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Published: 2002/12/23
by Mick Skidmore

Cyril Lance- A Stranger in My House

I get an inordinate amount of albums to listen to (that's not a complaint by the way). Obviously there's good stuff, bad stuff and the plain mediocre. The nicest thing is when you put on a disc by someone that you've never heard of before and it just blows you away. True, it doesn't really happen that often but when it does it is mind blowing. My most recent experience with this occasional phenomenon was when I first heard the album Stranger in the House by Cyril Lance.

Right, Cyril who?

It turns out he is great blues-rock guitar player and the album is full of integrity, dexterity and passion. Lance, however, is not a newcomer to the music scene. In the last two decades he has played in a variety of bands. He’s played everything from folk to avant-garde and from jazz to slack-key Hawaiian music, and of course blues. The album really is amazing and in many ways is reflective of Lance’s varied musical influences. It seems after years of playing different styles and exploring different music Lance has found a comfortable niche in roots music and he brings it all into his songs and playing. The album is a real tour-de-force. Not only does it feature his superb guitar skills but the songs are good and Johnny Neel (Allman Brothers etc) sings on all the tracks. Also noteworthy is the stellar B3 playing by Matt Jensen. The album is highly recommended to anyone into adventurous roots music and blues-rock especially with a nod towards the Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Allman Brothers Band school of blues rock. Lance is quite a slide and lap steel player. The obvious link to the Allman’s et al is the vocals of Neel but make no mistake Lance is not an imitator. He incorporates all sorts of influences into his playing but also adds something of his own. A listen to his amazing arrangement of Rev. Gary Davis’s "I am the Light of the World," his own tenacious blues rocker "Stranger in My House" and the Latin-tinged take of "Hot Tamale Baby" show the creative skills that he has. Another strong aspect of the album is the fact that as an ensemble the band is incredibly tight and they are all Lance’s equals. Together they deliver some intoxicating grooves. To date, Lance hasn’t ventured much outside of North Carolina, but he is looking to. In concert he is apt to incorporate a wider spectrum of music with New Orleans funk and R&B as well as plenty of jazz-inflicted improvisation. Check out his website at for more information and dates. He has some coming up in early December that will feature Johnny Neel and Matt Jenson.

As the album is so interesting I figured I get some background on Lance and his music so what follows is an interview with him. Lance was affable and friendly and quite a scholar on different styles of music.

M.S. I really like your album. It was a pleasant surprise as to be honest I had never heard anything of yours before.

C.L. Well thank you. I’m real happy with it. It really came out better than I’d expected. I am pretty excited about it.

M.S. Why don’t you start by giving us a little information on your musical background?

C.L. I started out playing up in Boston. I lived there in the mid-80s and I played in various bands. I had been a closet musician, but in Boston I started to hook up with some incredible musicians and that’s where my career began. I started out forming a Folk-Celtic-rock band but then moved on to form The Earthmonkeys, which was a really fun band that was a cross between a Frank Zappa-ish thing, and what is now known as a jam-band.

M.S. What kind of material did you play in the Earthmonkeys?

C.L. We would have three to four really intricately arranged crazy sounding epics that were pretty humorous for example "The True Story of Magilla The Gorilla" and "How the Raisin Lost It’s Seed" and then it would just be free jamming in between.

M.S. How did it go from that to blues?

C.L. First I really got into jazz. I spent a lot of time playing in the jazz clubs. I was into hard-bop, and all the ECM stuff Abercrombie, Dave Holland and out-there stuff like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor but being self-taught I didn’t really know what I was doing. I also got more into world music. I wasn’t playing too much blues at the time but there was this great little club owned by musicians called the 1369 in Inman Square and on Sundays they had this amazing blues jam. It was a big family affair and a great place to learn. Boston has a great collection of blues musicians and they would all come out. It was also a great integration of race and culture, black/white, Northern/Southern. I met Matt Jenson in Boston. Matt was totally inspired by the roots stuff. We were both Bob Marley fanatics and we also started playing reggae together. Matt really started me on my journey back to roots music again which has stayed with me to this day.

M.S. What kind of blues and roots music did you start listening to?

