Danny Kalb, whose innovative and soulful lead guitar work was crucial to the sound of the groundbreaking New York City-based ’60s band the Blues Project, died today, Nov. 19, 2022. The cause and place of death have not yet been reported. Kalb’s death, at age 80, follows a long illness and was confirmed on Facebook by Steve Katz, a fellow member of the Blues Project.
Along with Michael Bloomfield of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Kalb emerged as an early American guitar hero as the hybrid genre of blues-rock came into its own in the mid-’60s. His lead lines, whether high-velocity and stinging or slow and measured, were never less than dazzling, and always packed with emotion; he never sacrificed tastefulness for flash. He learned his craft from the master bluesmen of the era and applied it to the new breed of blues music that was infiltrating rock on both sides of the Atlantic. His work was highly influential, and he was admired by many guitar slingers who rose to greater prominence in his wake.
Kalb also sang, and while his voice was not his strongest suit, he poured just as much heart into his vocal work as he did into his guitar. His lead singing on Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” and Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running” on the Blues Project’s standout album, 1966’s Projections, were highlights of that landmark release.
Danny Kalb was born Sept. 9, 1942, in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and he began his professional career as a solo artist and session guitarist, working with the likes of Judy Collins, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan on recordings and in live concert settings. In 1963, the joined the band of Greenwich Village folk great Dave Van Ronk while continuing to play with other folk and blues artists.
In 1965, as the fusion of electric rock music and blues began to increase in popularity, Kalb formed the Blues Project—borrowing the name from a compilation album on which Kalb appeared—with fellow guitarist/vocalist Katz, bassist/flutist Andy Kulberg, drummer Roy Blumenfeld and singer Tommy Flanders. The latter alternated lead vocals with Kalb on the group’s debut album for Verve/Folkways, Live at the Café Au Go Go, and keyboardist Al Kooper, who joined the band in time to make it onto that album, sang one lead, Berry’s “I Want to Be Your Driver.” The album, recorded at a New York City club where the Blues Project often performed, showcased the group’s diversity, featuring songs by folk singers Donovan and Eric Andersen as well as Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley.
By the time they were ready to cut their second album, Projections, the band had found its footing and begun expanding beyond traditional blues into more experimental areas. Flanders had exited, leaving the Blues Project as a quintet, and they blossomed in the studio. In addition to the numbers spotlighting Kalb, the album featured raging, exciting post-blues-rock numbers like “Wake Me, Shake Me” and “I Can’t Keep From Crying,” arranged and sung by Kooper; Katz’s folk-rock “Steve’s Song” and the Kooper-written “Flute Thing,” which served as a showcase for Kulberg’s stunning flute playing and took the group into the area of spacey, jazz-informed/psychedelic rock, then beginning to dominate the rock scene.
Related: Our Album Rewind of Projections
The band’s third album, and last with the classic lineup, Live at Town Hall, was—its title aside—mostly a studio effort. It reprised a couple of songs from Projections and included “No Time Like the Right Time,” a psychedelic rocker written and sung by Kooper. Released as a single, it gave the group its only placement on the singles chart, although it reached no higher than #96. It was re-discovered in 1972 and used on the seminal garage-rock compilation Nuggets, exposing the band to a new audience, although by that time the Blues Project had largely disbanded.
After leaving the group, Kalb recorded the album Crosscurrents with guitarist Stefan Grossman (1968), but he remained largely off the grid for the rest of his career, resurfacing for the occasional Blues Project reunion and releasing solo projects that appealed primarily to guitar aficionados and fans of his early work. He performed with his own Danny Kalb Trio and released several albums with various accompanists, including some live recordings, into the 21st century.
Listen to “Two Trains Running” from Projections