When Herb Desseyn steps onto the stage at Brackins Blues Club on Saturday night, remember one thing: He could just as easily be a banjo player stopping by the Rocky Branch Community Club for a night of picking, but for a few simple twists of fate.
A native of Southwest Virginia, Desseyn grew up surrounded by bluegrass, and as a guitar player, he always assumed he would wind up in the genre eventually. At least until he began noticing subtle differences.
“I always played without a pick, and all the bluegrass guys placed with a pick,” he told The Daily Times this week. “The first time I heard the blues played without a pick, I thought, ‘Holy cow — this is what I need to be doing right here.’”
He is doing it — with his band, Herbie D. and the Dangermen — and he’s been doing it ever since he discovered the blues. Back then, the genre was missing in action in his part of the Commonwealth, so his early guitar lessons were for classical guitar. In high school, he decided he wanted to pursue music full time, but his parents pushed him to go to college. He did, studying architecture, but he paid for it through music.
“That’s how I put myself through college, by playing music,” he said. “I actually played in a reggae band, and when I got out of college, I did some work in an architecture office. That’s when I realized I wanted to do music, so I just kind of dropped it and ran with the music.”
That was in the 1980s — “probably the time when it was hardest to play the blues,” he said — and he scraped by however he could. He was a member of the blues band The Hornets and picked up side work whenever it was available, slowly refining his fingerstyle guitar playing skills and his raspy, perfect-for-the-blues voice. He collected his influences along the way — the urban grit from Chicago, the swagger from Texas, the joyful jump-blues sounds of New Orleans — and eventually put together a team of ace players in the Dangermen: Art Martin on saxophone (and occasionally the flute), Chris Gifford on upright bass and Michael Salazar on drums.
“For me, it’s always been the live performance,” Desseyn said. “Everybody talks about recording, and you’ve got to do it, but I just like the performance, the whole thing of orchestrating a band together and being able to pull it off in front of people. We’re a blues band, but it’s not what most people around here call blues. It’s acoustic, so I always tell people it’s more like New Orleans kind of stuff. It’s not really, but that’s what people understand.”
The group, now based in Hampton Roads, Va., won first place in the River City Blues Society’s Ninth Annual Blues Challenge, and will represent the organization on Jan. 22 in Memphis at the 2014 International Blues Challenge. Along the way, they’ll share their talents with the crowd at Brackins this weekend.
“What we do is a lot different because of the acoustic instruments,” he said. “What everybody tells us is that we’re the most fun band they’ve ever seen. We’re real lively on stage, and we’re real interactive with the people we play for. That pretty much opens up everybody to a different direction than how they understand the blues, and we’re probably more roots-sounding than most of the guys out there now. Everybody’s usually surprised that we’re an acoustic band, because it is a driving band.”