Tito Villarreal digs deep for roots

A love of classic blues harmonica is turning into a full blown music career for Tito Villarreal, who plays three different stages this weekend at the Black Swamp Arts Festival.

“A lot of what I do is off the cuff. I know a lot of the older songs, and try to build off of those,” Villareal said. “For the Black Swamp, my idea is to be more original sounding, but keeping a lot of the roots music that I love.”

Villarreal will be lead vocals, and play guitar and harmonica. Two old friends, Logan Mulcahy on drums and Justin Zigoris on bass, round out the band.

He said his buddies have a varied musical background. Mulcahy comes from an alternative, grunge and punk background. Zigoris is into doom metal and heavier sounds. All of that works together for their sound.

“It will definitely have a dark blues feel. Some of my favorite music is the slowest music. When I’m a soloist, I feel like I have to keep a pace to keep people engaged, but really in my head I love to play old school dark slow blues music, like the music of Floyd Jones, Muddy Waters and some of the post-war songs,” Villareal said. “This is what I really enjoy. This group I have right now, I think will really be able to hit that natural combustion of sound.”

He says they are still tightening up the act. They don’t have a music contract, so he’s very appreciative of the BSAF giving them a chance on the main stage, which will be the biggest show they have done.

Villareal is a self-taught musician.

“I knew I wanted to play an instrument when I listened to Little Walter, a harmonica player out of Chicago. He kind of blew me away. I didn’t know all that was possible from a harmonica,” Villarreal said. “From there I learned to play a lot of the old school Little Walter stuff on harmonica. Then I got into Big Walter, Sonny Boy and the list goes on.”

In his area there weren’t many people who knew that music, or how to play it. That made him decide to learn to play guitar, so he could show fellow musicians how to play along with him. Today, he plays the guitar more than the harmonica, but both instruments are part of each show.

“Back then, I thought, if I can’t find anyone to play behind me, maybe I can try it myself,” Villareal said. “I just kind of fell in love with the guitar from there.”

He plays a Squier Classic Vibe Jazzmaster.

“I’ve got it wired up in a weird way, with a series parallel, with push pull knobs. It’s a pretty good workhorse guitar. It’s got a nice single coil sound, so I like that a lot. And I recently got a nice old school big Kay blonde Archtop by Sherwood, and I’ve got a DeArmond on that, that I really enjoy. So I’ve been playing that a lot recently.”

He’s also into doom and punk, because of his friend’s interests, so he likes the Peavy amps. But, because he frequently plays solo, he has a Fender Champ Silverface from the 1970s.

At 25, Villarreal is young for the blues crowd. He grew up in the Flint, Michigan area, listening to classic rock on the radio, enjoying Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.

“Once I started listening to older stuff, like Chuck Berry, I started realizing that when you go further and further back you get closer to the original roots of things, and I seemed to enjoy those a lot more than the classic rock, so I immersed myself in that, pre-war and post-war blues. I kind of see that music as kind of a beautiful philosophy, in a way,” Villarreal said. “It’s helped me become who I am, come into myself more and grow, as a person.

“I have nothing but a deep respect for a lot of the black roots music and I’m always trying to incorporate those early roots into my sound.”

When he moved back into his parents’ house during the pandemic shutdown, he dove back into his harmonica and guitar work. Then a year ago he was invited to play at Arlyn’s Good Beer with Ken “Sugar Brown” Kawashima. They had met at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Kawashima is a past finalist with three albums under his belt.

“It’s been kind of a snowball effect. Since I came back home from Grand Rapids, Michigan, I just started playing more blues music, since I had more free time,” Villareal said. “I met Sugar Brown down there, in Memphis, and he asked me to play at Arlyn’s. He knew Eric Jones since he was a kid. Since then I’ve been coming back. I’ve found more people nowadays.”

Villarreal and his band play the main stage Sunday at 11 a.m. He will also perform at Juniper Brewing on Saturday during after hours starting at 11:30 p.m. and on the family stage on Sunday at 2 p.m.

To hear clips and live footage of Villareal, check out his social media, under @titovillareal.

Tito Villarreal

Tito Villarreal and his band play the main stage Sunday at 11 a.m. He will also perform at Juniper Brewing on Saturday during after hours starting at 11:30 p.m. and on the family stage on Sunday at 2 p.m.