It’s not often you find bands that not only specialize in hard-edged blues, but are all-female as well. One such band that I happened to find out about online comes out of the New York City area, and is called Jane Lee Hooker. If you go by just the name, you’d be thinking of them as a female tribute to one of the great male blues guitarists of all-time, John Lee Hooker.

But these women do more than just pay tribute to Mr. Hooker. JLH takes everything they’ve learned about him and other blues legends as Muddy Waters, singer “Big Mama” Thornton, and the recently deceased Johnny Winter, then they mix in elements of punk and classic rock to give them such a distinct, hard-edged sound.

The five women who make up JLH are lead singer Dana “Danger” Athens, bassist “Hail Mary” Zadroga, drummer Melissa “Cool Whip” Houston, and the two guitarists that we recently interviewed, Tracy Hightop and Tina “TBone” Gorin.

[Cover Photo:  TBone [left] and Hightop [right] deliver dual lead guitar licks during a 2014 Jane Lee Hooker show at the Mercury Lounge in New York City. [Photo by Alan Rand]]

Though Hightop and TBone have performed together, as well as separately, in several different bands, it was their appreciation for the blues, combined with their own brand of dual-lead guitar work, that led to the creation of JLH. We asked them about their prior and current work, plus other topics like how they lined up the producer of their debut album, their meeting with a certain influential 1980s female musician, and the lack of female representation at major outdoor festivals.

GGM: First, did either of you take any formal, or informal, guitar lessons before you began playing professionally? 

Hightop: When I was about 15 I took some lessons for a bit. I already knew the basics, but I had a guy named Ray that came over [to] my parents’ house and would give me a weekly lesson. He played a semi hollow body Guild and drove an MG. Basically he would ask me what my favorite songs were, and he would teach them to me, write them on a sheet of paper, and I would practice the song until the following week. It was a good way of learning. The first song he ever taught me—including lead parts’was “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. 

TBone: I took some formal lessons in the beginning, but it was the informal ones that I learned the most from. There was this camping trip. A friend of a friend had brought his guitar along. The guy was amazing! I pestered him to show me everything he knew, even stuff that was way above my level at the time. He laid it all out for me in a way that really got through. Good teacher who was not even a teacher. Never saw him again after that trip.

GGM: You both were originally together in Helldorado, but did either of you play professionally prior to that? 

Hightop: Before we were in Helldorado we were in a punk band called Spermicide. Our mutual friend Nelsha put the band together. I played drums in that band. We agreed we would form, play three shows and break up—which is pretty much exactly how it went down. A couple of cool things happened though—we were the first band to get the NYC club Continental a noise fine for being too loud; that is where I met Matt Chiaravalle because he recorded our demo; and that’s where I met Tina! 

TBone: I was in a few bands before Helldorado, just local punk bands in a very punk scene that was happening in NYC at the time. It was boring as hell to me as I’m not a punk, but I did enjoy the loud and fast aspects.

GGM: What years were you both in Helldorado before going your separate ways, and how does JLH compare, musically and otherwise, to Helldorado?

Hightop: It’s hard to remember all of it but I think Helldorado formed in 1997 and lasted until early 2001. Helldorado was a great band with a handful of real problems. We wrote a lot of great songs and music, and that was probably my most creative period as a songwriter. I had a great writing chemistry with our vocalist and lyricist. He was such a talented guy, but so troubled at that time. You never knew what a show was going end up like. I remember one show—our first or second show—Tina and I stepped out in the audience to take leads, and when we turned around to come back on stage, he was standing there naked—all 6’7″ of him. Also, Helldorado always had drummer problems. 

We played with about 25 [different] drummers, and, really, we never got over losing our very first drummer Ron Salvo. He was so perfect in every way, and he is still one of my favorite drummers, but we were borrowing him from our friends’ band, and they were not very happy about it. The first lineup of Helldorado had perfect chemistry, and when Ron reluctantly left it never came back fully. JLH is a lot like Helldorado without the problems. We all have great chemistry together. We love and respect one another to the highest degree…and nobody is standing there naked at the end of the night weeping on the bar. We have an enormous amount of fun, and love playing together, and there is just no ridiculous s*** going on. Everyone in this band wants to succeed and play well. 

Musically JLH has expanded what Tina and I started doing in Helldorado. TBone and I love playing together, and we really have a beautiful thing. We grew up listening to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Stones, and we’ve naturally grown into two guitar players who really weave together well. There is no greater joy for me than standing next to Tina and ripping leads with her. 

