Cult Heroes No. 2: Van Wilks
Continuing our brand new series. He’s been described as a cross between Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. Come inside to read about the greatest guitar hero you’ve never heard of: Van Wilks. Check out all of Classic Rock‘s Cult Heroes here.
Continuing our weekly series celebrating some of the cult heroes who roam wild and free on the rock range. This time we introduce you to Van Wilks. He’s a man who’s got links with ZZ Top and is the pride of Austin, Texas (well, one of them). So, let Xavier Russell be your guide through the Van veldt…
Van Wilks? Never heard of him! And there’s the rub. There are so many talented guitarists around the globe who just aren’t getting the recognition they so richly deserve.
Let me introduce you to Austin, Texas-based Van Wilks who first got noticed in 1980 with his debut album Bombay Tears, recorded for the Mercury label. Needless to say the record sank without a trace, despite ZZ Top manager Bill Ham also being Van’s manager.
Bombay Tears is chock full of what were described at the time as ‘instant blues-based boogie classics’, with multi layers of tapping, twanging guitar. I seem to recall ‘nodding heads of approval’ when I first spun it on the Kerrang! deck way back in 1981! Yes, we’re going back to the days of vinyl.
The ZZ Top connection doesn’t stop there. Billy Gibbons and Van Wilks have always had a very similar style of playin’. In a word… sleazy.
And Van agrees: ”Billy’s always been my mentor and best friend. People are always telling me that I sound a lot like Billy. When I tell Billy this, he just shrugs his shoulders, and says, ‘Is that such a bad thing?’ In fact he tells people he sounds a lot like me!
“But I would say my main influences have always been British blues-based gods, such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Peter Green. Yet my music is very much from Austin, Texas – and by that I mean raw and from the heart.”
Indeed, Austin is a real hotbed for blues music and Van Wilks is in very good company, for the town can also boasts such greats as the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, indie rockers Spoon and, of course, legendary country god Willie Nelson. So is there a distinct Austin sound?
Van Wilks: ”Well, it’s definitely not southern up here, and by that I mean the chicken-scratch sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd or Molly Hatchet. It’s more raw, blues-based string bending, like ZZ Top and myself. It’s more traditional blues, with an edge.
“My chord changes go where they’re not meant to go. I will quite often revisit old songs when I play live and totally rearrange the chords. I suppose you could say my lack of direction, is my direction!”
So as you can see folks, Van Wilks goes totally against the grain when he picks up a geetar and plays. He has been described by The Austin American Statesman as being ‘a perfect cross between Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen‘.
It’s a comparison that brings a smile to Van’s face:
”Well, I take that as a compliment. I suppose the Van Halen comparison comes from the way I tap the fret board. That’s similar in style to Eddie, only I was doing it way before him! As for sounding like Hendrix, well I’ve always loved his music, and I guess he spiritually finds his way into my music.”
Evidence of this can be found on the track Bleeding For You from the 1995 album Soul Of A Man. Van Wilks’ output has been a steady if sporadic over the years. Starting with the aforementioned Bombay Tears (1980), followed by The Boystown four track EP (1982), Soul Man (1995), Koko’s Hideaway (1999), Texas Jukin (2002) and Running From Ghosts (2005).
Van’s most recent offering is his live CD/DVD titled Low Down, Wound Up Rockin’ Texas Blues. It was recorded in January 2008 in Austin, Texas, where Van was supporting the influential Robin Trower, which could explain why the DVD only has a running time of 45 minutes.
Van picks up the story: ”We were supporting Robin Trower, who had a big stage, and we thought it was the ideal opportunity to record a live CD. We decided to keep it raw and powerful; what you hear is what you get. I was very happy with the way it turned out. It really kicks – no overdubs, just good hard rockin’
Standout cuts are Boystown, Sometimes You Run and Soul Of A Man.
Van’s future plans include more recording. For him, this is a slow and organic progress. And there will be more touring, including a return visit to Europe!
You can discover Van the man for yourself by going to his website, www.vanwilks.com, where you can catch up on his tour plans and buy his back catalogue.
Check out the following Van Wilks videos:
Photo of Van Wilks solo by Todd Wolfson
Tags: Billy Gibbons, Cult Heroes, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Peter green, Robin Trower, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Van Halen, Van Morrison, Van Wilks, Willie Nelson, ZZ Top