Danny Kalb, Guitarist Who Gave Blues-Rock an Edge, Dies at 80
Danny Kalb, a guitarist whose 1960s band the Blues Project brought New York City drive and experimentation to blues-rock, died on Saturday at a nursing home in Brooklyn, where he lived. He was 80.
His death was confirmed by his brother, Jonathan, his only immediate survivor. Mr. Kalb was diagnosed with cancer about three years ago, and he stopped eating about a week ago, Jonathan said.
The Blues Project was anything but purist. Along with blues standards, it jammed its way through Chuck Berry songs, folk-club favorites and material by band members that touched on pop, folk-rock, soul and jazz.
“We’re not reviving the blues,” Mr. Kalb said in 1966. “We’re looking to interpret what’s happening today.”
In the early days of underground FM radio and psychedelia, the Blues Project didn’t have pop hits, but it worked its way from New York City clubs to nationwide touring. Mr. Kalb sang lead vocals on the blues songs, and his wiry, keening lead guitar lines infused the band’s arrangements with a hectic intensity. The Blues Project’s eclecticism and energy made it a jam band before the scene emerged.
Lenny Kaye, the record producer, included the Blues Project single “No Time Like the Right Time” on “Nuggets,” his influential 1972 collection of 1960s garage-rock. “Danny Kalb was one of my first guitar heroes, his fleet fingers bridging acoustic folk as it metamorphosed into electricity,” Mr. Kaye wrote in an email. “The stinging clarity of his tone and the flurry of notes that poured from him changed the way I heard music.”
The original Blues Project splintered in 1967, though Mr. Kalb joined sporadic regroupings as late as 2012. But most of his music after the 1960s was made in solo projects, collaborations and club gigs.
Daniel Ira Kalb was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 9, 1942, and grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. His father, Fred, was a lawyer; his mother, Gertrude, was a homemaker. He started playing guitar at 13 and attended the University of Wisconsin, where he performed at coffeehouses. He was a student there when he met Bob Dylan, an itinerant folk singer traveling through.
“Dylan crashed with me for a few weeks in Madison on his way from Hibbing, Minnesota, to New York,” Mr. Kalb told AM New York in 2013. “We had so much fun, I dropped out and followed him.”
Mr. Kalb immersed himself in the Greenwich Village folk scene. After hearing Dave Van Ronk on the radio, he sought him out in Washington Square as a teacher and mentor. In 1961, Mr. Kalb performed with Mr. Dylan at a Riverside Church folk concert. His first recordings were folk-revival projects.
Mr. Kalb played in the studio with Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Jimmy Witherspoon and others in the 1960s, and accompanied Phil Ochs throughout his 1964 debut album, “All the News That’s Fit to Sing.” He was one of eight Greenwich Village regulars — among the others were Mr. Van Ronk, Geoff Muldaur and Eric Von Schmidt — collected on a 1964 Elektra Records anthology, “The Blues Project: A Compendium of the Very Best on the Urban Blues Scene.”
A mesmerizing performance by John Lee Hooker at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival convinced Mr. Kalb that he should concentrate on electric guitar and immerse himself in the blues. “I knew that in my reaction to this great musician, suddenly the blues had tapped me on the shoulder,” he recalled in a 2009 interview.
He formed the Danny Kalb Quartet, with Artie Traum on rhythm guitar, Andy Kulberg on bass and Roy Blumenfeld on drums. That group became the Blues Project after Steve Katz replaced Traum and Tommy Flanders was added as lead singer. The keyboardist Al Kooper joined the band after playing a demo session with them.
The Blues Project played extended residencies at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village from late 1965 into 1967.
In March 1966 the Blues Project released its debut album, “Live at the Cafe Au Go Go,” recorded in 1965. Mr. Flanders left the band before the album’s release; other members took over lead vocals.
The original Blues Project released its only studio album, “Projections,” in 1966, with Mr. Kalb as the frontman for extended roller-coaster versions of blues songs by Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. The album also included the jazzy Al Kooper instrumental “Flute Thing,” which featured Mr. Kulberg on flute, and which was later sampled by the Beastie Boys, J Dilla and De La Soul.
The Blues Project toured North America through 1966 and into 1967. In April 1966, the group headlined the opening night of the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. In 1967 it had a grueling nine-day engagement at the RKO 58th Street Theater in a package show assembled by the disc jockey Murray the K, playing a three-song set for multiple shows each day, on a bill that included the first United States appearances by Cream and the Who.
Tensions were growing within the band, and it fractured a few weeks after appearing at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. Mr. Kooper and Mr. Katz started Blood, Sweat and Tears, while Mr. Kulberg and Mr. Blumenfeld made an album, “Planned Obsolescence,” as the Blues Project before renaming their band Seatrain.
Mr. Kalb was struggling. Although the Blues Project’s music was often described as psychedelic, he did not try LSD until 1967. A dose he got directly from the chemist Owsley Stanley gave him a trip, he recalled in 2018, that was “disastrous.” It led to a mental breakdown and hospitalization. He re-emerged on the low-key 1969 album “Crosscurrents,” coleading a studio band with the guitarist Stefan Grossman, who wrote and sang most of the songs.
He reclaimed the Blues Project name in 1969, working with new musicians; Mr. Blumenfeld rejoined him in 1971 for the album “Lazarus,” and Mr. Flanders returned for a 1972 album, called simply “The Blues Project.”
In 1973, the “Projections” lineup toured and recorded a concert that was released as a live album, “Reunion in Central Park.” The band had other short-lived reunions in the 1980s and ’90s. In 2012 Mr. Kalb, Mr. Katz and Mr. Blumenfeld toured as the Blues Project, with additional musicians. Mr. Kulberg had died in 2002; taking over on bass was Mr. Kalb’s brother.
Through the years, Mr. Kalb taught guitar and kept performing at clubs, largely in Brooklyn and around the Northeast. He appeared solo and led trios on acoustic and electric guitar; he collaborated with Mr. Grossman and Mr. Katz on tour and on a 2007 album, “Played a Little Fiddle.” In the 2000s he recorded for Sojourn Records, with a repertoire that dipped into blues, country, ragtime, jazz standards, gospel and even a Christmas carol.
Mr. Kalb was a lifelong devotee of the blues. Back in 1966, the Blues Project shared a bill at the Cafe Au Go Go with Muddy Waters and played their extended version of his song “Two Trains Running.” Mr. Kalb caught up with Waters before he left the club, he recalled 50 years later on the website Ultimate Classic Rock. “He said to me, ‘You really got to me.’ If I had died then, it would have been enough.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.