Artist: Pat McDougall Album: In The Key of Sorry Released: 2023 Website: https://patmcdougall.com/home Pat McDougall is a Portland, Oregon based blues piano man and one hell of a lyricist. He is a wordsmith on par with Tom Waits and contemporary blues drummer, producer and songwriter Tom Hambridge. His latest release, In The Key of Sorry, is a 13 song set that clocks in at a little over an hour. The record is a mix of classic blues and what I would loosely call "soul blues". His lyrics are quite clever and the songs are just plain fun, which is something I don't hear a lot of in blues music these days. The album starts with the title cut In The Key of Sorry. It is a classic blues shuffle that has everything that a fan of the genre will look for. It is kicked off by a Motown inspired drum pickup, quickly moving to a solid groove with a rolling piano, a tasty guitar solo and a great lyric. This is one that sounds like it was born on Bourbon Street and never left.
Don't Ask A Boy is another standout for multiple reasons. Again Pat's lyrical prowess shows itself. This is a guy that can tell a great story in the context of a five minute blues tune. The slide guitar playing of Alan Hager is exceptional and the band lays down a syrupy groove that oozes with patience and swag. Pat McDougall is able to move seamlessly from being the vocalist in the forefront of the mix to a supporting role within the rhythm section, allowing the spotlight to move to the well deserved guitarist.
Love Won't Let Me Down is a track that also has the scent of Bourbon Street. For an artist from Oregon, Pat McDougall sure has some deep southern roots in his music. My only criticism is this 7:15 second cut is too short. The instrumental passes are the highlight on this one. The rolling piano solo and guitar lead are executed perfectly. The backing vocals on the end of the song bring the whole band to a crescendo in a way that can only happen in a southern Baptist church. The final three tracks, Which Way The Cold Wind Blows, Well Acquainted With The Blues and I'm That Guy, move back to the straight blues. These few, coupled with the first handful of tracks should satisfy the purists and then some. This is a band that clearly understands the intricacies of the blues. They seem to have all the subtle moves in their pocket that take the performance to a mature and seasoned level that is blatantly clear when they are laying into the blues.
In The Key of Sorry is a wonderful and diverse set of blues, roots and soul music. I think it is that mix that is reminiscent of New Orleans. NOLA is one of those music towns that seems to mix all the ingredients a bit differently, twisting the music something that is all it's own. I suppose that is true of most blues music towns. Memphis, Chicago and Austin all have their own distinct sound, but something about the NOLA sound makes it feel like there are just a few more ingredients in the gumbo and this record is a shining example of it. Great songwriting, production and performances are peppered throughout the entirety of the 13 songs. The band is more than competent and delivers a fantastic set of cleverly written tunes. If you are a fan of blues with a good size pinch of soul music you will love this record.
Check out this interview with Pat McDougall
Tell us the brief history of your band or musical career. Wow, the BRIEF history. I think we’ve covered elsewhere my very early history with nun-coached piano studies, so later on I was in mainly rock bands in high school and college, really started writing songs just after college, worked in commercial music for a while (jingles, background music, theatrical scores, etc.) until the high-tech world kind of kidnapped me and pulled me away from music for several years. It was after finally leaving a floundering software startup that I rediscovered music and at the same time dove headlong into blues, soul and R&B – way more than I’d ever listened to those genres before, let alone tried to play them. It took me a while to find my style (if I’m honest I’ll probably always be working on that), but eventually I was playing with more and more different people, my name was getting known a bit more in the Portland blues community, and I was getting gigs. I made an effort to get out and hear the local keyboard masters and soak in everything they did, hoping to pick up just a shred of their mojo here and there. I’ve now been to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis with four different bands, helping one of the finish in third place overall, and I’ve helped write and create award-winning recordings. While it was never some kind of strategically crafted master plan, all of that prior work has led to me creating and releasing “In The Key Of Sorry.” Who are your musical and non-musical influences? Elton John was probably my initial influence in terms of wanting to play the piano. When I eventually gravitated toward the blues, that’s when Otis Spann, Johnnie Johnson, Dr. John and others came into heavy rotation for me. More recent heroes have been the late Mike Finnigan, Jim Pugh, Kevin McKendree, Red Young…just so many. What album has had the greatest impact on your life as a musician? This may seem like a weird pick to some, but Elton John’s live album “11/17/70” has been really influential for me. It’s just a piano power trio – Elton, Nigel Olsson on drums and the brilliant Dee Murray on bass – and it’s a live concert in a radio station studio, so Elton stretches on piano way more than on any of his studio recordings, and his singing is more free and