Great band lineups don't always happen naturally — sometimes it takes a bandleader years to figure out the best configuration of players. For singer/guitarist Patrick Blake, the frontman of a new project called Whiskey Diablo, assembling a great roster is still a work in progress, but it's already very close to being ideal.
In 2010, Blake formed a bluesy rock duo called Whiskey 'n' Ramblin' with percussionist Keith Clarry. They described their set of covers and originals as "swampy, Southern, shit-kickin', hillbilly blues." Their boozy two-man act resembled the humorous rockabilly-blues of Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper, the primitive guitar/drum sound of the White Stripes, and the Southern style of the Flat Duo Jets. They played regularly and recorded a five-song EP in Clarry's home studio.
"When Whiskey 'n' Ramblin' was running around Charleston, we decided to take a little break from it," says Blake. "We did our last show at the Tin Roof last June. I wanted to continue playing music, though."
Last summer, Blake started jamming on song ideas with longtime jazz/blues drummer Brian Widlowski. Bassist Jonathan Gray (formerly of Jump, Little Children) hopped aboard soon after.
"Brian had been off of the circuit for a little bit, so he was looking to get back into it," Blake says. "We started practicing with different bass players, like Jonathan and Whitt Algar [of Gaslight Street, the Bushels]. It was great playing with Brian because he put his own jazzy edge on some of the old Whiskey 'n' Ramblin' tunes. Several new songs took shape with a different mix of styles."
Putting a twist on his previous band's moniker, Blake started booking gigs under the name Whiskey Diablo. "I haven't heard any objections to the band name yet, although I wouldn't be surprised if I heard some rumbling down the road," he says.
Blake and Widlowski enlisted local guitarist Jason Brachman for some of their initial shows. Summerville-based guitarist Chris Bunton recently joined in as well.
"Everyone brings in their own musical personality," says Blake. "Chris brings a cool gypsy-jazz style to the songs, plus some Chet Atkins picking, which really works surprisingly well. I wasn't trying to aim this band in a certain direction. I really just want to play what works best."
Whiskey Diablo's music is more refined than the Ramblin' duo's rough-edged set. A natural sense of swing and swagger stands out. Musically, Blake and his colleagues are more versatile and agile. They're capable of switching easily from a slinky lounge-rock number to a rowdy rockabilly romper.
"I do love all kinds of music, so I don't really think I'd ever say, 'No, we can't play this style or that style,'" Blake says. "The musicians on board help determine the mix of styles."
Blake, 33, grew up in the hilly college town of Johnson City, Tenn. He first picked up guitar at age 11, and he's played rock 'n' roll ever since.
"I was into hard rock and heavy metal back when I started on guitar," he says. "I liked stuff like Corrosion of Conformity, Pantera, Metallica, and Guns N' Roses. I didn't get into the bluesy stuff until later."
Blake maintained a fascination with music as a hobby player through the years. After residing in Philadelphia and rural southwest Virginia, he moved to Charleston in 2007 and created his own production company that handled recording, web design, and DJ events. He started playing as a singer/guitarist at small clubs and bars in the Lowcountry in 2008.
Through his work as a solo act and with his duo and full-band projects, Blake has earned a reputation for his raspy, gutsy singing style and fiery rhythm guitar work.
Local audiences respond not only to his blues and rock chops, but to his jazzier side as well. His range has come in handy.
Whiskey Diablo recently kicked off a series of Sunday evening performances at High Cotton. Music-wise, the fancy downtown eatery is best known for hosting post-happy hour jazz and blues acts at low volume levels. It's a gig Whiskey 'n' Ramblin' might not have been able to pull off.
"That High Cotton gig is different from the standard bar gigs," Blake says. "It's a lighter set, but it's really fun. We get to do slightly different takes on the songs, and the audiences are receptive and attentive. We're adding in sprinkles of other genres such as jazz, flamenco, and even taking cues from the big band crooners like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra."
Blake's goal this fall and winter is to expand Whiskey Diablo's set list and record their strongest songs. The band has already been recording at Charleston Studio, putting the initial basic tracks together with guidance from engineer Jay Miley.
"We're trying to figure out how to make the songs match up," Blake says. "Some of the songs are very different from each other. This band is really a new beast with a few more tricks in the pocket."