Jane Lee Hooker: Knee Deep in the Blues and Loving It

With a bold new album, the band is back on the road again in a van named Dwight, doing what they do best

Dana Athens of Jane Lee Hooker (Image: Facebook)

The women in Jane Lee Hooker started playing the blues because they loved the music.

They had no thoughts of fame and fortune. Shortly after their first gigs, the quartet – lead vocalist and keyboard player Dana Athens; lead and rhythm guitarist Tracy Hightop; lead and rhythm guitarist Tina T-Bone Gorin; bass player Hail Mary Zadroga – drew a devoted following. When drummer Lightnin’ Ron Salvo joined up, their sound went into overdrive. They moved from No B, an album of covers, to Spiritus, an album of originals, save for creative reinventions of Big Momma Thornton’s “Black Rat” and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light.” 

Their latest effort, Rollin’, came together during the COVID-19 shutdown and, while it was cut at a number of different studios and partially put together remotely, it retains their kick ass live sound. It opens with “Lucky,” a pure blues, with a touch of metal in the guitar attack and an impressive vocal from Athens. “All Good Things” is a rocker, with a hint of the Deep South in the guitar interplay and a generous lyric that wishes a lover well after the end of a relationship. “Runaway Train” is a highspeed rocker, with wailing guitars and a galloping rhythm, while “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” reinvents the Cannonball Adderley hit as a gospel lullaby. 

With the pandemic winding down, the band is back on the road again, doing what they do best. Guitarist Tracy Hightop and bass player Mary Zadroga answered a few questions for The Globe, while commuting between gigs in their tour van.

 

The name of your band is pretty nervy. Have you any gotten any feedback from John Lee’s people? 

Tracy: When we chose the name, we didn’t have any aspirations other than playing a monthly NYC dive bar, covering blues classics for fun. We quickly gathered a following and, by the time we released No B, our demo of blues covers, we were already signed. It happened so fast. We haven’t heard from John Lee Hooker’s family and hope to hell it doesn’t upset them. I will say, we thought it would be very obvious where the name came from but, at almost at every show, there is a person who will ask us, ‘Which one of you is Jane?’ When this first started happening, I was shocked. Who in the world does not know who John Lee Hooker is? When we get this question, we use it as an opportunity to say, ‘It’s a tribute to the legendary John Lee Hooker. If you want to hear the purest, most inspirational music in the world, go get yourself some John Lee Hooker.’  When I was a kid, I fell in love with the Rolling Stones. I read everything I could about them. It was though their interviews that I learned about Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and John Lee. They taught me it all begins with the blues. 

 

Why did you choose Rollin’ as the album title?

Tracy: Just like everyone else during the pandemic, every day seemed like another pile of shit. We decided we had to roll through all the shit to get to the other side, thus Rollin’. Keep moving.

Mary: We were in our van, Dwight, on our way back from a festival this summer when we fell upon the name. 

Jane Lee Hooker Rollin’, Jane Lee Hooker 2022

How do these songs differ from the ones you wrote for Spiritus, your first album?

Tracy: We were locked out of our studio, due to the pandemic. They were written in Dana’s backyard, on acoustic instruments and our new drummer, Ron, tapping on garbage bins. It’s a more thoughtful album. We made up for the lost volume with more diverse musical parts, all the while being masked outside. What a nuts time we’ve all been through.

 

“Lucky” and “Jericho” were written before COVID, but they have lyrics that could refer to the pandemic. What do you think?  

Mary: We are witchy that way!!

Tracy: We’d been trying out ‘Lucky’ and ‘Jericho’ on the road, just before lockdown.  They weren’t fully formed yet. Once Ron joined the band, they were completed. They were not referring to the pandemic at all. ‘Jericho’ says, ‘Enough of this bullshit,’ and ‘Lucky’ says, ‘I have to feel hopeful that this bullshit is over!’ Those emotions are apparently timeless. Dana has a background in church music and a vast knowledge of religions. I don’t know those biblical stories. I thought she was writing about the Jericho Turnpike on Long Island.

 

How do the songs get written? 

Mary: Dana comes in with a full tune a lot of the time, then we write our own parts together. Sometimes we jam, starting from nothing, and come up with a hook. Dana writes lyrics on the fly, which is genius. ‘Lucky’ was written that way. Tracy came in with ‘All Good Things.’ It had some lyrics and we filled in the rest.

Tracy: For me, anything I do starts with a guitar riff. Dana gets inspired by everything. She can get lyrics and melody from one note played, while we’re messing around. She’ll stop us and say , ‘What’s that?’ Then we’ll see a paper and pen come out and she starts singing a perfect melody. It’s intense and miraculous watching that kind of talent.

 

How do arrangements get worked out?

Tracy: Dana writes all of the lyrics, period.  She also has finished tunes that she brings in. We play them until they are cooked and ours. We spend a lot of time on arranging and hashing out the right place for everything. We’ll try different things, then hit a final arrangement and everyone knows that’s the way it should go.  

 

What makes you unique? 

Tracy: I think it’s the fact that we are female powered and doing this kind of music.  Our double guitar sound is based on years of loving Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Winter and the Stones. I don’t know of any other female guitarists doing that in a band, now or ever.  If there are any out there, I want to tour with them.

Jane Lee Hooker (Image: Jane Lee Hooker)

Why is the album on your own label? 

Tracy: The pandemic hit live music hard. Our previous label, Ruf, didn’t want to pay for recording. They were thinking, ‘What’s going to happen with the economy? How can we make the money back if there’s no touring to support it?’ At the same time, we didn’t want to remain inert. Ruf gave us a release to record it on our own dime and own it, outright. Our manager, Gregg Bell of Wanted Management, arranged that. It was the perfect solution. We get to put out new material and recoup our own expenses. If we do put out another record on Ruf, this record will increase our fanbase and make that record more profitable. We didn’t see any other option. We didn’t want to wait around.

 

You all have a lot of experience in other bands, what brought you together? 

Mary: Tracy, T-Bone, Ron and I go way back to the punk rock days in the East Village in the 90s. We were in bands together. Dana we met more recently. She’s just a miracle.

 

When you play live, how loud are you? 

Mary: Very loud and we interact with each other quite a bit in the songs, which is a plus when seeing us live.

Tracy: We were always a loud band – even more so now, with Ron on drums. The volume on these songs has been about the same, but we are more mindful of being too loud. After hearing the new songs acoustically, and hearing Dana’s vocals so clearly, we are more cautious. We want to make sure her vocals are heard and savored.

 

 

 You May Also Like

j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *