When Lance Lopez was a kid in Shreveport, Louisiana, his dad made sure that he became well versed in the work of the founding fathers of rock and roll. One-name-only-needed giants like Chuck, Fats, Elvis and Jerry Lee (well, maybe two names). But after the family moved to Dallas in early June 1990, the 12-year-old’s tastes and budding guitar noodling started veering toward the music of the English bands of the ’70s with foundations in blues rock and – most important – the music of Jimi Hendrix.
The boy’s musical vision forever changed on June 17, 1990, while he was in the crowd at Dallas’s Starplex Amphitheatre for the Benson & Hedges Blues Festival. That’s when he saw the man who would unwittingly help steer and inspire him.
“I was probably on the tenth row center and had no clue who Stevie Ray Vaughan was!” Lopez Laughs today. “And then he started playing Jimi Hendrix. I had never heard anybody do that before! This was the dude I was looking for all along! And then B.B. came out and jammed. It was phenomenal! Joe Cocker and Dr. John also played, and Stevie died about two months later.” Lopez was soon sniffing around the Oak Cliff borough of the city, meeting Vaughan’s friends, family, and musical collaborators while soaking up the area’s blues scene.
Flash forward to 1994 and a 16-year-old Lopez is at a club jam session at the Greenville Bar & Grill playing mostly Hendrix. That's when the sound of his guitar piques the interest of a Deep Ellum resident with a very distinctive look who's dining at the restaurant next door — Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
He came over to the starstruck teen and told him, “I knew Jimi Hendrix.” It was the start of a mentorship and friendship that continues to this day, heavily rooted in the pair’s love for blues music from roughly 1949 to 1959. So it’s not surprising that Gibbons does a guest shot in the tune “Runnin’ Whiskey” on last year’s West of Flushing, South of Frisco, the debut record of Lopez’s new effort, Supersonic Blues Machine.
And while that sounds like the name of a band featured in an episode of Scooby-Doo or perhaps onstage as animatronics at ShowBiz Pizza (we’re looking to compete with you, Rock-afire Explosion!), it’s a real trio consisting of Lopez (vocals/guitar), Fabrizio Grossi (bass) and Kenny Aronoff (drums). That latter name may sound familiar since he spent years drumming for John Mellencamp, as well as shared stages and studios with the likes of Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Jack White, Bonnie Raitt and others.
“There’s an immense chemistry between the three of us,” Lopez explains. “Fabrizio is my songwriting partner and producer, we do well together onstage, and Kenny…well, that’s all you have to say, his name! He’s played with such an array of artists in so many different styles. I mean, he's played with two Beatles!”
Lopez also wants to put to rest any thoughts of this band going in the direction of another, storied blues-rock trio when it comes to concerts. “It’s not like you put us onstage and it will be like Cream with incessant soloing. We don’t want to beat the listener down,” he says. “There is an audience for that type of playing, but we’re not like that at all. It’s not me just standing in front of bass and drums trying to melt faces off.”
West of Flushing, South of Frisco features original tunes. In addition to Gibbons, blues rocks stalwarts Warren Haynes, Chris Duarte, Walter Trout, Eric Gales, and Robben Ford also appear singing and playing on a track apiece.
In fact, Ford is the band’s de facto fourth member, and will join Supersonic on an upcoming tour, their first dates ever in North America after playing to enthusiastic audiences in Europe. According to Lopez, those shows included a sizable number of females in the audience, and not just the “blues guys and gear heads” groups of this nature usually attract. He also sees some common ground between Gibbons and Ford.
“Robben to me is also an immense teacher. He is an incredible guitar and music instructor. He and I have a student-teacher relationship, and then we have fun playing. He’s a guy who can hear any song you’ve been playing and know it better than you!” Lopez says, before turning to how the tour will go down with two axe men onstage.
Sometimes it’s difficult to play with two guitar players without it becoming a challenge or a volume battle or each guy trying to top the other. But Robben is so musical, it’s not like that. What comes out are epic tones and notes. We’re not just guys trying to cut heads.”
Of the album’s 13 cuts, Lopez says he has a particular affinity for “I Ain’t Fallin’ Again.” The tune about overcoming adversity to finding a place of strength comes to them from the various battles band members were going through around its creation, ranging from substance abuse (Lopez), health issues (Grossi) and rocky relationship problems (Aronoff).
“We were all going through a lot of stuff…there was a lot of demon-fighting on all of our parts, and that song talks about going through that and coming out the light on the other side. It’s a very personal song," he says. The band is currently working on material for a second album, some of which they’ll debut on the tour alongside West of Flushing, South of Frisco songs and blues standards.
In addition to Supersonic Blues Machine, Lopez has a long history as both sideman and opening act for a litany of blues and R&B performers, including Johnny Taylor, Lucky Peterson and Johnny Winter.
He and Winter got especially close while sharing bills around Europe, thanks to their shared Texas heritage and Lopez’s family roots in cities like Orange, Port Arthur and Beaumont, which Winter also shared.
But perhaps the final word about the proliferation of Texas boys who grow up playing blues guitar comes from the hirsute Gibbons, who once gave Lopez some sage words. “He told me that the reason we become such good guitar players…is that there’s nothing else to do!” Lopez laughs. “That’s The Billy Gibbons mandate!”