Mentored by a funk legend, but now basically blue

A big surprise in Martin Scorsese’s new film about The Rolling Stones comes when Buddy Guy practically steals the show. The Chicago guitar-master’s song of choice? “Champagne & Reefer.”

Few outside the hardcore blues sphere (and High Times subscribers) are familiar with that Muddy Waters composition. But it’s been a regular part of the setlist for Louisville foursome The Leisure Thieves. The band’s core members — Matt McGinnis, Troy Torstrick and Tony Singleton — have been playing a variety of styles in a number of configurations since high school. More than a decade later, after a few twists and turns, they’ve settled into a deep, albeit flexible, blues groove that regularly takes over local clubs.

It definitely wasn’t gutbucket blues that Matt, Troy and Tony were playing when they were in Rabbit Manor (with mandolin player Phil Wakeman, now in Dozens of Dollars String Band). Matt was the bassist back then, a role he still occupied in fall 2006, when the trio lucked into the opportunity to play with Richard “Kush” Griffith, trumpeter for James Brown’s JBs, George Clinton’s P-Funk and Bootsy’s Rubber Band.

The next few months seemed to be a surging tide of opportunity, and Troy speaks in awe about the night in mid-2007 they played alongside Maceo and Melvin Parker, and how the trio was asked to back up Kush to make up the new house band at Bobby J’s club. Right after that, Kush’s hard living took its final toll. As Matt McGinnis says, “Aside from grieving for a friend, it was really depressing. I was looking forward more to playing bass for Kush. That was something I’d wanted to do since I was 20 years old.” 

Looking to turn over a new leaf, Matt switched to guitar, while Troy spent more time with his harmonica. The possibilities offered by thorough devotion to the blues were dawning to these clean-cut white guys. “I’d planned on eventually doing something like this anyway,” says Matt, who usually picks the setlist.

The band wasn’t quite set, though. Through a CraigsList ad they found bassist John Scharfenberger, who also sits in among the frequently-revolving lineups assembled by drummer Bobby Falk. And if you ever question whether Louisville musicians are a single extended family, catch how this squares the circle: Over beers one night after rehearsal, John runs through the back pages of his memory, and it turned out that he’d auditioned for Rabbit Manor.

In talking with several members, the concept of writing originals doesn’t go far. They’re not staunchly averse, but “we won’t run out of songs,” says Matt. “We’ll play a lot of Beatles songs as blues songs. A lot of Beatles songs are blues, like ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?’ We’ve been playing together a long time, so there’s a lot where we can go into the cellar and pull something out in a pinch.”

Home court for the Leisure Thieves would be something like Slim Harpo (YouTube has a sample of their Harpo covers), or “Midnight Rambler,” where the Stones gave everyone lessons in how a rock band can pull pure dark drama out of low, chugging rhythm.

This song can veer off on improvisations, tangents, jams … and they respond, “A lot of the songs we’ve picked out because there’s flexibility,” Matt says. “We try to communicate while we’re playing, and the songs start out with a semi-rigid format, based on the song as we originally listened to it, and then … it gets pretty fluid.” Not quite like a jamband, everyone’s quick to point out.

They’re also devotees of a musical genre that has an honored, storied tradition, but has lately seemed headed out the door. On the one hand, the members can point to one Louisville venue that always makes them feel at home. “Stevie Ray’s,” Matt says. “It’s kinda like playing at home, like the basement. The sound’s good, and the crowd — they actually tend to like the more obscure blues.” 

But the players share an outlook that blues music simply isn’t getting its due.

“All the music you hear on the radio is based on blues,” Matt says. “And what kids are learning today, when they’re copying something from on the radio … I think it would do them some good to know where it all came from. You learn all the old blues licks, you could pretty much play anything.”

And anything includes ’70s funk, a style made famous by their bygone mentor Griffith. But there’s still more to be done to reach out to blues fans, and to make their own imprint on the classics. “‘One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer’,” Matt ponders. “The original song is a little unstructured. We would have to take some time to figure out where we’d want to take it.”