ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 17, 2003
By Steve Newton
I’ve wanted to interview Alvin Lee for years. Back in the ’70s, his speedy fret freakouts for Ten Years After were primo air-guitar fodder. On boogie numbers like “I’m Goin’ Home” and “Choo Choo Mama”, the skinny Brit axeman proved one of the sharpest white blues-rockers around.
But when I get Alvin Lee on the phone, he’s not British, he’s not white, and he sure the hell ain’t skinny! This Alvin Lee handles guitar for the Lee Boys, one of the African-American Sacred Steel–style outfits that performs gospel-based music with a focus on pedal-steel guitar.
When we connect via cellphone, the rotund picker (nicknamed Big Al) is jostling for a seat on a flight from Toronto, but between pleas to fellow passengers (“I can’t sit in the corner!”) he happily fields questions about his Miami-based family band, which includes two brothers and three nephews.
Since there’s a special thanks “for sound advice and words of encouragement” to Robert Randolph on the Lee Boys’ debut CD, It Is No Secret, I wonder if the band’s pedal-steel player, Roosevelt Collier, was heavily influenced by the bowler-wearing Sacred Steel star.
“No,” Lee asserts. “See, Robert Randolph is just one of the Sacred Steel players. He’s a very good player, and he is the one that got the big deal, you know, signin’ with Warner Brothers and everything. But Roosevelt got inspired by my brother Glenn, who actually coached him how to play. He passed away three years ago from cancer, and that’s kinda what inspired me to take the band to the next level.”
The Lee Boys are currently working the North American festival circuit, which includes performances at the folk-music fest on Saturday and Sunday (July 19 and 20). Lee agrees that his group’s celebratory sound is particularly suited to the outdoor concert experience.
“Oh wow, man, yeah. Our music kinda fits in with the festival fan, ’cause it’s feel-good music, you know—music that just makes you feel good. And we’re also part of the Folk Alliance. We did a Folk Alliance showcase back in 2001 in Jacksonville, Florida, and we had a lotta artistic directors from Canada that came and saw us, so that’s why we do a lot of the folk and blues festivals.”
Although his group has managed to get booked for such far-from-Florida events as the Harrison Festival of the Arts and the Salmon Arm Roots & Blues Festival, Alvin Lee realizes he’s got a way to go before earning the renown of his classic-rock namesake.
“I’m a lot bigger physically,” he points out with a chuckle, “not famewise. But this is only goin’ on our second year, professionally. My two brothers [singers Keith and Derrick Lee] have full-time jobs, and nothing lucrative enough has come where I could tell them, ‘Quit the job.’ So we do most of our gigs on weekends, and if it’s a real big gig they’ll take a week off.”