Chris Barnes plays his blues by planting tongue firmly in cheek, and then biting that tongue with heaping sarcasm and wit. Add in a dash of topical social commentary alongside the funky grooves and thunderous rhythmic assault and you’ve got the foundations of one of the most entertaining, if not pertinent, blues/roots releases in recent memory.
The Scranton native, who has done NEPA proud for the last 30-plus years as a successful comedian, writer, actor, club owner (he and partner Jacqui are proprietors of the successful gay bars Flaming Saddles in New York and L.A.), and all-around master performer, has just released a blues album under the moniker Bad News Barnes & The Brethren of Blues Band. The album, titled “90 Proof Truth,” is a titanic statement, both lyrically and musically – but that’s nothing new for this outspoken personality.
“I’m getting my message out there at a time when it’s so necessary,” Barnes said.
The new album sees some serious talent backing him, including Tom “Bones” Malone and “Blue” Lou Marini of Blues Brothers fame on horns, as well as guitarist Felicia Collins of David Letterman’s CBS Orchestra. There’s also contributions from Bette Sussman, who’s spent time as pianist in Cyndi Lauper and Bette Midler’s bands, and drummer Chris Parker of Bob Dylan and Joe Cocker fame.
“Just look at these last few days of news,” he said. “There’s what comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth, to the nuclear treaty with Iran. I mean, are you kidding me? Donald Trump is number one in the polls – I don’t even know what’s going on here anymore. It’s great to have things to write about currently that affect us and to be able to perform that on stage. I’m able to do all that in a genre that is unique to me.”
Barnes specializes in a variety of blues called hokum, defined as “a humorous song which uses extended analogies or euphemistic terms to make sexual innuendos.” He’s not limited in this definition, though, as he tackles everything from the ideal of having a woman in the White House (“America Needs a Queen”), the corporate “fattening” of the populace (“Salt, Sugar, and Fat”), and the sheer folly of the religious right (“Westboro Baptist Blues”).
“Second City has taught me that it’s my obligation to entertain and audience,” Barnes said of the famous Chicago comedy troupe from which he cut his teeth.
Barnes sharpened his wit writing for Saturday Night Live during the 1980s – a stint which included a notorious sketch with Jim Belushi called “Rappin’ Jimmy B.” “My job is to be the energy that fuels this experience – and that’s what my music is; a theatrical live experience. I’m really a political and social satirist, and hokum blues allows me to do that musically. Instead of a standup monologue at a comedy club, I’m getting the same standup bit out using my music.”
Barnes is no come-lately convert to the blues. He was exposed to many of the genre’s all-time greats early in his career, shortly after moving to New York City to pursue a comedy career at 17.
“One of my first jobs was emcee at a club called Tramps, on 14th Street,” he said. “I was the opening act for all of the Alligator Records artists like Koko Taylor, Blind John Davis, and Hound Dog Taylor. I would do my comedy, but I’d always pull out my harmonica and do a ‘make-a-song’ – improvise a song. Many times the band I’d introduce would help me finish the song, or the headliner would invite me back up to play harmonica. So, I’ve been doing traditional blues since ’77. Then, going to Chicago for Second City, I’d be at blues clubs like Kingston Mines watching people like Buddy Guy and Matt “Guitar” Murphy. I’ve been combining blues and comedy since I was a teenager, only to realize that there was this thing called hokum blues. To me, they go hand in hand.”
On a deeper level, Barnes has a lot to say about the recent implications from Jerry Seinfeld, as Seinfeld recently stated on Seth Myers’ Late Night program about the politically correct hardening of American sentiment and comedy. Interesting note, Barnes actually appeared in a 1992 Seinfeld episode as Richie Appel, a friend for which Jerry, George, and the gang would have an intervention.
“What is irony?” Barnes expands upon Seinfeld’s thoughts. “If you’re holding a comedian to his exact words, then you just killed the comedy. So, yes, there is too much apologizing. With that being said, sometimes a comic who’s being racist or sexist, is hiding behind the rules that should protect the comedian. It’s two-fold; there are comedians that just aren’t that funny. There are rules of political and social satire – I want to talk about what’s going in the world; the human condition.”
With performing in his blood; whether it be music, comedy, or his unique amalgam of the two, Chris Barnes sees no end in sight for his lampooning of those situations that involve us all.
“To me, the comedian was always the defender of human decency,” he said. “That’s why I do this. Otherwise, I, as an individual, don’t have purpose.”
Mark is a Northeast Pennsylvania-based music journalist who’s enjoyed interviewing legends like members of Iron Maiden, The E-Street Band, and Hall & Oates, right down to the garage band next door - intrigued by a great musical story on any level.
To hear some of Jack Pyers’ music online check him out on Facebook, facebook.com/jackpyersmusic.
Or download his music at Cdbaby.com/artist/jackpyers