It’s strange to watch Binky Griptite sit still, and stranger still for him to be still.
Griptite is a kinetic, time-keeping force, and easily recognizable to fans of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings as the guitarist in the band’s front line whose step is as sure as the click of a metronome. While Griptite isn’t on the percussion side of things for the Dap-Kings, he, along with the full ensemble of brass-blowing, bass-thumping, string-snapping soul purveyors onstage with Jones at any given moment, is very much a constant in motion, shifting side to side with the beat rolling in behind him, just as James Brown’s guys did back in the day. Griptite can play his guitar
behind his back — the swiftness with which he can hoist the sleek, ebony body of the Gibson up and over his shoulders is practically feline — and he can riff while nearly tap-dancing in a buttoned-up suit, in double-time, without breaking a sweat. After a year of exhaustive touring behind Give the People What They Want and with another trek on the horizon, it’s a rare moment to catch him without the company of the Dap-Kings and at home in Bed-Stuy on the couch, the Gibson nearby in its case as he fixates on a weathered acoustic he picked up on the street in New Orleans while on tour.
“From the headstock I would call it a Gibson copy — it’s probably Japanese,” he speculates. Griptite has no idea where the guitar had been before that corner in the French Quarter. “It had a metallic sticker on it that said ‘Premier,’ I think, but it was already crooked, so I just ripped it off because it was getting on my nerves. I’m really happy I found this guitar, because I wasn’t looking for one. Some guy has a little corner someplace over by Café du Monde. I just bought it and it’s set up perfectly for slides. You can’t really play it with your fingers at all, and the action is sky-high.”
He doesn’t employ the slide while playing with the Dap-Kings — it’s a bit out of place in their soulful setlist — but Griptite is getting better at working that tiny glass cylinder (and the metallic warbling it produces when pressed to steel strings) into his repertoire. On April 2, Griptite will present his first solo material, comprising blues ruminations and tributes to the artists who shaped his musical upbringing — like Muddy Waters — at the Greenwich House as a part of its Uncharted performance series. He settled on “Traveling Riverside Blues” as the title for the program, paying tribute to the Mississippi and the ribbon it weaves between blues havens and cities — New Orleans, Memphis, all the way up to Minneapolis — that serve as touchstones for American popular music at large.
“My concept for the show kind of changed midstream,” he says. “At first, I started coming at it from an academic perspective, and I realized that that’s what I don’t love about the blues. I didn’t want it to be a show that had to be explained, or one people had to think about. I definitely don’t want them just sitting down and listening. If people are sitting down, then that’s a problem. It’s supposed to be dancing music. I just got in touch with the venue to see if we could not have chairs. I’d rather bill it as a blues dance.”
A mix of his own songs and tunes plucked from the catalogs of the greats, Griptite’s first billed solo foray is, he notes, a bit of a gamble. “All [of the new songs] will be performed for the first time,” he says. “It’ll be totally hit or miss. I like to take risks like that, because I don’t get to take risks like that with the Dap-Kings. With the Dap-Kings, our whole approach is pretty meticulous, and the blues is the opposite of that. That’s why it’s really fun to do this.”
Griptite’s return to the blues has been a long time coming, and he’s relishing in the ability to favor that acoustic and practicing with the slide in stride with the buoyancy of the Dap-Kings’ offerings. Though he’s barely got a minute to spare while touring, Griptite did get the chance to work his blues-inclined muscles when folk siren Valerie June joined the Dap-Kings as the opening act on the first leg of their many 2014 tours.
“She’s got a good thing going, and she wasn’t able to bring a guitar player,” he says. “Since I was there, I just offered to play her set. I played along with her most nights on that tour for about six weeks. That was cool to be able to help me get back into the blues. That was the first time I got to play slide in front of people.”
Now Griptite is a bit more comfortable, and modest nearly to the point of absurdity — “I try to make up for my lack of virtuosity with just being able to stay in time with the drummer and try to keep some music flowing!” — and it’s time to bring the slide and his singing voice out into the spotlight.
“I started getting interested in the blues again, missing it, and just feeling it now, I can play it with more maturity,” he says. “I’m a much better rhythm guitar player now than I was….For me, personally, it’s just a good time to get back into it. It is
really encouraging that there are more people that are also wanting to re-evaluate and shake off some of the wankers of the Nineties, the people that are just in it for the solos, who turn it up loud and blast it to death, and just play with no subtlety. Some of them don’t even have songs. I want to present it as music that’s meant to be danced to, not just have other guitar players standing around with their hands in their pockets, admiring licks. That’s bullshit. I want to get back to that.”
And even if the Greenwich House does bring out the chairs on Thursday night, Griptite’s verve, skill, and steppin’ is sure to keep them on their toes.
Binky Griptite and friends perform “Traveling Riverside Blues” at the Greenwich House April 2. For more information on tickets, click here.