Randall Bramblett thinks of himself as a "band guy."
Sure, his reputation as one of today's foremost Southern songwriters and instrumentalists can be corroborated by any of the artists who have cut his songs, including Bonnie Raitt, or who have employed his playing prowess on keyboards and saxophone, say Steve Winwood both in and out of Traffic.
But ask Bramblett what kind of musical environment provides the most natural fit for his vocal, instrumental and compositional strengths, and he will readily point to the music he has made in a band context. For proof, just look at any of his eight exemplary solo albums or the harder-to-find fusion and funk recordings he cut with the overlooked Southern band Sea Level in the late '70s.
"I've always been a band guy," Bramblett said. "With a band, you just walk out onstage, play and then walk back to the dressing room. I guess I never really viewed myself as a solo artist."
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So why is Bramblett touring predominantly as a solo performer? Well, it's partly out of necessity. Great recordings and a sterling critical reputation don't always yield substantial financial rewards — especially in an economy in which many established artists from all genres are struggling to make a living.
But it's also an opportunity for a little of the literate Southern detail of his song's story lines to shine through. There hasn't been a Bramblett record in which groove hasn't been a key element. But the human story lines and keenly emotive character studies are just as important. So when he returns to play Natasha's on Saturday as part of the Alltech Fortnight Festival, the setting will simply be Bramblett, a guitar, a keyboard and some of the most regal Southern compositions of this or any generation.
"If you really want to strip the songs down and listen to them as they were written, solo is the best way to do it. Now, playing solo can be vulnerable and lonely and all that stuff. But people also tend to listen more carefully at a solo show than at a band show, believe it or not."
Admittedly, some of Bramblett's records translate readily to a solo context. His new album, The Meantime, shifts the focus from band-oriented tunes to more introspective works performed primarily on piano or by a trio of piano, bass and drums.
"I just followed the flow on that one," he said. "It felt so good to do a piano-oriented record with an upright bass and drums with brushes. It's just a quiet melodic record. And I needed that. I need to let myself be melodic. There are some romantic songs on there, too, which I normally don't let myself do. It just felt like the right thing at this time in my career."
Bramblett's previous records, particularly those on the New West label, took advantage of the hearty electric band he still fronts for some festival dates, but they also contain quieter songs with a lean and sometimes mysterious soulfulness that makes for inviting additions to his solo shows. Among them: the beautifully despondent Disappearing Ink from 2001's No More Mr. Lucky and the hopeful eulogy Where a Life Goes from 2008's Now It's Tomorrow.
But the music that most involves Bramblett are the songs he has yet to write. Performing in solo or band contexts is fine. But his biggest creative impulses come from the ideas and rhythms that have yet to find their way into a composition.
"For me, the key to staying involved and interested is having new material. That's the reward. Otherwise, you're basically just presenting a show like you would a play. And the key to new material is just a question of paying attention. There is always plenty of material out there if you look for it, so I just pay attention and try to take the time to show up to write. That's the heart of my musical life."