Flyin' Mighty

Rod Piazza still looking to move up

According to an old saying, when you're on top, there's nowhere to go but down. However, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, one of the nation's top blues festival acts and two-time reigning Handy Award winner as best blues band, remain at the top of their game and continue to look for ways to climb.

"As long as we've been around, there are still blues fans who don't know about us," says bandleader Piazza by phone from his Southern California home. "That's reality. If we could get [fans] out to the clubs to see us, we could double our fan base."

The California-based Flyers have been together for 25 years or so and have been touring relentlessly since the late '80s, gradually increasing their audience and reputation in the blues community. The band's strengths include Piazza's dramatic harmonica work and bar-walking abandon, as well as his synergy with pianist/wife Honey Piazza, herself an extraordinary soloist in the tradition of Chicago legend Otis Spann. The pair has been together since 1973 and married since 1989. Honey Piazza and bassist Bill Stuve (a Flyer for nearly a quarter century) also are nominated for Handy Awards on their respective instruments. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom and drummer Steve Mugalian complete the ensemble.

Piazza credits the band's success to the consistency of its live shows. A profound work ethic comes into play as well, as demonstrated by the attention to detail on tunes like "Buzzin'," a show-stopping piano/drums duet between Honey Piazza and Mugalian that incorporates the influences of Spann, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and others. She's performed the tune for years, but says it continues to evolve, based on the audience's response to new elements she adds to the song.

Look for that same attention to detail on the Flyers' upcoming as-yet-untitled CD release, due out in June. It will be the band's first release in two years, following 1999's Here and Now on Tone-Cool.

"It's a little bit more raw than our previous recordings, but it's more focused and more 'core,'" Piazza explains. "Each tune has its own signature, or identity. Sometimes you tend to play everything with the same attack and tone, and you have to change it up to get to the real heart of a tune."

To achieve that diversified sound, the band traveled to Memphis to record a couple of tunes with horns, under the guidance of producer Jim Dickinson, and also added vocalists on a couple of numbers. Honey Piazza also plays organ, in addition to piano, on the recording.

Still, Piazza says, the process of giving each song its own identity was less about instrumentation than communication.

"The key was really talking about the tune before you play it, trying to get everybody on one concept or plateau or wavelength, so that everyone's thinking of the end result," Piazza says.

Piazza, 53, emerged on the Los Angeles blues scene in the mid-'60s, forming the Dirty Blues Band at age 18 before joining mentor George "Harmonica" Smith — a former member of Muddy Waters' band — in the twin-harp ensemble Bacon Fat. He formed the Rod Piazza Blues Band in 1976, followed by the Chicago Flying Saucer Band, before settling on the Mighty Flyers moniker with the addition of bassist Stuve.

While clearly looking forward, at this point in his career Piazza also is looking back just a bit as well: The band will have newly reissued CDs available at an upcoming show, including So Glad To Have the Blues (originally issued in 1986), The Chicago Flying Saucer Band (1979) and Bacon Fat (1969). Piazza also will have a new video, Blues Harp Experience, which mixes harp instruction with a career retrospective including behind-the-scenes home duets with Honey and live cuts with the band. Piazza expects to have all of these available through the Tone-Cool website soon (www.tonecool.com), but for the moment, they're available from the bandstand.

Being able to reissue this older material provides a milestone of sorts for Piazza, as does the recognition brought by the Blues Foundation's Handy Awards.

"Everybody makes concessions, musically and socially, to make things work," he says, "and it's nice when you can be complimented by some type of reward."

Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers appear Tues., March 27, and Wed., March 28, at Blind Willie's, 828 N. Highland Ave. For more information, call 404-873-BLUE.

On the Beat: WRFG (Radio Free Georgia, 89.3 FM) has released WRFG Presents: The 1st Annual Back Porch Blues Festival, Live at Darwin's, a 13-track sampler from a benefit festival last June. It's an enjoyable slice of life from the local scene, including cuts from the Andrew Black Band, the Well Hungarians, the Breeze Kings, Heaven Davis and the Aggravatin' Papas, Kathy Carlisle (with those same "Papas"), Liz Melendez, Slim Fatz, Barefoot Dave and Donnie McCormick and Little Joey's Jumpin' Jive. For more information, visit wwww.wrfg.org.

Talkin' Blues is a monthly column on blues and related subjects, with an emphasis on local artists, venues and events. Please e-mail or send your blues news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.??