learning, to a lot of understanding, and it got me to a level of awareness where I could keep growing every day. I’m on a journey right now, spreading as much love as I can.
Q: So where do you think that journey’s going to take you?
A: I don’t know. I have no idea, but it’s sure taken me to see a lot of places, man. I’ve been halfway around the world, and I got the same result. I was in the Czech Republic, and people came up to me – they didn’t speak English – and they were coming up to me and taking my hand and putting it on my chest, and then putting it on their chest, and letting me know that they were feeling what I was feeling.
Q: Like you had touched their hearts?
Q: That’s incredible.
A: Yeah, it was the most beautiful thing I could ever imagine. It even brought me to tears, and it keeps happening over and over, especially on the cruise ship. When I was based out of the Mediterranean, we get a lot of foreign people from all over the place, Italy, Germay, Spain… a lot of people don’t speak English, but they come, and the universal language is music. And they feel my energy, and they feel my emotion… they come and speak to me in different languages, and I have no idea what they’re saying, but I can feel their energy, and what they’re telling me is that I touched their heart.
Q: And that must sustain you for each show you do every night, right?
A: Right. It makes you want to go on and play, makes me want to keep doing what I’m doing. And until the day that the man upstairs says, “That’s it,” that’s what I’m going to do.
Slam Allen and his band will be performing at the Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs at 8pm on Friday (July 29) as a fundraiser for the Capital Region Blues Network. Nippertown’s own Foy Brothers will open the show. Tix are $15 in advance; $20 at the door.
Interview by Eric Gleason
Photograph by John Rocklin