The Art Of The Sit-In | Roosevelt Collier
Welcome to a new JamBase column that’s all about conversation. We’ll talk to the busiest, most adventurous and most ubiquitous artists from the scene to hear some stories, have some laughs and really get a sense of how they’ve mastered what we’re calling the art of the sit-in.
Kicking things off is Roosevelt Collier, who’s just as often an “artist at large” these days as he is tearing things up on lap and pedal steel guitars with his family band, sacred steel staples the Lee Boys.
He’ll be all over the place these next few weeks, with planned sit-ins and jams or performing with his Hendrix cover crew the Bayou Gypsies and an electro-jam summit with DJ Logic and Marco Benevento in New Orleans on tap.
Later this week alone he’ll be performing at Potbellies in Tallahassee (Sept. 27) and heading to the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for Fall 2013 Disc Jam as a Saturday headliner with guests Rick Lollar and Lee Boys drummer Earl Walker.
In early November, he’ll open for Widespread Panic in Miami, and a night later (Nov. 6) he’ll be hosting a late night after show, “Roosevelt Collier & Friends” in Jacksonville that’ll include drummer Anthony Cole of MOFRO, bassist Matt Lapham of Shaki Nasti, and special guest J.J. Grey. All that goes down before he returns to Bear Creek, where in addition to trying to break his 2012 record for sit-ins (that’d be 20), he’ll be performing a set as the Roosevelt Collier Band with Nigel Hall and Oteil Burbridge scheduled to sit-in and a tribute to the late George Duke on the menu. This is a busy cat.
JAMBASE: We’ve seen a number of festivals start to promote this “artist at large” term over the past few years, and you were one of the first to get that tag. You’re everywhere. How did it happen?
ROOSEVELT COLLIER: I think Bear Creek in 2012 was the first time I was described that way. But before that I was already jamming with everybody. Man, I don’t have a preference. Whether it’s “oh man, I gotta jam with these guys” or “that might be cool,” each band brings its own thing. My whole thing is to fit my style into their style.
What people go to a show for is that big explosion, you know? That big moment where everyone oohs and ahhs and you know when it happens because the crowd goes wild –folks go crazy. That’s the goal. But I usually just see who’s playing at a place I’m going to be at, and if it’s folks I know they’ve probably called me already. There’s no fit that has to happen.
JAMBASE: I’ve seen artists portray themselves as open to doing any kind of sit-in but when push comes to shove there are always reservations or conditions. You legit don’t seem to have those, though.
RC: Oh yeah, man, I’m open to anyone and everybody. Everybody’s different. There’s no one band that’s going to play the same thing. I think I’m more open to it than a lot of folks and part of that’s that there’s very few of these bands I don’t know by know. But I also like to play with bands I’ve never played with –that brings a challenge. That brings a new challenge on seeing how I can fit and make it go in my favor.
JAMBASE: What’s an example of a particularly challenging sit-in situation?
RC: At Bear Creek I played with…Skerik’s in the band and Mike Dillon…I’m dying to think of the name…
JAMBASE: Dead Kenny Gs?
RC: Yes! Man, they had a lot of jamming, and it was jamming the way we usually talk about it but whoa –it was a lot of weird sounds going on, all these pedals and electronics. I looked at that and I was like, wow, what can I put into this. And I think it actually sounded pretty good, kind of intense! I played with Papadosio, too, and that’s a little different. But I try my best to adapt to any band, any style, any time. I’ll do it, man.
JAMBASE: Is that a conscious thing, are you sort of weighing what might work where before you jump in or do you just sort of start adding?
RC: No, man. There’s a switch that flips on that I call “game time.” You think too much on stage with guys like I just mentioned, you end up sitting there, your brain’s frozen and you’re behind. I try to keep a clean mind, and by the time those folks have invited you onstage, they’re already pretty amped so you just have to go at it.
JAMBASE: How often are you planned as a sit-in guest versus spur of the moment, come on stage Roosevelt.
RC: I’ll call up some of my friends ahead of time and let them know where I’m going to be so yeah we plan it a little bit –probably 70 percent of it’s like that even if we don’t know what the song’s going to be. But that other 30 percent is on the fly. Oh yes, on the fly. I cannot recall which ones were and which ones totally weren’t planned –there have been so many –but I’ve definitely been in places where I’m listening to a band I’ve come to hear and I’m getting called on stage 10 minutes later.
JAMBASE: What do you think separates folks who can really add something versus those who just sort of wait for their turn to solo? I mean, you can do it, guys like Warren Haynes can do it, but there are plenty of great musicians –great improvisational musicians –who seem lost or hesitant in certain situations.
RC: I think it’s the difference between being comfortable jamming with other people versus just the guys in your band. That’s a hard thing to answer. Guys like Warren –guys like Anders [Osborne] –they can just sort of flow in at any stage of the game and rip it. That’s just the way they are.
JAMBASE: You know I have to ask you about people you’d like to play with.
