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Greg Koch: Blues in Mind

Dec. 13, 2007
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December 13, 2007

Excuse me, was that Greg Koch?" asked a woman at an Alterra coffee shop, overhearing our conversation. It wasn't that she recognized the 6-foot-plus guitarist by sight as he ambled off to the counter for his latte. Turns out she recalled Koch's mock basso profundo voice from hearing him on WMSE.

Koch has spent lots of time on the local college station in between his world-hopping tours. He recorded his new CD, Greg Koch and Other Bad Men Live on the Radio, while broadcasting from WMSE to promote local shows. It has been released in Europe on a German label and will be out in the United States in February, courtesy of Koch International, a firm to which the guitarist enjoys no family ties.

He likes the new album for its lack of studio polish. "We listened back to the recordings and said, 'Wait a minute! This sounds good!' We just wanted to capture a performance," he says.

Koch is still remembered by many Milwaukee fans for his popular blues rock band the Tone Controls. Lately, though, he's been playing guitar in a group whose other members live in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas. Bassist Roscoe Beck once auditioned for the Rolling Stones and played with Eric Johnson and the Dixie Chicks. "He's a great blues player, but he's also a jazz aficionado and can rock the right way. He's well rounded," Koch explains.

Johnson's musical spectrum pretty much defines Koch's sound these days. Also included in the band are powerhouse vocalist Malford Milligan (described by Koch as "Sam Cooke meets Robert Plant on the highway to Joe Cocker") and one-time Chick Corea drummer Tom Brechtlein. Koch's group covers a lot of distance while staying in sight of its blues roots. The raw new album includes a couple of original instrumentals plus songs by people like T-Bone Walker, Jimi Hendrix and Al Green.

"Nowadays what often passes for blues is really harder-edged blues rock, which I'm not into that much," Koch says. "The latest record is blues and funk standards interpreted our own way at a high musical level and with a lot of humor. It's fun. You can't go away from one of our shows without having a good time."

Since 2000, Koch has made his living as a full-time musician, courtesy of the Milwaukee-based Hal Leonard music publishers, for whom he has produced a dozen instructional manuals and DVDs, and Fender, for whom he conducts guitar clinics.

"I'll show up at a music store with a band," Koch explains. "We'll put on a concert with stand-up comedy routines and an overview of the gear we're using and a technical tutorial. I get to play whatever I want—Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff, Chet Atkins, a Latin version of a Bach tune. It's very satisfying."

Koch laughs deeply when asked about his favorite guitar. "It's a Fender Telecaster! Seriously!" Although his technical prowess is formidable, Koch increasingly eschews the wang-doodle showmanship of many wannabe guitar heroes. "I've gotten real pared down with few effects," he explains. "It's a bare-bones, organic approach. I'm still trying to advance on the instrument—I'm processing information from Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and trying to make it into my own style."

Greg Koch performs Dec. 15 at Shank Hall with Malford Milligan and a Milwaukee rhythm section of drummer Del Bennet and bassist Tom Good.


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