unfettered. Hearing that record when I did, not long after quitting piano lessons, really opened up my ears to what you could do on the piano if you let yourself go a bit, AND if you teamed up with top-notch players. I also have a sentimental tie to the album because my oldest son was born on November 17, 1990 – 11/17/90. Interestingly, “11/17/70” came up during the production of my new album. My co-producer Jimi Bott and I were mixing the song “Love Won’t Let Me Down,” which has many instrumental parts and multiple vocal tracks – but where the piano solo starts, Jimi was advocating that we drop out everything but piano, bass and drums. This made me nervous because the piano felt so exposed in that approach, but Jimi said, “No, it’s cool because it’s kind of a throwback to that Elton John record, ’11/17/70.’” We’d never talked about it before, so he had no idea how big that record was for me. Needless to say, he sold me on his idea and that’s how the song is mixed at that point. Is there a particular song that has resonated with you for a long time? Tom Waits’ “Make It Rain” has long been sort of a touchstone for the style of music and songwriting that really hits me at a visceral level. It’s a blues song and yet not quite a blues song. The despair is so palpable and he doesn’t hold anything back in his singing; the emotional impact of pairing those lyrics with that arrangement is just so formidable. In another vein, John Hiatt’s “Lipstick Sunset” is a near-perfect ballad of loss and longing. Nobody writes lyrics like Hiatt, seemingly tossed-off but so carefully crafted, and when you add his mournful vocal and Ry Cooder’s plaintive lap steel that soars into the upper octave, it just kind of lays you flat. I actually asked Ben Rice to listen to this song in preparation for adding his guitar solo to my song “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” – not so much to copy Ry Cooder’s solo, but more to hear the mood and vibe he conveyed. I think he nailed it; that’s one of my favorite moments on the album. What’s your favorite accomplishment as a musician thus far? Honestly, it’s writing, playing on, co-producing and releasing my own recording. I truly never even saw it in my future until a couple years ago. At the height of the pandemic, my friend Ben Rice invited me to join a group of people who would be studying the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. (If you feel like your creativity could use a jumpstart or a refresh, I definitely recommend this book.) We met weekly on Zoom to discuss each chapter and go over the assigned tasks. It was in the process of working through this book, doing the required journaling and discussing the material with the group that it sort of dawned on me: I was writing a bunch of new songs, really enjoying the process, and wanting to bring those songs to fruition somehow, and the best and most satisfying way to do that would be to record my own album. That’s where it all started, and that’s why I say in the liner notes that it’s all Ben’s fault. What's the best piece of advice another musician ever gave you? This isn’t quite advice, but it has served me as such. When I auditioned (successfully) with the great blues drummer and singer Tony Coleman to play in his Portland-based band some years back, he told me, “You got big ears.” I hadn’t really thought of myself that way, but it’s true that I’ve always been a good listener, both conversationally and in musical situations. So Tony’s remark made it clear that was a trait to hold onto, and to employ as much as I can. To me it’s crucial for a player to listen to the song you’re playing and consider how well you’re supporting it. And then on top of that, you also have to listen to the other players and make sure you’re staying out of their way AND providing a foundation for them to play over. How has your music changed over the years? I think (hope?) I’ve become a more sophisticated songwriter than I was before. When writing in the blues idiom it’s easy to kind of phone it in and use tired phrases and melodies, but I think the better writers try for something more distinctive or innovative – adding unexpected chord changes or bridges, making lyrical choices that depart from the ordinary. That’s what I’m trying for. I hope my songs are memorable for how they differ from more standard blues fare, and how the melodies stick in people’s heads. What inspires you to write the music you write? Much of the time it’s a hook – either lyrical or musical. I’ll be walking along, or driving somewhere, or washing the dishes, and a combination of words, or maybe a longer phrase, will come bubbling up into my head. Usually I’ll keep tossing it around, try adding or substituting words, try rhyming it with something, and if it feels original or clever or just generally seems to have potential, I’ll keep it and continue messing around with it. It’s similar with musical hooks. A little riff will pop into my head, or a basic rhythm for a groove, or maybe a sequence of chords. If it seems like it could have legs, like a band could really sink their teeth into it, I’ll keep pursuing it and try to build a song around it. Musical hooks are very handy devices for creating songs that will stick in listeners’ heads, but they can also be really satisfying for musicians to play. One thing that is usually NOT a good inspiration for me to write is the sort of premeditated approach of, “I’m going to write a song about [blank],” where you hit on a subject and build a song around it. Others can do it for sure and turn out great songs, but