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Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009

Leroy Airmaster Returns

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As if the creativity and innovation of ’60s rock wasn’t exciting enough back in the day, some fans of The Rolling Stones and Cream began to suspect a hidden world behind that music, a deep substratum of influences called the blues. High-school students in the late ’60s, Steve Cohen (harmonica), Bill Stone (guitar) and Dave Kasik (bass) caught on soon enough and began hunting for blues LPs and seeing performances by authentic blues players at the Avant Garde Coffeehouse on Milwaukee’s East Side. They formed a band, which by the mid-’70s had evolved into Leroy Airmaster, one of the best blues acts in town for musical prowess and finding the deeper emotional connection to the blues that evaded many who wanted to play the music.

With Vodie Rhinehart taking the drummer’s seat, Leroy Airmaster worked several nights a week through the ’80s, building on a weekly Sunday jam at the Up and Under Pub. “We had a cross-section of people there,” Cohen recalls. “Hippies, black people in their church clothes, middle-income white folks, all the rugby guys that hung around the Up and Under—a diverse crowd.”

And then, in 1990, Leroy Airmaster called it quits. Stone studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and Cohen spent two disheartening years in Nevada with a Blues Brothers tribute act before returning home to a musical environment undergoing rapid climate change. The higher legal drinking age, stricter drunken-driving laws and the tectonic shift toward new forms of home entertainment were making it more difficult for hard-working bands to earn a living. Cohen responded by playing in the more economical duo format with some of the city’s best bluesmen, including Peter Roller, Greg Koch, Stokes, Sam McCue and the harmonica player who had influenced him most in the ’60s, Jim Liban.

This year’s return of Leroy Airmaster was premised on the familiar truth that time heals all aggravations. “Being in a band is like being in a marriage,” Cohen says. “When you have four personalities, you’ll have friction. We needed a break from each other.” The two-decade pause was not a fallow time for band members. “Everybody’s playing better 20 years later,” Cohen continues. “We’re coming back together with 20 years of experience in other things.”

During the ’80s, Leroy Airmaster had amassed a repertoire of hundreds of songs, originals and classic blues. “We can still do them,” Cohen says. “Everybody remembers the arrangements after all those years.”

The Leroy Airmaster name will ring familiar to older fans of local music. Hopefully, a generation unborn when the band began will appreciate that Airmaster’s gritty yet proficient sound represents one of the authentic wellsprings of everything musical from jazz and rock to hip-hop.

Leroy Airmaster opens for Hubert Sumlin and the Nighthawks at 8 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Miramar Theatre; and headlines Dec. 19 at Donges Bay Clubhouse.

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