If desire and discipline were dollars, Brooks Young would be rich. Inspired by his grandfather, he picked up his first guitar at age 11. Two years later, Young heard Eric Clapton’s Unplugged and proceeded to teach himself every note. “I just used to sit in my room and practice that one book,” Young said recently from his home in Franklin. “All my friends thought I was crazy.”
Soon Young, a History Channel buff, was mining Clapton’s roots, exploring B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters and other seminal blues players. “I bought all their records and books to figure out what their story was,” he says. “I think a few of them really stuck with me.”
The other day, Young arranged for Clapton to receive a copy of his first album, Counting Down. “He got it yesterday, and I’m just waiting to get that phone call to see what he says.” It’s not a lofty aspiration considering what the 28-year-old Young has done so far.
On Sept. 11, 2001, he was introduced to B.B. King at a show in Concord. “His hand basically made mine disappear when I shook his,” Young says. The two talked about the events of that tragic day. “They almost didn’t do the show, and he said, ‘We need to do this to show the people we can move on.’”
From then on, King and Young got together whenever the blues legend came to town. Last year, the Brooks Young Band opened for him in Hampton Beach, and Young received a shout-out during King’s set. “He’s up there, playing ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ and thanking me from the stage,” Young recalls, still amazed.
Playing larger rooms is part of what Young sees as a patient strategy for success.
“Hampton Casino holds 2,500 — that’s more people than a band that plays in the local bar scene will see in a whole year,” he says. “I pulled the whole band together and said, ‘This is what we’re going to focus on.’ Nothing against any club, but that’s not what’s going to make it happen. I would rather be in our studio working on stuff and rehearsing … we need to take ourselves seriously and play the higher-level shows because that’s what’s going to get you noticed.”
To that end, Young’s band headlined at the Middle Center for the Arts in his hometown of Franklin, and celebrated the album release in front of a sold-out Tupelo Music Hall crowd. He opened for Jay Geils at the Middle and the played with James Montgomery at the inaugural night of the Flying Monkey in Rochester, where the headliner invited him onstage to jam. A few days after the show, Montgomery called a friend of Young’s. “Where have you been hiding this kid?” he asked. “You’ve got to get him playing out more. He has the potential to do great things.”
With this weekend’s appearance opening for James Cotton’s Superharp band, it’s safe to say the Brooks Young Band is on a roll. Of course, career moves don’t mean much without the music to back it up. With Counting Down, Young and his band have delivered a well-rounded record that’s more than equal to his ambitions.
For all of his blues roots, the album takes more cues from hybrid blues-rockers like Robert Cray and James Hunter, as well as early Rolling Stones — indeed, it closes with a faithful cover of “Jumping Jack Flash.” What stands out most is Young’s silk-and-sandpaper singing, particularly on the up-tempo tracks “Pushing Up” and “Wake Up Molly.” Young is a fan of John Mayer (“I actually got to hang out with him a bit last October down at Berklee, and he’s a pretty nice guy … we exchanged stories about B.B. King.”), and he offers stylistic nods to Mayer’s blues/pop sweet spot on the tender ballad “By My Side.”
He waxes Claptonesque on the topical “Back on the Ground” and plays it smooth and seductive on “I Believe,” crooning, “I would walk a thousand miles just to get to you.” The record’s most straight up blues number is “Dream Away,” featuring a breathtaking guitar solo from Young. Yet even on that track, Maya Hickman’s lovely descant provides some extra sheen.
The hypnotic title cut is the record’s centerpiece for two reasons: it’s first-rate and it features a big-deal guest appearance from Johnny A. When Young went into Rocking Horse Studios to begin work on Counting Down, he sent an e-mail to the guitarist (they’d worked together before), calling him an inspiration and inviting him to play. “He replied back within five minutes. He said, I’d love to be on it, just let me know the details.’”
For Young, music is a 24/7 occupation, even when he’s not holding a guitar.
“B.B. King is close to 90 and Eric Clapton is 65, and you’ve got to take care of yourself to keep doing this,” he says. Young maintains a regular workout regimen. “I’m not obsessive about it. But if I’m up there singing and playing guitar for a couple hours a night, I have to be able to maintain a steady flow, or I’ll be on the floor panting halfway through.”
Unlike a lot of area musicians, Young doesn’t leaven his hard work with a day job. To do so, he believes, would diminish it, turn it into a hobby. “I’ve put in so much time, money and effort and I want to see it succeed,” he says. “I want to be the guy that when you’re popping through the channels, you see Brooks Young playing. That’s the level that I want it to be at — I want to get recognized and noticed on a national level. It’s been my goal and my dream since I was a kid.”