C.L. Old blues stuff, New Orleans stuff, old jazz, old Appalachian music. I dug the magic of it all. And it all seemed to come together into one source. On a fluke one day we had a jam and that ended up as band called Closet Fish. We decided to be a band that just played instrumentals with modal jams, jazz harmonies 2nd line rhythms, Latin montuna’s whatever it was had to be deeply rooted and say something real. It was a challenging and really rewarding band with great musicians. Nowadays it would be a perfect jam act, but back then, we were relegated to Saturday nights as a little joint called the Starlight Lounge in Allston fighting with the guys at the bar who were watching the hockey playoffs! Closet Fish set me on my current path.

M.S. How did you end up relocating to North Carolina and what influence did that have on you?

C.L. In the early 90s my wife wanted to go to grad school and we moved down to North Carolina and at that time I was playing a lot more of what you would jam band music. When I moved here I discovered that Piedmont was the center of a whole world of country blues Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller etc. There wasn’t much of a jam scene, so I headed deeper into the blues. Here it was a kind of hot bed for American roots music and blues and I kind of fell into that. I started playing with Mel Melton and the Wicked Mojos. Mel is really a talented harp player but I think his signature was that he was probably the only zydeco harp player and he developed his own technique where he made it sound like an accordion. So, we did a lot of zydeco tunes and that kind of taught me the New Orleans thing and the history of Louisiana music. Mel had played with Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco and all those folks. Through him I got to meet Clifton Chenier. That kind of deepened the whole musical vibe for me. Now with my new act, I’m taking this deep source of American root music and trying to bring it back into a show that never loses that feeling but also adds the spontaneous and adventurous aspects of jamming.

M.S. How did you progress into a solo act?

C.L. With the last album I recorded with Mel I didn’t have very much creative say on and I was feeling frustrated, so I decided I was going to record my own album. I had written a couple of songs but I didn’t make a whole album, so this album is kind of a culmination of years on the road with Mel and kind of the whole musical history that I had. As I said in the liner notes it started out as a tribute to Muddy Waters.

M.S. How did you hook up with Johnny Neel? He plays a big role on you r album.

C.L. When I did the second album with Mel we had a record deal with a Nashville label and we went to Nashville and toured around for some studios. We looked at some of the bigger studios and somebody said you’ve got to meet Johnny Neel he has a studio in his basement. It’s actually a very good studio. He just puts out this amazing vibe and he is a really talented engineer, so we ended up recording Mel’s album there. He and I became acquaintances I wouldn’t say friends at that time. We played together on Mel’s album and we found we had a lot in common musically. It’s actually ironic because at that point I had never heard him sing. But a couple of years later when I was recording the album I was looking for a certain kind of voice and I felt that I didn’t have the exact voice that I wanted, so I called Johnny up and asked him if he would do it. I really wasn’t prepared for what an amazing job he would do. He just blew me away. I would kind of sing him what I wanted and he’d just take it and say okay well tape! He just really understood where this music was coming from and through that we have become pretty good friends, we’ve done some live shows together.

M.S. It’s funny when I listened to your own at first I didn’t look at the sleeve and I remember thinking wow this guy can really sing and then I heard a familiarity, and then I saw Johnny’s name and said okay!

C.L. There have been a few reviewers that have attributed the voice to me and not bothered to read the credits. "Cyril Lance sings his arse off," I wish! (Laughs)

M.S. I take that you do sing as well?

C.L. Yes, I love to sing. I do sing some of the material on our live gigs. You know having Johnny do my material really helped me sing my own material, ironically because he has such a depth of singing. It was like a little lesson for me. I think working with Johnny has really improved my own singing.

M.S. You certainly can play guitar! I hear a lot of influences way beyond the Muddy Waters thing. I hear subtle Hendrix phrases here and there. Are there any other guitar players that you are especially influenced by?

