Steady Rollin’ Man

The Hector Qirko Band has been rollin’ and tumblin’ for 20 years, yet it still finds new directions in which to go.

By Scott Robertson

Marquee magazine

May 2006

 

It’s no news flash that most folks today aren’t aficionados of the blues. All you have to do is look at what’s popular right now to see that. Kanye West has yet to release a Lightnin’ Hopkins tribute album. James Blunt isn’t eager to get into the studio to cover “Little Red Rooster.” Ashlee Simpson isn’t buying up old Koko Taylor vinyl.

            That’s why the last two people I’ve taken to see the Hector Qirko Band have had to be dragged into the Down Home for the show. You say “the blues” to people nowadays and watch their eyes glaze over. There’s still this stereotype of John Lee Hooker from the first Blues Brothers movie, sitting and playing very rudimentary guitar while wrapping his mouth around lyrics as thoughtful and touching as “Haw, haw, haw, haw.” Only two men have made significant inroads into popularizing the blues in the past 25 years. But Stevie Ray Vaughan is dead now and Eric Clapton sounds it.

            When the Hector Qirko Band is onstage, though, the blues is still, as Qirko calls it, a living thing.

The first friend I took was a 40-something lady who grew up listening to a steady diet of Eddie Van Halen and Pat Metheny. “Oh my,” she said during a break between songs, “that is a man who knows how to use his fingers. He’s a great guitar player. And you didn’t tell me he was hot.”

            The second friend was a 50-something PhD with an affinity for contemporary classical music. He came away raving. “That’s a smart band! The intricacy, the chemistry — that was great! But you lied. That was more than just the blues.”

            Guilty.

            The Hector Qirko Band (it’s pronounced Kirk-o, by the way) is more than just four guys, three chords and the truth. And Qirko himself is not your stereotypical bluesman. After all, it’s not just any bluesman who will engage you in a well thought-out discussion of altruistic celibacy and the development of religious institutions. As a matter of fact, most bluesmen have no truck with the idea of celibacy in general. But most bluesmen aren’t anthropology professors with PhDs of their own. Hector Qirko is.

            “He excels at both music and teaching,” says Dr. Michael Logan, a colleague of Qirko’s in the University of Tennessee Department of Anthropology. “He has very high expectations and demands quite a bit of work from his students, but for the most part they appreciate him and give him their best work. He is also very eclectic in the topics he addresses in his courses, from evolutionary theory to the culture of corporations.”

            Qirko and his bandmates, Dirk Weddington (sax), Steve Brown (drums) and Jim Williams (bass) bring that same eclectic approach and the same high standards to their songwriting and playing. “We bring a lot of our influences into what we play,” says Qirko. “Dirk and Steve have a great deal of jazz experience and expertise. Jim has as much in country as the others have in jazz. I bring Latin. We all bring different things to the table.”

            So while the band may cover a Muddy Waters tune, the odds are good it won’t sound too much like the original recording, or even like any other cover of the same song.

“We think of the blues as a moving target in a way,” says Qirko. “We don’t want to replicate what somebody else has done.”

            It’s the same with the band’s original material. “I will have a draft of a song that I’ve written,” says Qirko. “One of the others may do the same thing. That person brings in the draft and we let it go wherever it will. Sometimes we end up far away from what we started out with.”

            That’s one reason why folks who think of the blues in stereotypical terms hear the band’s music as so much more intricate and nuanced than they’d expected. “The blues are deceptively simple,” Qirko says. “There’s a lot of subtlety, certainly in the blues that I love. There’s a lot of subtlety in the way they’re played. It stays fresh to me every day.”

The level of virtuosity in the band has something to do with that as well. Fellow guitarist Todd Steed once joked that Qirko had “more licks than a two-month-old puppy.”

And all four band members are talented and versatile enough to play in just about any genre. “Truth be told, a lot of the other forms are also relying on the same kinds of chord progression as the blues,” says Qirko. “I end up sort of playing in a bluesy way no matter what style I’m playing.”

            So in one show, for instance, you may hear a drum part with reggae and rockabilly influences. You might hear sax parts that remind you of Branford Marsalis and others that remind you of Boots Randolph. You may hear guitar lines that recall Qirko’s days as a session player on a country-music cable channel and others that take you back to his days on the South Side of Chicago. 

But, says Brown, it always comes back to the blues. “In ‘The Blues is a living thing’ Hector says something to the effect of ‘you don’t have to have been born on a delta. If you’ve suffered, if you’ve loved somebody you shouldn’t, then you know the blues.”

“So we’ll go from a pretty straight version of a blues classic like Junior Wells “Messin’ with the kid” into something that sounds really Latin. But the blues sensibility, that sound and experience is always at the root of the band.”

 
The Hector Qirko Band will perform at the Blue Plum Festival in Johnson City on June 3.
 
Scott Robertson is editor of Marquee.