Listening to the larger-than-life, dense, but precise, garage blues-rock of The Blues Stones on their Washington Square/Razor & Tie/Concord Music Group debut, Black Holes, it is astonishing to discover all that sound and fury is created by just two people. Longtime best friends, guitarist/vocalist/lyricist Tarek Jafar and percussionist/vocalist Justin Tessier, have known each other since meeting as teenagers in high school in blue-collar Windsor, Ontario, but it wasn’t until almost five years later, while attending university together, that they decided to combine their talents on guitar and drums, respectively, into a musical project.
The Blue Stones are firmly in the tradition of other such rambunctious duos such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes and Royal Blood, at once harking back to the glory daze of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix Experience and their Motor City rock ‘n’ roll models from the other side of the Detroit River, The Stooges, MC5 and Alice Cooper. Throw in modern influences like fellow Canadians Sam Roberts Band, Kentucky guitar-slingers Kings of Leon and New Orleans’ rhythmically tight Mute Math, along with rappers Jay Z. Kanye West and J. Cole, along with seminal blues giants Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and B.B. King, and you get an idea of the Blue Stones’ musically eclectic palette.
From the slap back echo and the Rolling Stones “ooh-oohs” in the gut-punching “The Drop” through the tribute to perseverance in the martial snare, bluesy singalong of “Rolling with the Punches” and the acoustic-to-electric whisper-to-a-scream dynamism of the title track, Black Holes shows a band blasting into outer space and leaving “Solid Ground” behind. It’s the voyage of a group beginning to find its way, emerging from isolation and perspiration to inspiration, reaching an audience waiting to be tapped, and entertained. A rock ‘n’ roll band fighting the good fight, looking to connect in an increasingly fragmented music universe.
“The album’s about being an adolescent on the cusp of becoming an adult and entering the real world from a sheltered environment, like college,” explains Jafar, the son of Israeli emigrants who settled in Canada in the ‘80s. “Feeling torn between taking the secure path or doing something that might be riskier, but you’re passionate about… following what you love as opposed to sticking to the straight and narrow.”
Indeed, “Black Holes (Solid Ground)” is about precisely that either/or dichotomy, caught between infinite space and terra firma, willing to take a shot at the unknown rather than settle for the familiar, in between Jafar’s restless guitars and Tessier’s tribal drum beats.
“We play blues-rock, though it’s not loose and dirty, like the traditional kind,” explains Justin. “It’s lean, raw, tight, without a wasted note.”
It took seven long years – and an independently released EP – for The Blue Stones to hone their approach, putting in those requisite 10,000 hours to perfect their craft, and then build upon that. As Jafar describes the audience participation of “Rolling with the Punches,” which is the group’s usual, rollicking set-closer, “It takes a lot to be a success. You have to stay proud and focused. And it’s always fun to have people sing the words you’ve written and just sit back and take it all in.”
There’s a similar message in the album finale, “Magic,” in which Jafar admits he doesn’t believe in it. “People these days are all looking for instant gratification, the quick reward,” he says. “If you want something that will endure, that’s not how it works. You have to put in the hours and the effort.”
The Blue Stones have done just that, with an approach that isn’t afraid to take chances, like plumbing Jafar’s love of hip-hop and Miles Davis into the funky backbeat of “Be My Fire” or the epic psychedelic experimentation in the pitch-dark “Midnight.”
“You never know where we’ll pull inspiration from,” marvels Justin.
“This is the album we’ve always wanted to make,” adds Tarek. “We set out to show we’re more than loud and lo-fi, that we have range and dynamics.”
And now it’s time to take to the road, play these songs and add to their growing legion of admirers.
“We have dreams and we have goals, but we separate the two,” adds Justin. “A dream is to headline Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, where we saw so many great bands. Out goal, though, is to reach out at every show and win people over one by one. That’s how we’ve always done it and it’s worked so far. We believe in what we’re doing and we have emotional connections to the songs we’re playing. We want to provide our audience with the kind of experiences we had when we were younger attending shows of our favorites. That’s what we look to pass on.”
“My whole attitude is, let’s see what happens,” nods Tarek. “And that’s allowed me to be up for anything.”
“We’re emerging from the tunnel and realizing there’s a guiding light at the end,” pipes in Justin.
“It’s not over now,” sings Jafar in “Lay,” “Don’t lay your flag and turn away/Please don’t leave me with another regret.”
With the release of Black Holes, The Blue Stones are ready to raise the stakes and turn up the heat.