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Courtesy of Conrad Oberg
The cover of a Conrad Oberg album.
Saturday, August 24, 2013
Rare is the player who can say he has performed with blues masters Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins, country music icon Doc Watson and funky pedal steel guitar blaster Robert Randolph — all before he was 20.
Guitarist, pianist and blues-rocker Conrad Oberg has all those names on his resume, with YouTube videos to prove it.
When Oberg brings his trio to Billy's Barn in Salem on Thursday, the vibe will be hard-hitting blues/rock. But in the videos noted above, the 19-year-old shows a mastery of multiple styles as well as a knack for learning on the fly.
Perkins, who played piano with the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters, was 92 when an 11-year-old Oberg joined him onstage before a performance in St. Augustine, Fla. Video shows Perkins teaching him the Leroy Carr song "How Long." Oberg later played during the show.
Three years later, Oberg was onstage in Jacksonville, Fla., with Sumlin, whose guitar work is essential on cuts from Howlin' Wolf, and who played with Wolf's rival, Muddy Waters, too. Young Oberg, on slide guitar, so impressed Sumlin on a version of "Give Me Back My Wig" that he could be seen shaking his head in bewilderment, then telling the audience that Oberg reminded him of his own youth.
About the same time, Oberg got to hang out with Watson at the master's home in Deep Gap, N.C. They picked and sang the standard "Sitting On Top of the World," Oberg showing deep knowledge of Watson's style, more rooted in the mountains than the Mississippi Delta.
But all of those moments were about more than simply music, Oberg said in an Aug. 14 phone conversation from his Jacksonville, Fla., home. There were lessons to learn.
Perkins told him that he had been a guitarist but switched to piano after a random stabbing left him with severed tendons, forcing him to give up guitar. From Sumlin, Oberg learned about touring with Muddy and Wolf and about his impressions of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton.
Maybe the most important lessons came from Watson, who suffered a childhood eye infection that left him blind before he was a year old. Oberg himself is blind — born about three months premature and 1.5 pounds, completely blind in the left eye and with 15 percent vision in his right eye, according to biographical information on his website.
" You would think we spent a lot of time playing music," Oberg said of his meeting with Watson. "But we spent more time talking about our experiences as visually impaired people. We only ended up playing four or five songs together, but it was cool nonetheless.
"I got to learn a little bit more about the life I was living from somebody who had experienced it for quite a long time. And it also encouraged me to start learning to do more things on my own. Like [Watson] actually built his entire shed on his own. He wired up all the electrical appliances in his house on his own, and got passed first time by the inspector.
"That sort of opened my eyes to a lot of different things. Of course, getting to play with him, that was a big treat, too. "
Such honors can't be had anymore. Sumlin, Perkins and Watson all have died over the past couple of years.
Music a natural thing
These days, Oberg is busy building a music career. He began teaching himself piano at age 2. Of course, he doesn't recall that.
"It's almost like asking what it was like for you to learn how to walk," he said. "You were too young. You don't really remember it. It's just as natural a part of my life as eating or breathing. "
He was 8 and playing classical music only when his great-grandmother gave him a cassette tape of rockabilly music. He saw a Jerry Lee Lewis concert the same year and got hooked.
"I don't know if Jerry Lee ruined me or saved me, but the next year I recorded my first album at Sun Studio, in Memphis, with Jerry Lee's band backing me, [and] they even let me use Jerry Lee's piano," he remembered.
On the last day of recording, he turned 10. His father and manager, Michael Oberg, gave him a guitar.
"I kind of took to it right away," Oberg said. "I learned a lot about blues music and some of the tunings that those guys used ... just listening to recordings, soaking it up and then doing other things with it. And it just kind of progressed from there. And I'm still learning after all this time."
Finding his own mix
In 2008, Oberg won a Cartoon Network contest for most talented teenager in the country. About 12 million people voted for Oberg, according to published reports. With the win, he wound up on the CN show "Props!," performing with Robert Randolph and the Family Band.
"It just kind of progressed from there," he said. "I've played with them about four or five times since then. Every time he comes through Florida, he usually calls on me to play with him. So that's always been a big honor."
Among many videos shot of Oberg jamming with Randolph, a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," shot in Orlando, Fla., stands out. As Randolph and another guest, Eric Krasno (Soulive, Lettuce), play along, Oberg picks with his teeth and puts the guitar behind his back for some more six-string work.
The four sit-in performances chronicled on YouTube are only a portion of Oberg's resume, which includes work with Levon Helm, The Meters, Dumpstaphunk and Marcia Ball. In May, Oberg released his latest CD, "Spoonful," mixing a couple of original songs into a mix of mostly covers, including the title cut, a Howlin' Wolf classic.
But Oberg's musical tastes and influences are diverse. In his world, Franz Liszt and Professor Longhair share equal space, with Andres Segovia and Hendrix both part of his guitar makeup.
Onstage, he is a blues-rock dynamo growing into his voice and developing an original repertoire.
"You hear a lot about people being influenced by people and then letting those influences into your own sort of thing, and that's just sort of what I've done over the past few years," Oberg said. "With the direction my music is in, it's just sort of a different dialect of the blues-rock stuff, mixed in with other things."
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