TBone: [Helldorado] had all of the elements that suited my tastes: Southern rock, a little outlaw country…just music that had roots. Also, I had found a deep musical connection with Tracy. We were always on the same page. JLH just takes it even further to the core of that connection, our mutual love and appreciation for the blues, where it all began for me back when I was first learning play. Still learning from it.

GGM: As you were putting JLH together, did your bandmates know going in that this was going to be something different and unique? 

Hightop: Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think this band would be as good as it is. Never. I thought we’d play some blues covers, Tina and I would take 30-minute leads in every song and we’d head to work the next day looking forward to doing it again in the next six months. But wow, we got lucky. 

Cool Whip and Hail Mary turned into this thunderous ’70s rock rhythm section together, and then Dana walked in the room… and blew everyone’s mind. In my whole life I had never been in a room with someone who could sing like that. I tell this story a lot…but when I walked into the rehearsal room for her “audition” I was about 20 minutes late. I forget why, but everyone was already there, and when I walked into the room Dana’s face was the first thing I saw. I was flooded with this deja vu-ey feeling of familiarity and family. I was just like “Oh, hi. Nice to see you again in this life.” And she then proceeded to shred the room apart like she had never not been in the band.

TBone: …There was this excitement in the air that partly came from the fact we all just really got along as people. We enjoy being around each other. We knew we had something.

GGM: While blues, as a genre, can be thought of as part of the roots of rock, many still consider it a “niche” in terms of popularity. How do you see JLH in terms of not just being a female blues band, but also as an act that can take that genre to another level? 

Hightop: That’s a great question. There is definitely a blues scene, niche, community and we would LOVE to become a part of it. Early on I had hoped that would be our niche. 

But then we turned into something different without trying. With all of our different personalities [and] different musical influences, we turned into something that is a little bit different than what that community is used to seeing and hearing. Sometimes I think we are a blues band, and then other times I think we are a soul band, and then it changes again and we are a punk band. I hit each of those emotions during every set. At the end of the day we are really a rock and roll band. As far as taking the genre to another level, I do feel that there is a brewing scene of blues-based bands that add a whole new element of aggression. I think we are very aggressive. 

The president of Alligator Records called us “over-the-top” in his rejection letter to us, which I felt was a huge compliment. We just played a great show with The Steepwater Band, who are from Chicago and are amazing and very aggressive. JLH are all New Yorkers. We like, and are comfortable with, aggression. I think people expect a blues band to be laid back and mellow. We feel more like Howlin’ Wolf. Up in your face.

TBone: I never thought of JLH as just being a female blues band. I mean we obviously are, and I realize that makes it extra special in a way, but what we are is a rock band made up of musicians that play from the heart who also love to entertain. I believe we can transcend any niche.

GGM: Many places, worldwide, have been known to offer a blues festival of some kind.  Have you ever played any of those?

Hightop: No, not yet, but we hope to play all of those! We’re really hoping to play the Bayfront Blues Festival [in Duluth, MN] this year because my family goes there every year and I would like to make them really proud.

GGM: Of the guitars you have played or are currently playing, which have been your favorites, and why?

Hightop: I’m a really big Les Paul fan but for some reason I always want to play my SG Custom in this band. It’s just got the right tone and it’s really light. I can have it on me for hours. I just bought a super-sweet 1962 Danelectro Silvertone 1448. It feels great, but it may not sound so good plugged in. I only play Orange tube amps, which is something that I discovered in this band. I’m in love with them.

TBone: I currently play a ’78 Tele Deluxe, I love it very much. I also have a ’59 Guild T-100, same guitar John Lee Hooker played. It’s really too bad the headstock broke for the second time and the body has water damage now. I can’t even talk about it.

GGM: In recording your debut album No B!, how did you get Matt Chiaravalle to produce it? 

Hightop: Well basically I lured Matt in by quoting the Jerky Boys and the Sopranos non-stop. In all seriousness, Matt is a fantastic producer—has a great ear—and lets us do our thing without getting in our way. He completely understands what we sound like and how we want to sound recorded (i.e. live). We just called him and said we were going to come right down to his studio and bring all our glasses so that we had them (that’s a Jerky Boys reference).

TBone: [Matt] recorded Tracy and I in another project where Tracy played drums. He got the greatest drum sound on that session! We are big fans of his work and are so glad he made himself available for us.

