Chris Cotton
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Chris Cotton

San Francisco, California, United States | INDIE

San Francisco, California, United States | INDIE
Band Folk Americana

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Fronting a trio (with special friends) of guitar, drums and upright bass, Cotton plays a certain type of old-timey blues that brings to mind Tin Pan Alley or Bob Wills almost as much as Leadbelly.

By mixing up rural blues, jazz, American song and some sweet western swing, Cotton has brought all these sounds into modern times. The song structures are mainly modern, and the playing is decidedly up-to-date. But the sounds within recall scratchy 78s and acetates.

I'm speaking of the musical elements, of course. The sound on this disc is immaculate. Like I said, this is modern music. Cotton knows his influences, but he's most concerned about making his own music.

And it is music most impressive. Cotton's expressive playing and singing drive this album, and his sidemen and pals paint some real pretty (if often sad, of course) pictures. A quiet gem. - Aiding and Abetting



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A long road to 'The Big Sea'
New CD reflects twists and turns of Chris Cotton's musical life
By Shay Quillen
Mercury News
Article Launched: 04/30/2008



THE MERC SESSIONS: Today's feature is the third in our Merc Sessions series showcasing top musicians from the Bay Area and beyond.

Two years ago, Chris Cotton had a lot more on his mind than his next CD.

After a series of misfortunes, including the end of a romance and the death of a grandmother who had taken him in as a troubled youth, Cotton found himself homeless, sleeping in his van outside a friend's house in Mountain View.

"I didn't know what to do, because all of these things were happening in my life, these tragic circumstances," he says. "So I basically spent three months of my life just trying to find myself."

But he never stopped writing music, and with the help of some friends and fans, and $10,000 inherited from his grandmother, he scraped together the funds to make "The Big Sea," the second solo album from the ex-Blue Eyed Devil. Cotton, 32, will celebrate the CD release with two shows tonight at Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco.

Cotton's music is rooted in old acoustic blues and folk, but "The Big Sea" shows the artist seeking a more personal mode of expression. Certainly Blind Willie McTell or Big Bill Broonzy never crafted a three-part epic with a sitar solo, as Cotton has done here.

"Everything I play is based on some knowledge of traditional American music," he says outside a Peet's Coffee a few miles from the communal house he
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shares in Palo Alto, "but I'm not doing it in a traditional way. I'm trying to create new music. Not just new words, but new musical forms - things that are interesting, things that might appeal to a broader audience than just hard-core blues or traditional aficionados."

It's the latest step on a rocky career path that began more than two decades ago.

"I think by age 10, it was pretty clear he wanted to play music and be on stage," says John Davies, a lawyer and longtime state government employee who married Chris' mom, Lois, in 1984.

Davies encouraged Chris by taking him to see blues and jazz artists like B.B. King and Dizzy Gillespie.

But while Cotton was blossoming as a musician, he was also getting into a lot of trouble. He spent his early teen years bouncing among various relatives' houses in the South Bay before being sent to boarding schools out of state.

"It was kind of like reform school," Cotton says, "but not totally."

Cotton spent a year at Washington State University, where he was reintroduced to the blues through a chance meeting with a Muddy Waters tape, but trouble found him again. So he hit the road, hitching rides and hopping freights in search of music and adventure.

"I was young, and risk was not really something that I thought about too much," Cotton says.

His stepdad says that decision was trademark Cotton.

"I can remember when he was maybe 4 years old, he could shimmy up a flagpole to the point where you'd have to shout to tell him not to go up any higher," he says. "He's fearless. It can be a good characteristic, or it can be a bad characteristic."

Cotton settled in New Orleans, where he performed on the streets for a couple of years, delving into the Piedmont blues tradition. But after getting robbed at gunpoint one night, he decided it was time to return home.

Back in the Bay Area, Cotton and some friends formed the Blue Eyed Devils, a rustic and rowdy combo that packed 'em in at Woodside's Pioneer Saloon and put out two CDs. That band's momentum fizzled amid a series of business squabbles, though, and a subsequent Cotton solo CD failed to make a big splash.

To make the new album, Cotton bought, borrowed and bartered for recording equipment and set up shop at a friend's place in Palo Alto. When his limited funds ran out, he asked friends and fans to order the new CD in advance. More than 200 took him up on it, and that infusion of cash enabled him to finish the recording.

Jimbo Mathus, who produced a Blue Eyed Devils CD and Cotton's previous solo CD, flew in a day early for a San Francisco reunion gig for his band, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, to pitch in on three songs.

The sound is live and loose, ragged but right. "You don't even shoot for perfection," Cotton says of his recording aesthetic. "You're shooting for capturing this moment in time between these musicians."

Cotton doesn't have a label or big touring plans. He's not even making a good living. But he refuses to give up music and settle down in a regular 9-to-5.

