“It’s amazing where your instrument will take you,” reflects Will Jacobs – and when the acclaimed 29-year-old bandleader looks back up the tracks from his latest album, Goldfish Blues, his backstory feels like a wheelspinning road movie. Stick a pin in Jacobs’ early timeline and you’ll find a teenage guitarist with an old-soul touch, backing up the blues-club veterans of his native Chicago and adding his own thumbprint to the Windy City lineage sparked by towering figures like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy.
Catch him further down the line and you’ll find a professional musician making a big noise at 2009’s Memphis International Blues Showcase, where Jacobs’ first band, Dirty Deal, turned heads with their leader’s improvisational chops and gale-force vocals. Trekking north to Berklee College Of Music, he seemed the student most-likely-to, and so it proved, with Jacobs pinballing from his role as a first-call songwriter and sessioner in the US, to a musical residency in Sri Lanka and tours with the Zydeco talisman C.J. Chenier.
Flash-forward to 2016 and it took a leap of faith for Jacobs to put down roots in Berlin, but planting that flag in Europe has paid off, with a steadily growing fanbase and sell-out tours that span from Germany to Poland, Ukraine to Armenia. “One of the most memorable gigs,” he remembers, “will always be playing in the oldest bullfighting arena in the world in Béjar, Spain.”
By now, you might have guessed: Jacobs is a man in constant motion, both geographically and creatively. So it’s apt that his new release, Goldfish Blues, was tracked in one whip-cracking, blue-sky-thinking burst, in the same time period it takes most bands to open their flight cases and tune up. “We had a week,” says Jacobs of the sessions at Berlin’s Big D Studio. “In comparison to most albums, it’s a short time. But I’ll always have that image of us all being in one room together, and you’ll definitely hear that come out in the music.”
As renowned for his writing as his burnt-honey voice and stinger guitar, Jacobs brought the best songs of his career to Berlin. From the irresistibly lazy roll of Katie’s Blues to the frayed strut of Dirty Dog, via the jazzy swirl of I Wish and the no-explanation-needed Funky Woman, these tracks nod to vintage traditions but are tooled for modern listeners, with Jacobs barking universal truths that cross generations. “Love, anger, money, happiness and being naïve,” he explains. “These are some of the things you'll hear about in the album. But you'll have to listen yourself to find out the rest.”
Likewise, while Goldfish Blues keeps one foot in that titular genre, Jacobs shakes off prescriptive tags and spices his material with anything that makes his neck tingle. “I’d describe the music as a funky blues experience,” he explains. “While there are some traditional blues songs on the album, there is definitely a mix of funk and soul within the album.”
It takes a special group of players to make this music fly in the face of a ticking clock. But while Jacobs led the line with his commanding vocals and hot-knife fretwork, he’s matched by a crack studio band that comprises Stef Rosen (guitar), Brian Sauls (drums), Matthias Falkenau (organ) and Thomas ‘Tomek’ Germann (bass). Their nose-to-nose chemistry, Jacobs reflects, was verging on telepathic, and the results are often speaker-shakingly loud. “Make sure to turn it up to 11,” he advises.
Almost two decades into his career, the accomplishments in Jacobs’ rear-view mirror are quite something. But as he prepares to release the game-changing Goldfish Blues – and take these new songs on the road – it’s where the guitarist is headed next that’s most compelling. Catch him if you can…