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Blues

Are you experienced?

Will Motor City guitar hero and blues scholar Cetan Clawson revive the power trio concept for a new generation?

MT Photo: Doug Coombe
Cetan Clawson: "I just opened up the boundaries..."
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Published 4/30/2008

Cetan Clawson has an incredibly positive and powerful energy in person.The just-turned-20-year-old musician, who made his live debut in the sixth grade, has made a name for himself locally in the last two years by gigging constantly and displaying a guitar virtuosity and an onstage showmanship that belies his youth — at least in this day and age. There's also an innocence and naïveté to Clawson that's kinda unique and endearing.

For example, the guy showed up at the Metro Times offices at 11 a.m. for a scheduled 2 p.m. interview and then just sat in the lobby with his acoustic guitar, displaying an extremely cool aura for the next two-and-a-half hours when this writer was engaged with a deadline. ("I've been on the road for 24 of the last 48 hours," he said in response to an apology, "so it gave me a chance to sit and relax.") And near the conclusion of the interview, Clawson told the interviewer: "I have a few questions for you at the end, if you don't mind." Expecting the standard "Can I can read the story before you print it?" and such that he's heard from novices often over the years, the interviewer is a little touched when Clawson pulls out his list and sincerely asks for career advice. (He also takes the interviewer's suggestion to read Charles Shaar Murray's epic Hendrix critical evaluation, Crosstown Traffic, to heart.)

Onstage, though, there's no innocence or naïveté displayed whatsoever. The kid is most frequently compared to Jimi Hendrix, not just sonically; he also fronts a band that follows the same classic lineup as the Hendrix Experience — a modern variation on the blues-rock power trio. Clawson also showboats onstage much like Hendrix, including playing stunning solos, with plenty of the requisite distortion and feedback, behind his back and with his teeth.

He's really quite good. This observer has grown tired of some of the groups Clawson cites as the initial influences that led him back to the real stuff, including Cream and Zeppelin. On the other hand, take it from someone who once toured Ireland, from Belfast to Dublin, with the late, great Rory Gallagher, one of the pioneers of the whole power trio concept, when Clawson takes a stage, he's every bit the rock star.

He even looks the part, both onstage and off. "Well, I once read an article on Jack White and he mentioned something about that — about the blues guys and how they always dressed high-class and in high style," Clawson says, regarding his sense of onstage fashion. "It's almost ... well, it's polite. When you get on a stage, you want to look your best. You want to look how you sound. We've played with some metal bands that've shown up with chains. Some people are like, 'Hah, hah, look at them!' But it's like, no! They're trying to look how they sound! So I gotta hand it to them. Besides, I try not to dis anybody. There's too much dissing going on in the music scene."

On that front, Clawson's seen some dissing himself. He's been accused of "guitar wankery" on a few of the local blogs, a criticism he simply laughs off. "We've dealt with every type of critic and fan at this point in time," he says. "It's some people's thing; others just don't dig it. And that's fine too. I believe there's no such thing as bad publicity. I've had people come up to me and say, 'I've read stuff about you on the blogs that wasn't too hot. But then I saw you live and I'm a fan now.' So the bloggers actually did us a big favor!"

In an age in which anyone with a computer and Internet access can be an "expert" and so many can tell you what they like but have absolutely no clue how to explain why they like it, it's refreshing to meet a 20-year-old who genuinely knows his stuff. During the interview, his references range from legendary Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin to the even more obscure Blind Joe Reynolds. And in an age in which irony (whatever the fuck that even means these days) has virtually destroyed rock 'n' roll — after all, it's much easier to not mean it, maaaan, than it is to put your ass on the line — it's even more refreshing to meet someone who's actually passionate about, and believes in, what he does.

Clawson was born in Toledo but soon moved with his family to Monroe, where he still lives. Although he's been mistaken as Middle Eastern, his first name (it's pronounced "Chet-ah"; think of how Bostonians pronounce "cheddar" cheese) is Native American; his mother was a full-blooded member of the Oglala Lakota tribe; his father was a European mix of German, Irish and French. Clawson's parents split up when he was very young and he grew up in a motherless home.

"It was OK, though," he says. It was a very musical family. His sister is now a pianist in Boston. His uncle is a guitarist in Japan. And his father is a drummer; in fact, Dad played drums on Clawson's 2005 debut CD, White Heat. "When I was a kid, it was my dad on the drums and me on the guitar. So it was fun times growing up! And as a result, my family's always been very supportive. It's never been like, 'Well, maybe you should go to college now and get a real career.' I've never had to hear that."

His uncle gave him his first guitar when he was all of 3 years old. "I think I broke it not long after I got it," he recalls, "but that didn't stop me. Shortly after that, I began getting into Nirvana, grunge, Alice in Chains stuff. I must have been 6 or 7 at the time and thought that sounded pretty good. But my friend — who later played bass on the first album [Al Bolda] — got me into Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix instead. When you start hearing that stuff, there's just something about the blues that makes you want to learn more. So I just opened up the boundaries and began to learn all I could."

The singing part of it would come later. His first public performance was an instrumental.

"I started playing seriously a little later on. I was in the sixth grade when I did my first actual show in the school auditorium, playing for an audience as a band. We did 'Pipeline' by Junior Brown. Well, it wasn't actually Junior Brown; I think it was the Chantays. It's a great surf song. The audience dug it and I just kept going from there. But it was an uphill battle at first. You know how young kids are. My dad was always like, 'Son, practice your guitar.' And I just wanted to play video games. But he was the strong force that pushed me toward this. But like most everyone, I had to work really hard at it.