"I think about that all the time," Cotton says, "but it's not going to happen. . . . I'm too proud to let that go. I'm already so deep into this I don't think there's much of a way out of it. I'll just keep plugging along." - San Jose Mercury News, Brad Kava


Ask a group of musicologists what type of music Leadbelly performed, and you're likely to get different responses. Some will categorize his work as folk; others will say Southern country blues. Truth be told, Leadbelly was both of those things -- he was as relevant to folk as Woody Guthrie; he was as relevant to Southern county blues as Charley Patton, Son House, or Robert Johnson. Like Leadbelly, Chris Cotton is clearly an example of an artist whose material has as much to do with folk as it does with the type of rugged, pre-World War II country blues that Patton, House, and Johnson were known for -- and he also gets some inspiration from bluegrass, Appalachian music, and old-time country. I Watched the Devil Die is a very raw, unpretentious, and raggedy album; Cotton obviously identifies -- quite strongly, in fact -- with the earthiest sounds of the '20s, '30s, and '40s. There isn't the slightest hint of slickness on this 2004 recording; nor is there a trace of irony -- and the singer/guitarist is as expressive on his own songs as he is on down-home performances of Blind Willie McTell's "Dying Crapshooter's Blues," Mississippi John Hurt's "Louis Collins," the standard "Bill Bailey," and Skip James' "I'm So Glad" (a tune that many lovers of '60s British Invasion rock associate with Cream). When I Watched the Devil Die is playing, it is evident that Cotton would have no problem telling you what Woody Guthrie had in common with Blind Lemon Jefferson or what Sleepy John Estes had in common with Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and Bill Monroe. Lovers of roots music can't go wrong with this excellent CD. - All Music Guide


It's as if he's taken his blues to another time and place, alternately capturing the back-porch intimacy and the juke-joint raucousness of rural Southern blues... romps with the type of ensemble abandon one associates with Howlin' Wolf's Memphis sessions. - Living Blues Magazine


Like an unlikely collision between Tom Waits and Robert Johnson, Chris Cotton melds old to new in a bewitching disc that demonstrates more heart and sincerity than anything the blues world has spit up in some time... This is a record of the year, seven months early. - Exclaim!


If you are looking for a change of pace then folk blues artist Chris Cotton's fourth album The Big Sea could be your fix. Cotton's music is hard for people to categorize but if Leadbelly and Tom Waits could do an album together that might be close. The Big Sea is a solid listen all the way through because you can just tell that Cotton has poured everything into it and regardless of how you categorize him the album grabs hold of you and really does fit in a shuffle playlist with all of your indie friends!

Key Track: "Heartbreaking Mind"

Band With Similar Fire: Tom Waits w/ the Blues - Fire Drills


Fans of the blues, bluegrass, and rootsy, old-fashioned, Americana with heart will be happy to know that on September 2, 2008, Chris Cotton will release his latest album. It's a refreshing, simple record. And I highly recommend it. - Berkeley Place


“Going Home� is shocking in its immediacy: a track from Chris Cotton’s latest, due out September 2nd on Little Fish Large Pond Publishing. This vintage-style piece, recalling some of the earliest recorded American folk music, is a refreshing blast from distorted guitars and whining vocals. There’s something strangely enthralling about anachronistic music, isn’t there? - MusicGeek.org


Chris Cotton's blues repast includes a healthy serving of
folk and country, recalling Taj Mahal and other front-porch
stylists. As is often the case with this kind of music, the spot-
light shines brightest on the main player's voice and guitar.

Eight other musicians, including his regular sidemen—
Vance Ehlers (upright bass) and Justin Markovits (per-
cussion)—pitch in, but Cotton owns this particular show.

For fans of Mahal, John Lee Hooker, Creedence Clearwat-
er Revival, George Thorogood, and other acts that boogie
and choogle, The Big Sea will go down easy. While Cot-
ton may not trump those artists, he doesn't sound like a
carbon copy either. Note, for instance, the addition of sit-
ar to "The Last Man." Raga in the Delta? Sure, why not.
Cotton makes the unique combination work just fine. - AndMoreAgain


Discography

2001 - The Blue Eyed Devils - Hard Luck Town
2003 - The Blue Eyed Devils - Legend of Shorty Brown*
2005 - Chris Cotton - I Watched the Devil Die
2008 - Chris Cotton - The Big Sea
in production:
2011 - New American Century Volume I
*Nominated for a California Music Award

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Bio

In February of 2010 Chris Cotton got an interesting idea while talking to a long-time friend and artistic collaborator who had been living in a van in Brooklyn, NY over that previous winter that intrigued both Chris, a San Francisco Bay Native, and his friend, which subsequently led to a concept idea for a new record that Chris was highly skeptical of but couldn't stop thinking about. Chris and his friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, spoke for hours about murky and unknown details which naturally led to a wager. The terms of this wager are not exactly clear, but what can be understood thus far is that this is a sea change for Mr Cotton many steps removed from his preferred turn-of-that-last-century-hokum and string band anachronism that he has been known for mastering over the last decade.
This album will be be released in Feb. 2011.