RC: That’s a pretty wild list, dude. But if we just want to do a few, let me see. I’d love to play with Zac Brown Band. I’d love to play with Les Claypool –rock a stage with Les Claypool, you know what I mean? I’d love to rock a stage with Widespread Panic –they’re off the chain they’re great guys, and I may get to do that. I’d love to rock a stage with Eric Clapton. And this is a little far out, but I’d love to rock a stage with Wynton Marsalis.
JAMBASE: That doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Wynton’s pretty traditional but this scene does have a pretty cool legacy of “jazz establishment” artists doing some crossover: Branford, Bill Evans, Scofield…
RC:…Yes, yup, Scofield’s another one I have to mention. But the other thing I’ll say is that my family band, the Lee Boys, we did a record with the Del McCoury Band, bluegrass.
JAMBASE: Yes indeed.
RC: That was crossover because we brought two different styles into one: you really did have sacred steel meet bluegrass –we called it sacred-grass! It was amazing, we had Ronnie and Jason come over with us and rock some hardcore funk and blues but using their instruments.
JAMBASE: It seemed like it was a lot deeper than playing that kind of stuff on stringed instruments, too.
RC: Oh man. Ronnie McCoury, you know, he plays the mandolin and he’s a phenomenal bluegrass player, world renowned. We had him play Voodoo Child with us –and come on now, that’s a hardcore blues song –and he comes out to do it with an overdrive pedal and he just blew us away. I was like, dude, what in the world is going on here, this is too cool! The crowd was not expecting that and when he got into that that was that moment I was saying that folks look for. They got lost in it and went bananas and we’re trading these hardcore licks for like five minutes. That’s something that you might think would be out of range for bluegrass guys like that, so that’s a perfect example of that crossover.
JAMBASE: Tell me a favorite sit-in story from the last year or two.
RC: Oh man, I got a catalog of sit-in stories but I can try to pick one. I mean, always with Warren Haynes, that always takes things like five levels up. He’s such a great guy: a great person and a great player and I look up to him and everything with the Mule, they’re all great people. But when you play with Warren there’s always energy that you don’t get just anywhere else, and the fans always go crazy when he shows up.
Another one I’ll say is Los Lobos. I played with them at Jazzfest this year –man, to play with those guys in the fairgrounds tent, the old school, that was pretty crazy. Another one I’ll say is Michael Franti. His stage energy is insane and they just keep going and he kind of looks at me and he’s just saying go, go, go. I can keep going. Jazzfest is always a great place to have those experiences. I think this year I did like 19 shows in an eight-day span.
JAMBASE: So while I have you, what’s next for the Lee Boys? You guys were real busy last year but I know the band wanted to take some time off this year.
RC: Yes. The passing of our momma, Vera Lee, that’s Alvin, Derrick and Keith’s mom but all our momma and grandma, that was a hard one for us. That’s a big part of the family, so yeah, as the band, we just slowed down this year so we could reflect on family. It’s important to spend time with your loved ones especially when something like that happens and remember that every day is a gift, so we slowed down, took more things off and didn’t do the road. But we’ll be getting back into it, of course we will.
JAMBASE: And I understand you’re working on a solo album, too?
RC: I am in the process of doing my first solo record, yes. I can’t say what names are on the record just yet, but we are in the process of putting stuff down on track. This will be very exciting.
JAMBASE: Is this Roosevelt Collier original material?
RC: I think the majority of it will be original stuff, yes. If I do a cover, it’s going to be something that means something to me, not just a cool song just to do it that everybody done played already. But this will be me, versus just me sitting in and playing on other folks records.
JAMBASE: How soon you think?
RC: I’m trying to get it done by early in the [new] year so I can be getting things ready to rock and roll for summer. I’ll keep you posted.
Roosevelt’s sit-ins in the past two years include: Allman Brothers, ALO, Anders Osborne, Bobby Lee Rodgers, Break Science, Col. Bruce Hampton, Dead Kenny G’s, Dumpstaphunk, Elvin Bishop, Funky Meters w/Bernie Worrell of Parliament Funkadelic, Galactic, George Porter Jr. & the Runnin’ Pardners, Gov’t Mule, Greensky Bluegrass, JJ Grey & Mofro, John Butler Trio, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Leftover Salmon, Lettuce, Living Color, Los Lobos, Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, Michael Franti & Spearhad, Moe., New Mastersounds, North Mississippi Allstars, Papadosio, Perpetual Groove, Railroad Earth, Shameka Copeland, Soulive, Tab Benoit, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Toubab Krewe, Trombone Shorty, Victor Wooten, Warren Haynes Band, Wood Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band and Zach Deputy.
Roosevelt has been an Artist-at-Large at Bear Creek (2007-2013), Jam Cruise (2009-2012), All Good (2012-2013), Summer Camp (2013), the Purple Hatters Ball (2012-2013), the Aura Music Festival (2013) and the Lake Eden Arts Festival (2012).