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Arts & Culture

Czech Village Blues guitarist got his start from from B.B. King

Anthony Gomes performs as part of Saturday festival lineup

Toronto native Anthony Gomes is bringing his fiery rockin’ blues guitar to power up Czech Village Blues on Saturday (8/10). Entrance to the outdoor festival is on 16th Avenue at A Street in southwest Cedar Rapids. (STEPHEN JENSEN PHOTO)
Toronto native Anthony Gomes is bringing his fiery rockin’ blues guitar to power up Czech Village Blues on Saturday (8/10). Entrance to the outdoor festival is on 16th Avenue at A Street in southwest Cedar Rapids. (STEPHEN JENSEN PHOTO)
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B.B. King took a young Anthony Gomes of Toronto under his wing and schooled the Canadian kid on a thing or two about the blues.

“He taught me many, many great lessons,” Gomes said during a July 21 in-flight interview en route from Amsterdam to Chicago. Gomes and his bandmates were returning from playing three festivals in Europe, and I was returning from a 12-day choir tour.

What are the odds that we’d be sitting next to each other on that plane — let alone that he would be coming to Cedar Rapids to heat up the Czech Village Blues main stage on Aug. 10? Luckily, my smartphone has a recording app.

But back to King’s words of wisdom.

“One, he said that the blues are like the laws of the land — they need to be amended to the times we live in,” Gomes said. “So we play a very progressive, rock-based blues, and he was very supportive of that.

Gomes found his niche. Named one of the “Top 10 guitarists in the world” by Music Tasters Choice in 2012, he won the “best musician/live performance” category at the 2017 European Blues Awards. His latest recording, the chart-topping “Peace, Love & Loud Guitars,” garnered “best new album of 2018” accolades from Blues Rock Review and SoundGuardian Magazine.

He has taken another King gem to heart, as well.

“Another thing he taught me was just about being a good band leader. He said, ‘In my experience, when you’re hiring a band, everybody has a different level of musicianship.’ And he said sometimes you want somebody in your band that’s an excellent musician. But his feeling was that the character of a person superseded or trumped their musical ability. He put his faith in people — and that’s something that I remember and has been a very valuable lesson.”

Gomes, now 49 and based in St. Louis, met King in a roundabout way.

While studying at the University of Toronto, Gomes would hit the jam nights at a little blues club.

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“If you played well they gave you a free beer. And if you played really well they gave you two free beers, and when you’re in college, that’s like a million dollars,” he said.

During a two-beer night when he was playing especially well, a gentleman came up to him and asked him who his favorite guitar player was. Out of all of his choices, from Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Jeff Beck and Albert King, he replied, “B.B. King.” The man said, “You know, I sort of thought so. I’m B.B. King’s bus driver, and I want you to meet him,” adding that “it’s good that somebody young is in the blues.”

The next day, Gomes got to meet King and eventually started opening for the blues legend, including a previous stop in Cedar Rapids.

Gomes has been in the business 20 years now, and credits King with giving him the courage to pursue music professionally, through undergraduate and graduate school, four years in Chicago, “a minute” in Nashville and a decade in St. Louis.

“I was doing well in academics, but my heart was in the blues,” he said, adding that B.B. King’s blessing was “good enough” that he could tell his parents of his plans. Luckily, arts appreciation run in his family. His mother’s grandparents were professional musicians, with the grandfather being a vocalist and the grandmother playing piano for silent movies.

His dad game him a guitar at age 14, and the instrument just spoke to him. But his friends thought it was weird that he gravitated toward the blues.

“My best friend was like, ‘Well, you’re white and from the suburbs of Toronto.’ I joke and I say being white and Canadian is sort of like being white twice.

“But people like B.B. King and my mentors taught me that the blues started in Mississippi, and it started from these horrible conditions of oppression and slavery and then Jim Crow. But out of it grew something beautiful, and the testament to the music is that it’s inclusive.

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“It was born from prejudice and it grew to be something that included everybody, and that is the power of the testament of the music.”

Across all the demographic divides, “everybody’s got the blues,” Gomes said. He even wrote his master’s thesis at the University of Toronto on the cultural and racial evolution of blues music.

“I think that in part, I love the blues so much and I just wanted to know how I fit in. ... and I wanted to know why in 1960 it was exclusively African-American in terms of musician and audience and why by the end of the decade, had it changed, and what was my role in all of it,” he said.

“I almost used to think that it was God’s practical joke — that God had a sense of humor — that he put somebody that loved the blues and was meant to play it in my body and my geographical location just because, well it must be really stressful to be God, and maybe you need a few funny things to help your day pass.

“I even wondered when I was young, even if I had the right to play the blues — was it called blues? And what I’ve come to find out, is by being Canadian, it’s made me different, but in a good way. It’s made me stand out from my peers. The Canadian world view is very multicultural. It’s very inclusive and it’s very in line with the blues way of thinking. And I think it’s prepared me to be an ambassador to the blues in a unique way that maybe only a Canadian could deliver. And because the blues is a global phenomenon, I’m so grateful that my soul’s in Mississippi and my heart’s from Canada.”

• Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you go

• WHAT: Czech Village Blues

• WHERE: Czech Village, gate entrance at 16th Avenue at A Street SW, Cedar Rapids

• WHEN: 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday (8/10)

• ADMISSION: $20 advance, $25 door, $80 VIP, ages under 12 free with paid adult; Czechvillagefriends.org/events/

• LINEUP: Youth Stage, 4:30 p.m.; main stage opens at 5 p.m. with Charlie Morgan and the Bone Crushers, featuring Tommy “T-Bone” Giblin; followed by Toronto-born rockin’ blues singer, songwriter, guitarist Anthony Gomes; then Chicago blues artist Toronzo Cannon

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• EXTRAS: Food and drinks for sale; bring seating; no outside food, drinks, pets, umbrellas allowed; shuttle service runs from paid parking lot 44 at 861 Second St. SE

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