Fridays Update: Gilliam looks back without regret

the-firekingsIan Gilliam and the Firekings play a mix of bluegrass and honkytonk rock.

Guitarist Ian Gilliam was making waves in the local scene around the same time area legend Dave Matthews was– and Gilliam had the talent to be playing at the same level as Matthews, according to Firekings bassist Steve Riggs.

"Ian was a child prodigy, way ahead of his time," Riggs says. "Who was that first version of your band? You, LeRoi, and Carter?"

"No, no, that was just once!" Gilliam insists sheepishly. "I couldn't have been like Dave Matthews– I didn't write 'Satellite'."

But he did play with local rising stars– members of the Dave Matthews Band and veterans of Skip Castro and the Casuals, among others. Instead of doing his homework as a high schooler, he focused instead on honing his talent as a blues guitarist– eventually catching the ear of DC-based guitar genius Danny Gatton at a show at the now defunct Flood Zone in Richmond. The elder virtuoso, impressed, then offered to produce the young Gilliam.

"Danny was one of my guitar heroes," Gilliam says. "I was 19, and he wanted to produce me–- it was a huge honor."

Then tragedy struck, and the depressed Gatton killed himself in his Maryland home in 1994–- leaving Gilliam without a producer. Gilliam took charge of his own career, spending a year touring and playing with talented international acts such as jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. But as family commitments crept up, Gilliam slowed down, leaving the international scene for a local, low-key one instead– something he says doesn't bother him.

"Now, I'm playing only a few times a month, but it gives you something to look forward to," Gilliam says. "You maintain your real life, but still go out and pretend you're a rock star– it's a lot of fun."

Gilliam spent most of his high-school career focusing on music– entering various music competitions and participating in "jams" at the now defunct Trax put on by former Blue Moon Diner owner Buzzy White. It was there that White noticed Gilliam's style and introduced him to some rising stars.

"Buzzy knew everybody that I wanted to know– he got me playing with the veterans," Gilliam says. "It was huge, because otherwise, I would have been left floundering."

While his Firekings lineup varied throughout the years, Gilliam's current group has shifted from a blues-drenched sound to one of rockabilly and honkytonk– a sound Gilliam frequently credits to the late Gatton.

"When you play with your heroes, you get a lot of respect from playing together– that's a lot of the reward of being in this business," Gilliam says.

Ian Gilliam and the Firekings play Fridays After Five on 6/5. The Mark Miller Band opens. The show starts at 5:30 pm and admission is free.


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