For the Record With Kurt Houff

Jim Miller

, Entertainment

“For the Record” is a periodic feature in which musicians discuss what they’ve been listening to lately.

If you talk to Montana Wildaxe lead guitarist and co-founder Kurt Houff about music, it’s surprising how much of the conversation focuses not only on sound, but also on sight and feel.

“Your influences are not always directly related to music,” Houff says. “Visual, auditory, anything that you process can be an influence to your music. It comes out in what you do.

“I have people come up to me and ask, ‘What do you see when you are building a solo?’ And honestly, I think of it more as a painting than an auditory thing. It’s more of a visual thing.”

It’s an interesting observation from a musician who has been long celebrated locally for his ambitious guitar solos—rollicking, circuitous sonic monologues that somehow counter a laid-back, almost instinctual style of play.

However, if Houff makes it all look easy, it’s an illusion of sorts. There is work to it, after all.

“I’ve done a fair share of studying [but I] apply it to the point where, when I go to perform, it’s not obvious that I tried to study something,” the guitarist says. “I assimilate it with what I do from a day-to-day perspective so that it really becomes another tool or another set of colors to put on [my] palette.”

With more than three decades with Montana Wildaxe, Houff has had time to collect a wide array of musical tools and colors. Along with the other members of Delaware’s most legendary jam band, Houff will be displaying that onstage artistry the night of Saturday, Dec. 23, at The Queen in the annual holiday show that has become a local tradition, attracting both longtime fans and inquisitive newbies looking to discover what the fuss is all about.

Houff himself remains somewhat curious about the popularity of the yearly event.

“I can’t put my finger on exactly why people continue to come out,” he says. “I’m assuming the music’s good because I enjoy it. But I think it also has to do with the camaraderie amongst the people who have come to see us [all these years]. They come out to see their friends who they haven’t seen in a while, and we’re a part of those friends. We’re kind of the catalyst for getting together.”

In addition to their revered renditions of songs by the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Little Feat and other classic jam bands, Montana Wildaxe’s connection with its audience certainly has helped fuel its success. Houff recalls a time, not so long ago, when the band played back-to-back weekend nights every month at Kelly’s Logan House.

“We’d get a lot of crap for it, but we’d do the first set then we’d take that seemingly endless half-hour break and hang out with everybody,” Houff recalls, chuckling. “Throw back a couple of beers or whatever and then head up on stage. They’re working their tails off having a good time in the crowd, and we’re up there sweating everything out for them.”

If you plan to get wild and festive with the Wildaxe crew this month—whether for the first or for the umpteenth time— you may be interested in the influences that have colored the sensibilities of one of the local music scene’s most colorful musicians. Here’s Kurt Houff on those influences:

Artist Unknown – Autumn Leaves

My first exposure to recorded music in album form—I don’t even know what the album was called—but I believe it was a collection of jazz standards with the first cut on the record being an instrumental version of “Autumn Leaves.”

My mom used to tell me that, as a 3-year-old child, I would pull that album off the stack because I recognized the picture on the cover, a beautiful autumn landscape, and then I would put it on. I would play the first cut, walk over, jerk the stylus off the record player and start it again. I would play it for hours, the same song, over and over again.

I’m pretty sure it was a piano trio. And to this day, piano trios are my favorite jazz vehicles.

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

When I was 8 or so, my sister and her friends were just absolute Beatles freaks, for lack of a better term, and so Sgt. Pepper’s would probably be the next record. Paul McCartney basically indicated that this album was the Beatles’ response to the Beach Boys and [what they were doing in the studio at that time]. Hearing that later made perfect sense to me. But back to wh

en I was first listening to it, that wasn’t even a thought in my head. I was just floored by sounds of that record: the

guitar tones, some of the tape loop stuff, and McCartney’s bass lines throughout the entire album.

Part of [what was going on at that time] was that artists were exposed to new and different things and were asking, “How do I get at this sound that I hear in my head?” In today’s music, that childlike sense of discovery doesn’t seem to exist much anymore. Everybody’s jaded. Nobody’s going “How do I do this differently?”

Jeff Beck – Wired

The next step in my thought process was probably Jeff Beck. The hit song off that record was “Blue Wind,” and it [featured] the guitar carrying these quite different melodies that I was not used to hearing a guitar carry. That’s what struck me about it.

I had listened to some Yardbirds stuff and Jeff Beck Group’s “Shapes of Things.” Then I listened to Yardbirds without Jeff Beck, but those guitarists didn’t speak to me as much as the Jeff Beck stuff. So as soon as Wired came out, I was like, “I gotta listen to this!”

I didn’t know how he was getting those sounds back then. It was not like I’d seen tapes of him, or video footage, or any of the stuff you can Google now. So I just listened to it and said, “That’s cool. How does he get the guitar to do that?”

Rory Gallagher – Tattoo

I was watching TV and saw Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and they had a Rory Gallagher bit. There he is in this really worn flannel shirt playing this beat-up Stratocaster with a tone that was pretty much guitar-to-amp. Some of the stuff that he did with guitar just absolutely blew my mind. It was probably the first time I saw somebody doing that with guitar.

This would have been ’74 or ’75 and I would have been 11 or 12. I think I’d just recently bought my first copy of Guitar Player magazine. [I was] just really starting to wrap my head around it all.

So I went to the record store at the Concord Mall—Village Records or something like that—and went in there and saw the record. The album cover is a picture of Rory done up like a tattoo. Same flannel shirt he was wearing on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.

His playing was pre-Stevie Ray Vaughan “Stevie Ray-ism.” Somebody who kind of channeled stuff. And once he got into an extended jam, he was somewhere else.

The Kinks – Arthur

I think it was the political commentary. I didn’t quite grasp it as I would today: songs like “Mr. Churchill Says” and songs about the prudishness of the Victorian era.

It’s rock ’n’ roll. I mean rock ’n’ roll really is a rebellious voice back to its origin. It’s a distaste for authority, just beating the man down.

Dave Davies played a significant amount of Stratocaster on that record and the tone of those guitars always speaks to me.

Houff and the rest of Montana Wildaxe perform their annual holiday show on Saturday, Dec. 23, at The Queen. For tickets and more information go to TheQueenWilmington.com.

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