After enduring a perilous, slippery winter drive on the 219 — its stretch dotted with cars skidded into ditches and shoulder embankments — most might not find the scene inspiration for a blues album.
But Tommy Z hasn’t grinded out a 25-year music career by ignoring opportunity.
The Hamburg-born blues guitarist birthed his latest album, “Blizzard of Blues,” from such a drive. Set for release with shows at Buffalo’s Tralf Music Hall (Feb. 5) and North Tonawanda’s Strand Theater (Feb. 6), it’s already debuted at No. 1 on Roots Music Review’s Blues Rock Album chart, with two of its songs — "Bags of Cool" and "Going to a Party"— in the chart’s Top 25 singles.
Complete with hard-rocking, pedal-free work that could melt a Central Terminal snow pile, the album serves as reminder that the artist who first appeared with “Hurricane” Harvey Murello at the late Lafayette Tap Room has no plans of slowing down.
In the lead-up to his release shows, Tommy took some time to discuss the album’s direction, his recent travels, and why Buffalo’s still fertile ground for the blues.
Question: Consider this scenario: B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Lee Hooker are resurrected and walk into one of your shows. If you could only pull one of them on stage, who do you pick to jam with, and why?
Answer: I would pick B.B. King because, all things considered, he's the greatest blues artist who ever lived — and I think SRV (Vaughan) and JLH (Hooker) would have made the same choice.
Q: Your last album (2013's "Sometimes") made the Top 50 blues chart for radio airplay. Is the material on "Blizzard of Blues" a natural transition from that accessible album, or does it veer lyrically in a different direction? If so, how?
A: The material is a natural evolution for me as a producer and artist. I think lyrically, it casts clearer images. Still, there are typical blues themes about women, love and loss. But this time, I had some very unique things to write about, including learning of a friend’s death right before a recording session and the blizzard/Buffalo connection.
Musically, I think it's better due to some growth from the touring and performing between now and the last CD. Sonically, it's an improvement over the last one, too. It's bigger, warmer, richer, more dynamic, and has a more analog vibe.
Q: You recently spent time in Colombia both performing (as headliners in six cities) and teaching blues seminars. What was the warm-weather populace's reaction to songs like the album's title track, which refers to freezing temps, the Abominable Snowman and 10 feet of accumulation?
A: The reaction to the music was phenomenal. People of all ages were jumping, screaming and spilling over into the aisles, dancing in packed venues and outdoor festivals. The title track is heavy, and they do like that down there. Most nights people were pushing to get into pictures, meet us and sign discs, autographs and posters for 30 minutes or more after the concert.
The educational seminars went great, too. It wasn't that hard to convey musical concepts despite the language barrier. A good example of this was for the song, "Going to a Party.” There’s a spot in the song where I ask, "Tell me, where is the party?" and the audience shouts back their location everywhere we play.
Q: You now host your own Sunday night blues show on local NPR affiliate, WBFO. How'd that opportunity come about?
A: Yes, I'm loving the blues radio show. It's a lesser-known fact that I'm a Canisius College graduate in Communication, and I used to have a blues radio show on WCCG there. I also interned with Doc Reno when he was on Kiss 98.5 at the time. The folks over at WBFO hired me and, soon after, I was able to learn from two Buffalo broadcasting legends, Pat Feldballe and Al Wallack.
Right now, I’m doing a lot of Sunday nights, 7 to midnight. Maybe it's just because I have a good face for radio. But seriously, I think it's just great that WBFO is committed to keeping the blues on the air, and that community support for it continues.
Q: Buffalo's always had an environment that's conducive for the blues. Do you think that's aided by its residents' tastes or the fact that the city's rough-and-tumble history makes it a natural backdrop for the genre?
A: This area has a hard-working, blue-collar base, but also a strong sense and support for the arts. Because of this, a lot of talented musicians find regular work. Also, because of its geographical location, it’s been a go-to city for touring musicians for decades. The harsh winters also fosters a great sense of community, for banding together and surviving through the cold seasons.
We have our share of heartbreaks from sports to economic ups and downs, but the spirit is strong and I think, in a way, this album represents all of these things. I'm looking forward for the world to hear it and see where it goes.
Who: Tommy Z
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 in Tralf Music Hall, 622 Main St.
8 p.m. Feb. 6 Strand Theatre, 540 Oliver St., North Tonawanda