"I teach guitar on the side and a lot of the younger students want it but they want it now. They want to learn that rock guitar thing — 'Eruption' by Van Halen and all that crazy tapping. So I teach that to them, but I also try to get them interested in a lot of bluesy stuff. Occasionally, I'll get a student who really wants to learn the blues. Or at the very least, they want to learn Cream's 'Sunshine of Your Love.' But I think that's mainly because it's one of the songs on that Guitar Heroes video game." He laughs. "And I try to tell them, man, it's cool to play games and have fun and stuff. But at the same time, the hour they spent on the game maneuvering that little plastic control could have been spent learning to play a real guitar."

He may be a teacher, but Clawson remains a serious student of one of America's indigenous musical forms. "It's interesting because it's almost like you have to earn the right to like the blues by listening to it," he says. "And when you first listen to it, the stuff sounds so simple. Muddy Waters sounds very basic at first. But I love reading interviews with Ry Cooder and Eric Clapton where they explain the dynamics of the finger-picking and the musicianship. To get that out of something so simple, well, it takes a certain maturity to be able to hear that and really understand the basics of the blues.

"When I was young and first heard 'Spoonful' by Cream, it was like, 'Who could think of something this amazing?' And then I looked on the back of the Fresh Cream cover and read the words: 'Willie Dixon.' OK! Or you listen to Led Zeppelin's 'Lemon Song' and that's just the lyrics to Howlin' Wolf's 'Killin' Floor.' It was like all those late '60s British dudes were heavily influenced by that sound. I believe there's something missing from today's music and I think that lost element is what you see in a lot of classic blues stuff."

The musical form is such a building block, in fact, that it allows Clawson to fit in many different genres; he's opened for numerous major blues acts as well as crusty classic rock bands such as Bad Company and Cheap Trick. And his blues scholarship even indirectly led to his much-heralded showmanship.

"We've of course all seen those old Hendrix clips and that kinda stuff. That's where I originally got it," he admits. "But I did some research and it was very interesting. In the 1920s and '30s, you had a lot of players like Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson who were doing that kind of stuff even back then. I thought Hendrix originated it but even he borrowed from the blues greats. It started out for me as, 'Hey, I wonder if I can do that? Is it possible?' I know it's showy and sort of 'Ha! Ha! Look at that!' But it's also fun! And it never fails to get the crowd going. So if that's what it takes to get people into this kind of music, well, hey, I'm willing to keep doing it.

"Some people say we play around town a little too much. If we were doing this for the money, then that might be true. We'd book maybe one gig a month and pack the place. But, I mean, I just like to play. I love playing for people. And I didn't become a musician just to earn a buck. Musicians are probably at the lowest level of income in most cases. I go back to the old blues guys once again. They did it out of passion. And that's why I do it too. I've always loved watching anybody who's good at what they do. It doesn't even have to be music. Just anyone who's got a genuine passion for what they do. That always blows me away."

Clawson is presently gearing up to record a follow-up to the first CD, White Heat, which was written when he was just 17, recorded at 18. He promises the new album — tentatively titled The Feedback Gospel — will be more mature.

"This thing is still in its embryonic stages," the guitarist says. "We're still very fresh. The current lineup [which includes bassist Adam Paddon and revolving drummers Danny Pazuchowski and Jonny Babich] has only been jamming together six months. But we were total novices when we did White Heat. We'd only played a couple of gigs before that one. But now, we hit that stage and — bam! — we've got it! We wanted to build up a strong live sound before we began recording the next album. We've got the songs all written, so this one should be a lot better."

Clawson has been writing and singing since he was a kid, first recording on a four-track when he was only 10. There has been some criticism that White Heat's material and production doesn't match the Clawson live experience — but that first album was totally produced by the green musician on his own via trial and error. Clawson says he's not opposed to using an outside producer in the future: "I'd love to bring someone else in on the sound because you read about these producers and they develop their own ears and tastes and takes on things. So that would be interesting, although I don't know who I'd get. Maybe someone who's like Felix Papparlardi, who produced [Cream's] Disraeli Gears. Someone of that sort of notion and taste."

For now, though, he plans to keep playing around town. He'd like to eventually tour nationally before heading overseas, where he's sold more than a few CDs to the audiences over there that eat up his kind of music. "We've been next-stepping it for a long time now, first from the garage and then to the school gymnasium and then onto the clubs. It's all been small stepping like that. But I think we're on the right track. I'm not bragging, but we've got a good sound going now, so I think we'll just keep moving forward."

And never let it be said that having a positive energy and a good vibe doesn't sometimes pay off in interesting ways. "After our most recent Jacoby's gig, a guy walked up to me and handed me a $100 bill," he marvels. "And he was insistent. He practically made me take that money. I was like, 'What's this for?' And he just said, 'Man, thank you for doing what you do. I really appreciate what you're doing. And while you're at it, go ahead and buy yourself a new pair of shoes."

The Cetan Clawson Revolution plays Jacoby's, 624 Brush St., Detroit, on Friday, May 2, and Paycheck's Lounge, 2932 Caniff, Hamtramck, on Friday, May 9. He's also one of the artists booked to play Comerica CityFest this July.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to bholdship@metrotimes.com.

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