Music News & Reviews

Signature sound of the Mystery Trees

Clockwise from bottom left, Kenny Blackwell, Bill Severance, Ken Hustad and Dorian Michael. Paul Olguin, not pictured, is also in the band.
Clockwise from bottom left, Kenny Blackwell, Bill Severance, Ken Hustad and Dorian Michael. Paul Olguin, not pictured, is also in the band.

Chances are you’ve heard of the honky-tonk Bakersfield Sound, the grungy Seattle Sound and the legendary sounds of the Chicago, Memphis and Mississippi delta blues.

But what is the Morro Bay Sound— or is there even such a thing?

“There absolutely is a Morro Bay sound,” said musician Kenny Blackwell, who said his newest band, the Mystery Trees, champions the sound. “We’ve tried to come up with some words to describe it, and we thought: ‘undulation.’”

“Undulation,” as one quick Internet search describes it, is a rising and falling movement — sort of like waves. Which certainly fits a beach community.

But the Morro Bay Sound, Blackwell adds, is more than just undulation. It’s also a little bit of surfy tremolo, a little bit of bluesy slide guitar and a little something that sounds like an organ but which is actually a guitar.

“When you put it all together, it really is a different thing,” said Blackwell, whose home offers a striking view of Morro Rock. “You get something that I think is unique. So we decided to name it the Morro Bay Sound.”

The Morro Bay Sound will make its way to San Luis Obispo on Sunday, where the Southern roots-rock band will perform during the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden’s new concert series. The garden, located at El Chorro Regional Park, will host several concerts in the months ahead, with acts like Joe Craven, Marley’s Ghost, and Laurence Juber booked to perform.

The Mystery Trees are a new outfit featuring veteran musicians Blackwell and longtime collaborator Dorian Michael. In the past, the two typically played instrumental music, characterized by Blackwell’s bluegrass-influenced mandolin and Michael’s bluesand fingerpicking-style acoustic guitar. But with the Mystery Trees, they’ve added a bass player and a drummer, and they’ve plugged in, with Blackwell playing more guitar.

“We’re constantly confusing people,” said Michael, who lives three blocks away from Blackwell in Morro Bay.

The two met about 10 years ago when Blackwell — a session musician in Los Angeles — visited Blue Note Music in San Luis Obispo.

“The owner, Pete, said, ‘If you’re moving up here, here’s the guy you need to meet — Dorian Michael,’ ” Blackwell recalled. “He was sitting on a stool by the counter, and we sort of said, ‘We’ll have to get together sometime.’”

Eventually, they did. And while they both had different influences, they fused their styles.

“Kenny is five years younger than I am,” Michael said. “And you wouldn’t think that makes any difference, but it does. Just before the Beatles came out, I was listening to certain kinds of folk music. And I think right about five years later there was a little more pop influence in what was happening to acoustic music. So Kenny’s getting into a little bit more of a contemporary thing, whereas I’m a bit more buried in the pre-Beatles thing and the pre-Eric Clapton thing and the pre-Rolling Stones thing.”

Blackwell, who studied with respected mandolin player Jethro Burns, has performed with wellknown musicians like Linda Ronstadt and Neil Diamond, and his work can be heard on TV and film soundtracks. Michael, who took up guitar at age 7, is a Cal State Northridge graduate and a guitar teacher himself, who has dabbled in several musical styles including folk, blues, rock and jazz.

Their upcoming album, “Abandon and Finesse,” features a few original instrumentals, paired with covers. But the covers are interpreted in a Mystery Trees kind of way.

“I might sing old blues tunes,” Michael said, “But they will not sound like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and they will not sound like Howlin’ Wolf, and they will not sound like Muddy Waters.

“That’s where those songs came from, but I wasn’t born in 1927. I didn’t live in Chicago. And I played all kinds of other music that existed after those guys were alive. All those things are going to influence the way I then play that old music. But if I play it old, that’s just copying something that’s already been done.”

On the album, the Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee song “I’m a Burnt Child” — written as a slow-paced, harmonic-tinged acoustic guitar piece — takes on more of a gravelly, gospelrock sound. Meanwhile, the traditional Appalachian song “Cuckoo” becomes more of an outlaw country song.

“We don’t really want to be a museum piece,” Blackwell explains. “But we really want to honor those traditions we grew up with — the ones that are pure American music that we’ve dabbled with.”

The band includes L.A. drummer Bill Severance, who used to play in the Captain & Tennille, and they have worked with two bass players, Paul Olguin and Ken Hustad.

For Michael, who often plays small venues around the country as a solo acoustic act, playing electric guitar with a band is an entirely different experience.

“There’s an intensity that happens when you get electrified and when you have that bass and drums thumping behind you,” he said.

While Michael might normally be thinking about mapping out his next solo tour right now, he’s excited enough about Mystery Trees to forgo his upcoming road trip so he can spend more time rehearsing in Morro Bay.

“I was planning on going to Florida in February, but I’m not,” he said. “I ditched that so we can have more time here and keep momentum.”