Music: New Beginning

Blues guitarist John Maxwell gets a fresh start

By Lily O’Brien

In the early ’20s and ’30s, a lot of great blues came out of Chicago, launching careers for performers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. So it’s no great surprise that blues guitarist and singer John Maxwell, who was born and raised there, is the real deal. On Friday, May 12, he takes the stage at Rancho Nicasio with his deep delta blues.

Maxwell, master of acoustic fingerstyle, bottleneck slide guitar, lived in San Rafael and drove a Golden Gate Transit bus for 30 years. He retired last June, and a month later, moved to Port Townsend, Washington with his new sweetheart.

“It was a rebirth of sorts,” Maxwell says, noting that he’s now able to concentrate on music full-time.

Maxwell chose Port Townsend for two reasons: He wanted to spend time with his 92-year-old dad who lives there, and he was attracted to the city’s vibrant music scene.

“I’d been coming up here for years to the Port Townsend Music Festival, so when it came time for me to decide where to move, I couldn’t think of any place better than this,” Maxwell says. “It’s really beautiful, with a lot of music and creative people.” He adds that it is also a lot less crowded and expensive than the Bay Area.

Maxwell didn’t take up the guitar until he was 15, after seeing a B.B. King concert. His older brother, he says, was already listening to Chicago blues, and it “filtered down” to him. Maxwell began studying slide guitar at a local folk music school, and eventually made the decision to study music formally.

“I was going to college in St. Louis, and at the time, the music department was strictly classical,” he says. “I was attempting to learn theory and composition, but after two years, I realized that I couldn’t really apply that to what I wanted to do.”

So Maxwell quit school and moved around—playing bluegrass and country music in Tulsa, forming a punk band in San Francisco called Eye Protection and playing R&B in Minneapolis. But a phone call from a friend, asking him to move back to San Francisco to put a new band together, lured him back. He also gradually returned to his original passion—old-time Chicago blues.

“I think a lot of what I do is pretty traditional blues, but I come at it from a little bit of a different angle, because of all the things that I have done over the years” says Maxwell, who has opened shows locally for blues performers like Roy Rogers, Susan Tedeschi and Ruthie Foster. “For instance, if I take an old song from the ’30s, I’m not going to try to reproduce what they did. I’m going to take the idea and come up with my own arrangement, with a little bit more of a personal touch on it.”

Maxwell’s signature style is evident on his 2014 recording, Blues for Angeline, a mix of originals and old blues tunes.

These days, Maxwell is playing a 2015 steel body National Tricone guitar, a retirement present to himself, along with his old 1929 National Triolian guitar, which he calls his “pride and joy.” He also plays blues mandolin.

“A lot of people are really surprised to hear blues mandolin—it gets their attention,” Maxwell says. “But it has a long, long history back to the early part of the century with the early string bands.”

Maxwell has 15 shows booked in the Pacific Northwest this month, “which is like 15 times more than I used to get in the Bay Area,” he says with a laugh. He’s also currently writing songs for a new CD, which will feature “older gems” from the ’20s and ’30s.

Though in some ways Maxwell, who will turn 62 in September, wishes that he could have devoted more time to music a lot sooner in life, he says that it all worked out just fine.

“I can’t say that I really regret the choices I made,” he says. “I would have had a very different life if I would have been able to pursue music full-time from day one. But I think maybe in a sense I can enjoy it even more now, having been through so many years of driving buses—it feels really special now.”

John Maxwell, Friday, May 12, Rancho Nicasio, 1 Old Rancheria Road (on the Town Square), Nicasio; 8pm; free; 415/662-2219;

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