By Scott McLennan
Veteran guitarist Jimmy Herring and The 5 of 7 play groove-heavy tunes that barrel into unexpected and interesting places.
Guitarist Jimmy Herring has, in part, built his legacy by bringing fresh ideas and energy into legendary bands eager to stay active even after losing key members. The Allman Brothers Band, members of the Grateful Dead and, perhaps most impressively, guitar maestro John McLaughlin, when he wanted to revive the groundbreaking Mahavishnu Orchestra, have all turned to Herring.
This has been in addition to Herring’s steady gigs, first with the Aquarium Rescue Unit and most recently with Widespread Panic.
All of the aforementioned bands have reputations for playing smart, improvisation-heavy music that laces psychedelic and jazz influences into a rock ’n’ roll format.
That said, Herring revealed in a recent interview that, at the bottom of it all, no song is worth anything if it doesn’t have a little “Shortnin’ Bread.”
When that statement was met with a “huh?”, Herring proceeded to sing, “Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’, shortnin’, mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread” in the familiar breezy melody of the old Southern folk tune believed to have been originally sung on plantations and was later adapted over and over by the likes of the Andrews Sisters, Dave Brubeck, Looney Tunes cartoons, and the Beach Boys.
Herring said that his mentor Col. Bruce Hampton used “Shortnin’ Bread” to impart that lesson about seeking the simple root in a piece of music to make sure the more expansive branches have a sturdy anchor.
Southern sensibilities and Col. Bruce Hampton are driving forces behind Herring’s latest musical outing, a band dubbed The 5 of 7.
Herring, 57, said The 5 of 7 came about out of his desire to work with the next generation of talented musicians based in Atlanta, his home and musical base for many years. Bassist Kevin Scott and keyboard player Matt Slocum, two of the musicians in Herring’s previous band — the Invisible Whip — also happened to be in the Atlanta band King Baby. When Herring checked out King Baby’s record, he was impressed and recruited that outfit’s singer and guitarist Rick Lollar to join him, Scott, and Slocum. Herring rounded out his new ensemble with drummer Darren Stanley.
“I didn’t want to steal King Baby outright, but I heard Rick, and said ‘That’s the guy,’” Herring recalled.
And all those guys, like Herring himself, spent time playing in bands with Hampton, a towering musical figure known for nurturing young talent and handling music as if it were a key to other worlds. A concert to celebrate Hampton’s 70th birthday in 2017 drew nearly 30 performers (Herring, Slocum and Scott among them) to the Fox Theater in Atlanta. During the final all-star jam, Hampton collapsed and died on stage as he was calling out players to solo on one of his favorite numbers, “Turn on Your Lovelight.”
The 5 of 7 carries on Hampton’s teachings, Herring said, by playing groove-heavy tunes that barrel into unexpected and interesting places.
“I learned from Bruce that the simpler the music is, the more opportunity you have to improvise and get your own voice into it,” Herring said.
And that “voice” in The 5 of 7 is speaking in a decidedly Southern accent. The licks, tones, and phrasings are as distinct as a spoken dialect, and that is something Herring celebrates in the group. The guitarist sees the links, despite the obvious differences, between the bevy of influential artists that come from the eastern Southern states, naming such stars as Little Richard, Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane.
“If you listen to people from the mountains of North Carolina and then go to the Outer Banks, you’ll hear different accents in the common dialect,” he said.
And there is something about that Southern musical dialect that sucks in people, from those just looking to boogie on the dance floor to the accomplished composer and performer John McLaughlin, who tapped Herring, Scott, and Slocum in 2017 to be part of his revived Mahavishnu Orchestra.
“Here’s a guy who applied Indian classical music rhythms to jazz harmonies and presented it as rock ’n’ roll. He did that in the ’70s,” Herring said. “It’s funny that he’d be interested in our strange take on music. I guess he liked the dialect.”
The last couple of bands that Herring has led, when not busy with Widespread Panic, have been instrumental units featuring him as the sole guitarist and main soloist. The 5 of 7 changes the format by adding vocals, a twin guitar architecture, and a deeper bench of players who like to — and are quite capable of — unspooling long solos.
The musicians first got together a few times simply to jam. There were no shows booked, no plane tickets to buy and, as Herring noted “no money changing hands.”
“Everyone was having a good time. It was a great hang,” Herring said. “After that, we then became interested in doing some shows.”
They have even written a few songs that are popping up in the shows, which include some King Baby material and other tunes from shared musical bags.
“At our first show, my guitar tech tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You guys are at the 2-hour mark.’ To me, it felt like we had been playing for 45 minutes,” Herring said. “We still had a few more songs on the list.” The decision was made that perhaps not everyone needed to solo in every song.
But the way everything has jelled is quite pleasing for Herring.
“I know they want my name out front,” he said. “But this is a band. Everyone is making an important contribution to the music.”
Jimmy Herring and The 5 of 7 will be performing September 25 and 26 at The Center for the Arts in Natick, MA.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.