Jeff Powers needS only his six-string to tell you stories. "Every guitar has a couple of songs in it," he says, sipping a Stella at Tremont's Prosperity Social Club. "Pick up even a crappy guitar, and it'll still have a couple of stories to tell. All of a sudden, a chord you play all the time will sound awesome, and that one chord — it can spawn something."
Powers' journey is full of crossroads and chord progressions. Today, he's the singer-songwriter for Cleveland trio Dead Guy Blues, which is set to release its second album, Cold Wind in Cleveland. Powers notes that for the 10-song record, he picked up only one guitar — his red Fender Stratocaster — and the strings told the story of a Cleveland-kid-turned-classical-guitarist-turned-Mexican-bandito-turned-Cuyahoga-Delta-bluesman.
He explains the CD's blistering basement-blues sound, proud of its gritty electric guitar, heavy-handed lyrics and raw production:
"I really dialed in my distortion, and when [engineer and local guitarist] JBlues mastered it, he put it at the hottest level with as much compression as you can put for blues, which makes it sound in-your-face," he says.
The sound recalls Stevie Ray Vaughan's Tex-Mex style, hell-fire blues drunk on mescal, loud enough to raise Johnny Winter from the grave (if he were actually dead). Cold Wind in Cleveland chronicles Powers' travels as a virtuoso guitarist from the Cleveland Institute of Music to Mexico City. Since he was nine, Powers has been sharpening the edge of his axe. But he didn't take it too seriously until he heard Jimi Hendrix and found a teacher who could give him basic blues lessons. Eventually, he was accepted at C.I.M. and earned his bachelors and masters in classical guitar.
"The day after I did my final recital, I moved to Mexico," he says. "But I got really sick of playing classical. You just sit alone for hours and hours, and then you'll play your recital alone with three people in the audience. You feel like you're having a nervous breakdown every time you perform."
So Powers quit classical and played in blues groups in Mexico City for seven years. Barely eking out a living, he wrote more than 200 songs, melding his love for blues guitar with classical technique.
"I taught myself to groove, but it took me a long time to unravel that," he says. "I was technically advanced, but when I started playing the blues, I would kind of lose the groove because of the junk I practiced. I had to break out."
Fast-forward to 2000. Powers had found his way back to Cleveland. He quickly formed Dead Guys Blues with bassist Chris Boross and drummer Steve Zavesky. In 2005, the trio released its self-titled debut, a solid, 13-song, blues-pop album engineered by Paul Hamann at Painesville's Suma Recording (where the Black Keys recorded Attack & Release). "The first record was too polished and too safe," says Powers. "Cold Wind in Cleveland has that rock sound I wanted."
From the blues-swing shuffle of "Pocket Full of Money" to the Latino instrumental "Aztec Trot (Jose's Boogie)" — something you might encounter after drinking Mexican water — Cold Wind in Cleveland is a spicy blend of blues stew, spiked with Powers' edgy guitar style.
"Rock folks will say it's blues, but a stone-cold blues guy wouldn't agree," he says. "But I'm not a blues guy from Mississippi. I didn't work in the fields, and my baby didn't leave me. Well, that's happened, but these songs are not in that tradition — they're overly heavy-handed on purpose. It's not a blues record all the way, but I've never cared about those blues Nazis anyways."