C.L. To go back to what your saying, one of my goals was the album started out as a tribute to Muddy Waters but as I developed it I kind of allowed the songs to become tributes to people that really influenced me. "Hot Tamale Baby" is an obvious nod to Carlos Santana who was a huge influence on me. He was of the first guitar players that I really listened to. I like I listened to his Abraxas album probably five or times in a row before I listened to a single other album. I think Muddy Waters is really one of my big musical influences in blues. Also Johnny Winter that came right out of Muddy. Jimi Hendrix is more of a pure musical influence. I have never sat down and studied his guitar style,

M.S. I can see that. I just can hear a couple of nice subtle phrases that are a nod towards the more melodic Hendrix.

C.L. Right. Hendrix had a level of musicality where he could take a song to a different level. "Catfish Pie" is definitely a tribute to Danny Gatton. I’m a big Danny Gatton fan and also his death was really tragic. Danny Gatton just personified a lot of music that I really aspire to do because he had that gritty, dirty American roots feeling, rockabilly and stuff. Harmonically he was really complex and also a totally unique player. He had his own signature. All of those things are things that I aspire to. Having the ability to bring harmonic complexity to really basic music and still have it be relevant is a real art form.
I also like a lot of the jazz guitar players, John Abercrombie and a lot of the ECM players. I’m also a B3 fanatic as you probably got from the album.

M.S. Yes, it’s one of those sounds that if you love it, you really love it! There’s no in between.

C.L. Yes, and I am a devotee. Matt Jenson is a great player and so is Johnny Neel. Some of the other guitar player influences are more subtle. I did listen to a lot of Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia was a huge musical hero of mine. I think he is definitely in my playing. With Jerry Garcia I think what he gave me is more apparent in the live shows, making your solo a journey that you can take people one. Jerry Garcia was a master of taking you on a journey and of you not knowing where you are going to end up.

M.S. I don’t think Jerry knew sometimes….

C.L. Exactly, I don’t think he did either and I don’t think he wanted to. I’ve been inspired by that especially in the live shows. There are probably a lot of guitar players that I’ve probably forgotten. I’ve tended to steer away from the rock players. I was a big Cream fan and a big Traffic fan. I like a lot of the acoustic players, obviously the Reverend Gary Davis. Of course, the Allman Brothers, Live At the Fillmore, Eat a Peach. I loved that Swedish band Focus (Note: The guitarist was Jan Ackermann). Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King were both huge in my 20’s listening.

M.S. I think that’s an incredible version of Gary Davis’s "I am the Light of this World" that you do on the album.

C.L. Thanks, I love that tune. When I moved down here I found out that Durham was originally a hot bed for that style. It had a larger black population and all these musicians would play at the tobacco auctions. I felt I needed to do a tribute to that history now that I live here, but I didn’t just want to do another version of "I am the Light of this World" because Jorma and so many people have done it really well before.

M.S. Jorma did a really interesting lap steel version of it back in the late 70s when he was playing with Vital Parts but it’s way different from your interpretation.

C.L. Really, that’s interesting I’d love to hear it. I play a lot of lap steel as well. The funny thing is from age 11 up I lived in Hawaii and then to New York and neither place you could see a lot of live music and then on my first night in Boston Jorma was playing at a place that’s now a comedy club in Harvard Square.

M.S. Right, Jonathan Swifts.

C.L. I couldn’t believe that you could see Jorma in a place like that. I had just enough money for the cover. That was 1986.

M.S. I was at that same show, it’s a small world.

C.L. That first acoustic Hot Tuna album was a huge influence on me and for all of us that was into that kind of music. It served as an introduction to all those people.

M.S. Are you touring in support of the album?

C.L. I have mostly stayed regional. The drummer (Kelley Pace) and the bass player (Chris Carroll) are like musical brothers. We have all played together for a long while. They live around here. I have a local B3 player called David Kraken and he is really talented. We have a great band. We stay regionally because of the economics right now. It’s really tough to support without any label support. What I have been doing is a couple of shows with Johnny and Matt. I’m looking for opportunities that would get me out of state, and that would pay enough. I’d love to get up to the North East. I have a lot of history up there. So to really answer your question I’m staying regional until I can get better support.

M.S. What kind of stuff do you play live?

C.L. I believe in the craft of songwriting. Each song says something really important to me. I love improvisation and I fuse that with the structure of the songs. I think that helps the audience to kind of communicate. It helps me as an improviser. It gives me a framework, an emotional concept to work in.

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