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With new album, Hans Chew rises above sideman status with a barn-burner

Longtime Jack Rose and D, Charles Speer collaborator breaks out with solo debut

Hans Chew

Hans Chew will play the M Room in Fishtown at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 18.

Given Hans Chew’s seemingly primal instinct for hammering out electrifying boogie riffs on his keyboard, you’d think he’s among that breed of pianist prodigies who, as toddlers, flawlessly performed intricate compositions just for the hell of it.

Over the last few years, Chew has made a name for himself as a standout sideman, playing keys for the late Jack Rose and Americana psych rockers D. Charles Speer and the Helix. Late last year, he broke out of that role with the release of Tennessee and Other Stories, a 10-song album featuring his original works.

Americana rock, the stuff made of late-night road trips and barroom blasphemy.  

Surely enough, Chew’s upbringing in Chattanooga, Tenn., did see him take piano lessons at the age of 6, something he endured at the behest of his mother. But more inspired by a drum kit his father gave him, Chew took a break from the keys that would last some 20 years. During that downtime, drugs and other debauchery took him away from music pretty much altogether, even as he continued to play the drums.

But that changed about seven years ago. Chew decided he wanted to reconnect with the piano and his passion for music.

“In 2004, I kind of came out of a long period of not knowing what I was doing with my life, just wasting my time being a bad seed,” said Chew. “I wanted to focus on my life-long dream of being a musician, and I stopped drinking and doing drugs.”

It was right about that time that Chew began a two-year sabbatical at the Clermont Motor Hotel, a seedy Atlanta landmark where the rooms are rented by the day and the basement comes with an infamous strip club known as the Clermont Lounge.

“Pretty much everything I owned I could fit in my car, and in 2004 I moved into the Clermont Hotel,” said Chew.

He did nothing but play piano for two years straight, reconnecting with the instrument and honing his songwriting chops. 

“When I wasn’t working, I was picking up New Orleans sheet music and Professor Long Hair records and James Booker records,” said Chew.

Living in the hotel, relearning the piano and banging out new songs on his typewriter, Chew drew deep inspiration from the work and life of Booker, a colorful New Orleans keyboard player who Chew said doesn’t get nearly enough recognition.

He first got turned on to Booker while reading Under the Hoodoo Moon, the autobiography of Dr. John.

“He was an underdog: black, gay, drug addict, schizophrenic. He had a lot working against him, but at the same time he was this archetype of American music,” Chew said of Booker. “The way he plays and speaks and feels things … you didn’t know if he was going to vomit into the piano or play a beautiful set.”

Besides being inspired by greats like Booker and Dr. John, Chew saw a need for serious piano players in today’s musical world.

“If I choose piano, I would have an angle on other people because there aren’t a whole lot of rock ‘n’ roll piano players,” Chew reasoned.

That line of thinking seems to have panned out so far. In addition to his work with Rose and D. Charles Speer, Chew recently played on Chris Forsyth's Paranoid Cat LP.

The aforementioned Tennessee and Other Stories also is garnering plenty of praise, especially in Europe.

The UK-based magazine Uncut named Tennessee one of the Top 50 albums of the year, and put it at number three on the Top 20 American Albums of 2010 list. That recognition has already led to a prime spot alongside the Drive By Truckers, Beth Orton and Doug Paisley at the upcoming Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots festival in Ireland.

Now equipped with a live band - Chew and producer Jason Meagher played the bulk of instruments on Tennessee- the New York-based musician is embarking on a tour to promote the release. It starts with an early (7 p.m.) show in Fishtown on Friday.

Lovers of good old honky-tonk piano, backwater jams and American road songs will be instantly drawn in by Tennessee and Other Stories, an album that Chew says is largely about his youth in Chattanooga and putting that period behind him.

The lead off song, “Old Monteagle and Muscadine,” is all about Chew’s twang-rich, warm and gravelly vocals, a heartening voice supported by the smooth piano, Meagher’s banjo and the acoustic mandolin of David Shuford, a.k.a. D. Charles Speer.

His “I Would There Was a Train” is a slow, beautiful song that charts the arc of Chew’s life between his Southern roots and his current New York digs, a story full of longing and nostalgia.

His “New Cypress Groove Boogie” is one of the more raucous, old-time jams, with Chew letting loose on the piano and belting out soaring blues lines that can take you back a few decades in a flash.

The only cover - “Long Time Man” - comes from a song credited to Tim Rose and Nick Cave. Looking at the overall vibe of the album, a solid murder ballad was certainly in order, and Chew nails it on this one, drawing out the down-and-out incarcerated blues of a man who killed his wife.

“Queen of the Damned Blues” is another standout jam, as is the horn-graced closer “Only Son.”

While Chew long ago established himself as a virile honky-tonk sideman, this solo debut puts him in a league of his own, a promising firebrand bent on keeping alive the weird, dark piano rock of New Orleans and beyond.

Who: Hans Chew, Megajam Booze Band, Boogie Witch

What: A full set of original works from a faithful sideman

Where: The M Room, Leopard Street and Girard Avenue