GGM: It wouldn’t surprise me if the major recording labels that are left still have a department that signs blues acts. But if you were offered a contract with a major label, would it have to be on your terms, rather than on theirs? 

Hightop: It would have to be on all of our terms. I mean, it would have to make each of us happy. We really like being happy together. I honestly do not know the answer to that question. I would have to first know what benefit there could be for our kind of band to sign with a major label. 

TBone: …When I was younger, being signed to a major label was considered “making it.” We all know that is not the case now. If the terms made sense, I’m ure we would be interested.

GGM: Since you’re returning to L.A. in February to do a few shows with the Bluebonnets, who also shared the bill with you last time, back in late 2013, how did you, Hightop, as a Go-Go’s fan since way back when, react the first time you found out you’d be on the same show with one of its members? 

Hightop: Well I’ve been a Go-Go’s fan from since I guess 1982. They are so important for me personally because seeing them play Madison Square Garden opening up for the Police made me realize, “Hey this is an option for me! There is a place for me!” Even though I could drum as well as [Led Zeppelin’s] John Bonham by the age of 8 or so, it never dawned on me that there was a way for me to get into that world. As a school kid, I wasn’t even allowed to be a drummer in marching band—”Girls don’t play the drums. How about the clarinet?” I mean, that is what the school told me. And it was certainly never thought of as anything valuable in my home. 

So to see the five of them on stage at Madison Square Garden—the most important venue in the world—it was life-changing for me. And then for them to have a #1 album that they wrote and played all the instruments on? How they are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet is an absolute disgrace. But to get to your question, anyone in the world will tell you that Kathy Valentine was always the coolest Go-Go. She played bass, she played guitar, she liked the Rolling Stones. She was also the only one to really pursue music in an authentic way after they stopped playing. So when JLH was headed to Austin for 

MEOWCon in 2012(?), and Kathy was a keynote speaker, I just contacted the Bluebonnets on [Facebook] and said, “Hey, we’re kind of doing the same thing…let’s do a show together.” JLH got to meet her and the other Bluebonnets (and Frightwig!!) at MEOWCon, and we were blown away with her keynote speech. I mean, as a speaker, a musician, a songwriter, a rock ‘n roller, a mom, she’s just impressive as hell. 

And our two bands have just formed a very easy friendship, and are doing a considerable amount of shows together. For me personally, I was initially a bit nervous meeting her because I wanted to make sure that she knew I was a badass and also that she had something to do with that fact. Anyway, she is the real deal, a true musician’s musician and she has been very generous with her time, advice and experience, and we are extremely grateful to her.

GGM: Finally, on another tour-related note, the Slate website recently lamented about the lack of female-fronted and all-female acts at such major festivals as Coachella and Bonnaroo, with Slate calling the former “BroChella.” What do you think it would take for these big events to open up and bring in more female acts? Or do you think there should be a Coachella-type event that would be more female-musician-focused?

Hightop: It’s a shame. We would absolutely rip Coachella or Bonnaroo apart. I think at the moment there is not as much interest in seeing women who rock hard as hell with other people on stage as there is in seeing women who sing and do pretty things. I predict that will be changing soon.

TBone: I don’t know what the deal is [with] those Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals. I’m sure there are a great many bands that get shut out of playing them, male and female alike. I don’t know who is controlling that s*** or what you have to do to get behind their velvet curtain. I can’t be concerned with that, really.

*****

Hightop also tells us that they got to meet Johnny Winter just months prior to his passing last year. “It was a huge moment for me and even more so for TBone,” Hightop said. “We both share a love for him and his [1977] album with Muddy Waters, Hard Again.”

TBone, who is a lifelong fan of Johnny’s work, chimed in by telling us, “I must’ve killed hundreds of batteries rewinding my cassette player after every one of his licks, not believing my ears.”

Having played the L.A. area during the first weekend of February, Jane Lee Hooker, along with Kathy Valentine and her band the Bluebonnets, will be doing additional shows in the Houston and Austin areas in March.  They will also share a few dates in the New York City area and throughout the Northeast late April into early May.

You can find out more about Jane Lee Hooker, as well as purchase their debut album, released last November and entitled No B!, by visiting www.janeleehooker.com. And don’t forget to follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Reverbnation, Instagram and YouTube, just by looking up janeleehooker.

 

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