If you were to choose to get into blues music, where would you start? In the internet age, blues from across the decades exists for perpetuity — the good, the great and the not-so-great.
How would a young student of the blues find the good stuff?
Eugene musician Olem Alves was lucky. He learned about blues from one of the best, James Thornbury. Alongside names like Robert Cray and Curtis Salgado, Thornbury was a blues musician around Eugene in the early ’80s. He went on to play with blues-rock great Canned Heat.
“He had listened to such great music,” Alves remembers of Thornbury. “It’s all the great stuff, what he showed me. You gotta know who to listen to.”
In 2017, Thornbury passed away at age 68.
“We all have mentors,” Alves says, recalling his relationship with Thornbury. He gave Alves music lessons as a boy. “When James Thornbury died, I started thinking about him more. I wanted to do something to send him off.”
Over the years, Alves kept the songs Thornbury taught him in a box. “On the backs of his posters he would write the lyrics and the letters of the chords,” he says. “He had this style of handwriting that was so great. I got out all the old tunes.”
Now Alves and his band Inner Limits have released Hit the Highway, an album of blues classics he learned from Thornbury. “I started to introduce some of the songs to the band,” he says. “They were all very receptive to it.”
Soon, Inner Limits worked tunes like “Stormy Monday” and “Can’t Be Satisfied” into their live set.
“People started dancing and really getting into these songs,” Alves says. Inner Limits added their own twist to the music. “We would add breaks, we would chop off a quarter note,” he says. The band played with time signatures, switched up the feel, and even sang in three-part harmony.
“If you like country music, you’re gonna like the blues,” Alves says. Do you like jazz, rock? “You’re probably gonna like the blues. With the blues, it starts with that backbeat. Our goal is to play the familiar in an interesting way. People can hold on to something. We can take them for a ride.”
Inner Limits celebrates the release of Hit the Highway 6 pm Friday, Jan. 11, at Mac’s Night Club; $7, 21-plus.