"I could have thought of hundreds of guitarists I'd put in front of me," blushed Sean Chambers when asked about the time the U.K.'s Guitarist Magazine named him one of the 50 best blues guitarists of the century. "We were in England touring with Hubert Sumlin, who was Howlin' Wolf's guitarist. Hubert took us all over the world. My band would open up for him, and then we'd back his set. I guess someone took a liking to me," he surmised.
Though Chambers may be humble about his place in the pantheon of blues guitar, he is a proud Florida native. Born in Melbourne, where his father worked at the Kennedy Space Center, he lived in the Tampa area for a long while and now calls Fort Myers home. In spite of being happily married, Chambers is still an expert in this sad genre.
Ask him who his favorite blues guitarist is and he'll ask you to be more specific. "If you're talking Chicago blues, then it's got to be Buddy Guy; Irish blues, then Gary Moore." It makes sense that Chambers would be so interested in the great guitarists who came before him. Blues traditions have been passed along faithfully from one generation to the next.
Chambers' globe-spanning guitar career leaves him two degrees away from just about any blues great. He might not himself have jammed with every legend, but chances are Chambers has shared the stage with someone who has. He was a guest on the aforementioned Sumlin's final solo album, About Them Shoes, which also featured licks by Keith Richards, Levon Helm, and Eric Clapton. Chambers' fifth and most recent album, The Rock House Sessions, was produced by Reese Wynans, who played keys with Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Chambers was 15 when he first caught the blues bug. It was the early '80s; he was driving around, and his friend stuck in a cassette. The muffled, slow, 12-bar song changed his life. The teenaged Chambers felt a sensation he can describe only as "the chill bumps." He asked his 16-year-old buddy, "What is this?"
"It's 'Red House' by Jimi Hendrix. It's the blues."
He was already playing rock on his instrument. His parents bought him a guitar for Christmas when he was 11 with the caveat that he had to practice every night. But Chambers took only four 30-minute classes. "The teacher wasn't what I expected him to be. He wanted me to play 'Row row row your boat,' which didn't make me want to practice."
But a promise was a promise, and his parents made sure he stayed true to his word. "I started fiddling with the guitar, and then they couldn't stop me. I started learning to play by ear. I was playing along to classic rock. I was getting into all these Texas blues guys like Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. From there, I would learn about their heroes and influences, which led me to guys like B.B. King and T. Bone Walker."
Though Chambers was remarkably upbeat during our early-evening conversation, he's seen hardships that would give any man the blues. In 2004, his home was ravaged and flooded by a hurricane. Forced to relocate, he took his difficulties into the recording studio and created Ten Til Midnight, which struck a nerve with his biggest audience yet. The album gained wide radio airplay, earned rave reviews from the media, and landed a three-month residency on the charts of Living Blues.
Now residing under a steady roof, Chambers is ready to start a winter tour. Accompanied by Todd Cook on bass, Paul Broderick on drums, and, coming down from Nashville to play keyboards, Paul Brown, the Sean Chambers Band will open the Sunshine Music & Blues Festival in both Saint Petersburg and Boca Raton.
Founders of the fest, Tedeschi Trucks Band is headlining. Besides Derek Trucks, another Allman Brothers Band veteran, Dickey Betts, who wrote "Ramblin' Man," will be there with his band Great Southern. The Black Crowes' lead singer will be attending with his Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Los Lobos, Grace Potter, Aimee Mann with Ted Leo, and New Orleans' the Rebirth Brass Band round out the lineup.
"It's an honor to be on this bill. We're going to be playing with a lot of energy. The only difference I see between opening and headlining is the amount of time you have to be onstage," Chambers said. The band will play mostly songs off its recent album, recorded in Franklin, Tennessee. He's been enjoying pressure from his label, Blue Heat Records, to release a new album every year and a half. Now at work writing a sixth he plans to release this fall, Chambers can't wait for the festival to have his band "come out guns a-blazing."
Sunshine Music & Blues Festival. Sean Chambers, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Grace Potter, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Los Lobos, and others. 11 a.m. Sunday, January 18, at Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $49.50 to $99.50 plus fees. Call 561-393-7984, or visit ticketmaster.com.