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Following up 2010's album of standards, Soul Ballads, Clayton-Thomas released A Blues for the New World this year, a full return to a blues-based sound, though it's much more than that. While all original compositions, the album slides between reggae, gospel, Afro-Cuban rhythms, R&B swing and jazz while remaining anchored in the big-band, electric blues on which Clayton-Thomas cut his teeth. The title cut especially makes a direct argument that the blues are not just for baby boomers or retro garage bands. For Clayton-Thomas, the blues remain as protean as ever and still have so much to say.
"The title for the album actually came before the song," he explains. "I'd written half the album before I realized that the title would make a good song too. The concept for the song was just that: It didn't have to be, 'I woke up this morning, and my baby left me.' The blues could reflect modern, current, topical matters; it doesn't have to be the tried-and-true forms, much as I love them. You can move the blues forward. The songs have a traditional framework, and the musicians know how to play that, but we used a pure jazz arranger in Phil Dwyer, so the horn charts are very contemporary."
A Blues for the New World is also among Clayton-Thomas' most personal albums and features some of his best original songwriting since his days with Blood, Sweat & Tears. As a songwriter, he still largely works when inspiration strikes, on his own terms.
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"Writing songs is a constant process," he says. "I have a studio in my condo, and I can just go to the computer and jot down an idea. But I tend to do most of my writing in the winter. When the snow is blowing sideways against the window you put on the coffee and pick up the guitar and write. In the summer I'll be doing concerts and also spending time outside of the city. It's harder to write when the weather is beautiful."
On his latest album the haunting song "Second Chance" meditates on the nature of a life worth living. It was written not long after the singer had heart-valve replacement surgery in 2010.
"I almost died," he says. "It was 50/50. I got to the hospital in the nick of time. Much of the album, and that song, are biographical. The song 'Common Ground' was written for my daughter, from the point of view of when a father sees his daughter strike out on her own. Some songs were just written for fun. 'Holy Moses' is just a Bible story, but 'Second Chance' is pretty raw, in terms of being a personal experience."
Clayton-Thomas recalls playing an early incarnation of the blues festival in St. Louis, back in the days of of a main stage that floated on the Mississippi River. When he returns this year he'll be bringing a full eight-piece band, including a four-piece horn section, and highlighting new material while also performing songs from across his five storied decades as one of the most compelling voices in popular music.
"I only do half a dozen or maybe ten concerts a year," he says. "There's a difference between doing concerts and going out on the road. When you're on the road, you're doing four out of five shows not because you want to be there, but because you have to put gas in the bus and meet the payroll. It's rib fests in Montana, reservation casinos in Utah. It's a constant grind. The hour or so you're onstage is the only fun you have. The rest of the time is running to the airport and being on a bus. I'd done that.
"But," he adds with emphasis, "when the Big Muddy was first proposed, I immediately said, 'Yeah, let's do it. That's a good one.'"