it doesn’t work for me. What made you want to play the instrument you play? Well, it’s funny…I didn’t exactly choose the piano. I was one of those lucky kids who was told in grade school, “You’re starting piano lessons!” I was taught by nuns and I didn’t like it a lot, but I apparently did okay. I just didn’t feel very inspired, so I quit the lessons when I was in 7th grade. But then maybe a year later I heard an Elton John record, and everything changed. That was the inspiration I’d needed, and I started pounding out songs by ear. So I have Sir Elton to thank, as I imagine many keyboard players do, and one of the songs on my album includes a quick musical quote from him. How are you continuing to grow musically? Playing with people who challenge me, even intimidate me with their skills and experience. It’s so easy to just settle in and be comfortable with what you do and not push yourself to be better – for me anyway. Since I know that about myself, I resolved some time ago that I would avoid band situations that allowed me to coast. When I play with Ben Rice & The Portland Hustle, he asks me to change things I’m doing, to add parts, to modify what I’m playing to give the song a subtly different feel. It pushes me to use the tools I have at my disposal in new ways, not to mention sometimes needing entirely different tools according to what Ben’s looking for. And then in my own band, Tall Static, I’m incredibly fortunate to play with three musicians who bring so much more to the table than I do. Their playing lifts up the quality of my songs and makes our band a really compelling force. Tell me what your first music teacher was like. What lessons did you learn from them that you still use today? My first music teacher was a nun, followed by two more nuns over maybe 4 years. Contrary to the old stereotype of getting your hands rapped with a ruler, all three of these teachers were very kind, understanding and supportive. But they were also observant enough to tell that I was not completely engaged with studying piano – particularly the practicing. Ironically though, what I learned from them was the importance of fundamentals and practicing. I still use the scale fingerings they taught me when playing solos and composing, and every now and again one of the rudimentary songs I learned for them will run through my head. If you could play anywhere or with anyone in the world, where or with who would it be? I’d like to play in Europe someday; haven’t managed to make that happen yet. What are your biggest obstacles as a musician? Carving out time to practice, both the material I’m currently playing and basic fundamentals. Also, relaxing enough in performance to really allow the creative energies to flow; I tend to tense up and overthink what I’m doing, which can take me out of the moment and inhibit “play” or creative inspiration. What strengths do you have that you believe make you the musician you are? Active listening as discussed elsewhere here, an ear for arrangements and parts, and attention to detail when working out songs and rehearsing. My relative pitch is another crucial tool, but I don’t think that’s a particularly unique ability. Describe your favorite and least favorite part about being a musician. My favorite part is playing with other people who inspire me and with whom I can engage in that crucial sense of play – being creative in the moment. My least favorite part is the obvious one: tearing down and packing out after a gig. Other than being a musician, what was your dream job growing up? I think I wanted to be a veterinarian! But it feels like I found the right path. Give us some advice for new musicians just starting out in the industry. 1) Listen to the other players, like I said above. 2) Write down or record every single song idea that comes to you. 3) Never settle for where you are – you can always get better at your craft. 4) Make an effort to play music with people who are better than you. 5) When the van stops, always use the bathroom even if you don’t think you need to. What is your favorite piece of gear and why? Definitely my MAG C-1 organ, designed and built by the remarkable Massimo Ghirardi in Prague (magorgans.com). Its sound engine is a physically modeled Hammond organ that sounds stunningly like the real thing, and its physical layout is a faithful reproduction of a real Hammond console. It’s very satisfying to play. What do you like most about your new album? I have loved the process of bringing my songs to life by building them part by part in the studio, and I’m so grateful to the many guest artists who contributed their wonderful ideas and dazzling musicianship to the songs. Getting it done was a ton of work and it was not without its headaches, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, I do have a few extra songs… What is the best way to stay updated on current news; gigs, releases, etc. My website at patmcdougall.com. I’m trying hard to keep it updated and let people know when I’m performing and who it’s with, since I play with a number of different artists. Anything you would like to share, from new merch to upcoming shows/tours or songs/albums? The main thrust these days of course is the brand new album, “In The Key Of Sorry,” which is available at my website, patmcdougall.com. I’ve also got T-shirts and hoodies with the album’s distinctive cover art, and the coffee mugs with the same artwork have been very popular. Tell us a fun fact about yourself. I’m a Star Trek nerd! But the original series only – don’t come at me with any of those substandard spinoffs.