Breaking the mold
The David Samuel Project brings new take on the blues to Philomath festival
By Jake TenPas
The first time I saw the Albany-based David Samuel Project play, I thought to myself, "This cat is way too pretty to make good music."
Standing on stage with a bandanna wrapping his blond locks, mirrored glasses reflecting neon beer signs over his eyes and the posture of a rock deity, he looked more like a male model than a road-weary musician.
Then the group started to play, and any thought of the word "poseurs" was wiped from my mind with the ferocity of a Texas flood.
He may look like Nick Carter, but Samuel plays like Stevie Ray Vaughan. When you add in the fluid lines of bassist Scott Eastburn, son of LBCC legend Hal, and the dynamic propulsion of drummer Kevin Van Walk, what you end up with is closer to the sound of Cream at their bluesiest, or perhaps even "Fire of Unknown Origin"-era Blue Oyster Cult.
If that sounds like a contradiction of terms, perhaps that's the whole point.
"No matter how good you are, your ears want a change," says Samuel, as the band works overtime to put together a demo CD for Mirror Entertainment, an A&R firm that represents Sony and Warner Bros., among others.
Listening to a taste of that CD, it's easy to hear why Mirror's interest was piqued after spying the group's single, "Vision of Love," on Download.com. A poppier take on Pink Floyd's super-slowed, spacy riffs, "Vision," could be the theme song for a make-out party on the moon.
Elsewhere, Samuel, Van Walk, Eastburn and new band member Tiffany Tyler turn in classic psychedelic blues, late-'70s arena anthems and modern exercises in pop rock that don't fit easily into any one category, particularly the songs where Tyler steps to the microphone.
While the rest of the boys in the band are all in their early 30s, Tyler, who joined the group on backing vocals roughly six months ago, is a mere 23 years of age. The Albany native grew up singing with, among others, good friend Alexis, who has made a name for herself with her own brand of country pop.
Meanwhile, Tyler's been honing her skills singing Karaoke with a regular group of Pizza King patrons, and in recent months, has been taking her turn belting out lead vocals for Samuel and company.
"Tiffany has a gorgeous, powerful voice," says Van Walk, when asked about the youngster's contributions to the band. "She adds a soulful presence to the sound."
"And all of a sudden, we have these new male fans," adds Samuel, a broad smile crossing his face.
Tyler's addition has served to further broaden the Project's repertoire, which has grown more versatile with every passing month since the original power trio came together nearly two years ago.
Before that, Samuel had worked as a studio musician and fashion model, after spending much of his younger years growing up in Seattle. Both his mother and grandmother were singers, the latter even landing gigs performing with Sammy Davis Jr.
Still, according to Samuel, his future was fairly uncertain until the mid-'90s. In 1996, he started New Destiny Studio in Albany. He continued to work behind the scenes until 2003, when he decided it was time to step up to the front of the stage and try his luck in the spotlight.
After hooking up with fellow South Albany alums Van Walk and Eastburn, the trio began playing around Albany and Corvallis, even venturing as far from home as Seattle and Coos Bay. Of course, it wasn't all packed houses and lines of groupies to begin with.
"You play for crickets sometimes," laments Van Walk when asked about the group's experience playing live, which has included run-ins with shifty club managers, cancelled concerts and a lack of promotion on the venues' parts.
Add to that many clubs' penchant for pigeonholing, and you have a scene that is not always responsive to a group playing outside of accepted genres.
"Say you've got a city with 30 venues," Van Walk explains. "Ten of them are hip-hop or karaoke, 10 are screaming punk and seven are folk or jazz or whatever. That leaves about three that we could play at."
Still, the Project have persevered, and are now drawing sizeable crowds to such local venues as Platinum and Murphy's in Corvallis.
And on Saturday, July 30, the David Samuel Project will bring their catchy mix of rock, blues, pop and improvisation to Marys River Park in Philomath for the Philomath Blues Festival, which will also feature local teen titans The Stack, along with Northwest blues talents Paul deLay, Blind Rhino, D.K. Stewart and Ellen Whyte.
In addition, the festival will offer a cook-off, beer vendors and free hamburgers for all comers. Toss in diverse musical talents from around the Northwest, and three of Linn and Benton Counties' finest rock bands, and you've got the makings for a beautiful Saturday afternoon and evening. The festivities get started at 1 p.m. and run into the night.
When asked about their performance at the Philomath Blues Fest, the group sounds enthusiastic, if a bit uneasy with the thought of playing a purely blues-based show.
"We offend some of the blues people around here. If you play something that's different, you end up offending the purist," Samuel says. "But I don't want to fall into the copycat thing. Our music isn't cotton candy."
What it is is great rock and roll, with its deepest roots in the musical structures of the blues. While some groups have chosen to stagnate, the David Samuel Project continues to refine their sound in an attempt to attract new fans, and to help blues to evolve into a living, breathing artform.
"Music is like building a house," Samuel offers. "First we show you the familiar parts: the living room, the kitchen, etc. Then we take the audience out for a tour of the property, and after we've taken them way out, we bring them back to the house."
Beyond being a handy metaphor for the group's tendency to take solos into mind-bending territory, it also describes what the band continues to do with the blues: take it where few have before, while continuing to make music that people want to listen to.
Samuel sums it up perfectly. "Our music is there to give people something, as opposed to sucking it from them."
Jake TenPas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-9514.