My eyes struggle to adjust to scattered Christmas lights as I seek refuge from the bitter-cold night. I fend off shaky pool cues as I pass a busy quarter table in Austin’s Eastside entertainment district.
Long-time local guitar slinger Chris Ruest is tuning up his vintage Airline on the corner stage at the White Horse as tourists pull together a string of tables. Couples rest after shaking their feet at happy hour two-step lessons and feast on Mexican street fare from Bomb Tacos’ esteemed food truck.
An antique chandelier dangles above the dance floor as soft notes from Chicago’s Rob Stone swirl around the room. Ruest is hosting the vocalist and harmonica player for the entire week, lining up six dates that showcase a fast-paced style rarely seen in a city known for the twang of Willie Nelson’s Trigger.
Chris Ruest and Rob Stone perform at the White Horse. Photo by Rick Moore.
Ruest picked up the guitar as a teenager in Bristol, Connecticut, following the popular styles of Eric Clapton and the psychedelic groups that transformed rock and roll in the 1960s. He quickly discovered that many songs traced back to Delta blues artists and grabbed anything he could find that captured the unique sound.
“When I got my first Elmore James CD at fifteen it melted me,” Ruest said as he acted out a gasp, “even though almost every song had a similar sound, but the tone was nothing I had ever heard before, nothing had come close to that tone. That totally hypnotized me and changed my whole direction.”
The scene in Bristol was heavily influenced by classic rock, and Ruest knew it was time to relocate if he wanted to experience the rich culture of the Southwest region that formed some of the basis of American music.
“I was playing all kinds of stuff up there because I couldn’t find people to play blues,” Ruest said. “A lot of guys didn’t want to do it, so I was playing two or three Grateful Dead songs and one blues song, some Pink Floyd and then another blues song. It was all a learning experience just the same.”
After arriving in Austin, Ruest found an abundance of artists that strived to pay homage to the original blues recordings, performing at Joe’s Generic, a staple in the Sixth Street tourist district that proudly advertised as a blues forum, and the famed Antone’s Nightclub, but the saturated market quickly took its toll.
“I was here for about nine months,” Ruest said, “and I exhausted about every dime I had.”
Ruest headed north and carved out a name for himself as a knowledgeable roots player in the immense subculture that polka dots the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, sharing the stage with Nick Curran, a full-throttle blues artist that won over fans in the punk and rockabilly scene, bassist Eric Przygocki and Brian “Hash Brown” Calway, another transplant from Connecticut with big band and swing influences.
“There was a lot of work around, you could probably work almost every night of the week,” Calway said. “The way the scene was, we would all play with each other. Whoever had the gig.”
The club circuit provided steady work in Dallas, with notable spots like The Bone and The Hole in the Wall that featured nightly acts.
“We had a lot of friends in common,” Przygocki said. “He seemed to have a real extensive knowledge of blues guitar styles. He had a long list of close to about two hundred songs that he could play at any given time. He could play a T-Bone Walker song and sound like T-Bone Walker. Whatever he called he could do accurate interpretations of these guitar players.”
Christ Ruest performs at B.D. Riley’s. Photo by Rick Moore.
Ruest learned crowd techniques first hand from legendary vocalist and harmonica player Sam Myers, who performed with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets. Myers shared a home with Calway for a number of years and would attend gigs on his days off, graciously sitting in for a few numbers.
“He has a really good mix of a lot of different styles,” Calway said. “He really is adept at playing Elmore James style slide guitar, and he’s also a really good swing guitar player. He studied a bunch of the different styles and mixed all that together into his own.”
After seven years in Dallas, Ruest decided to return to Austin where the market was hot, and over the years performed with guitarist and vocalist Rosie Flores, the legendary Pinetop Perkins and pianist and vocalist Gene Taylor.
“Chris came through with Gene Taylor and I went to see them,” Stone said, who now resides in Los Angeles. “I had met Gene Taylor probably 25 years earlier at the Toledo Blues Festival. He was in the Fabulous Thunderbirds at the time and I was in Sam Lay’s band, and we actually played together.”
Stone sat in with Taylor in Los Angeles and struck up a conversation with Ruest about performing together in Texas. Last year they partnered for the first run of dates, and expanded into Houston this year, performing with Damien Llanes on the drums and Michael Archer on bass.
Chris Ruest, Rob Stone, Damien LLanes and Michael Archer perform at Antone’s Nightclub. Photo by Rick Moore.
The dance floor is packed as Stone moves back and forth, throwing his hands up and down to cue the drum breaks while they move from fast-paced jump blues to slow ballads that give couples a chance to embrace. Their respect for the traditional styles and energy on stage is what truly sets them apart.
“It’s gotten hard because the important musicians are mostly gone,” Stone said. “The important blues guys who created it are almost all gone, and for some time they were the definitive authorities on the music. If you were lucky enough to work with them, they would tell you what was supposed to be and what wasn’t, and you learned how to get it right or you didn’t play.”
Rob Stone performs at B.D. Riley’s. Photo by Rick Moore.
Stone’s smooth vocals warm the room throughout the two hour set and the dancers smile with approval as the house music fades in. They wrapped up the week with performances at Antone’s Nightclub and B.D. Riley’s in the heart of downtown.
“Just like all of us, we hope that at some point that we become some sort of a recognizable sound, you know,” Funderburgh said. “When you walk up to the club and you’re not looking at anybody playing you think ‘oh there’s Chris Ruest,’ and I think he’s there.” www.chrisruest.com