Fortified Blues Band a tight-knit group of musicians who love their art

  • Members of The Fortified Blues Band, from left, guitarist Bo Henderson, drummer Doug Plavin, guitarist Tom Filiault, front, vocalist Doug Smith and bassist John “Klondike”€ Koehler in Wendell. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Members of the Fortified Blues Band, from left, guitarist Bo Henderson, drummer Doug Plavin, vocalist Doug Smith, bassist John “€œKlondike”€ Koehler and guitarist Tom Filiault in Wendell. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • The Fortified Blues Band member Bo Henderson picks at his guitar in Wendell. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Some of the guitars played by The Fortified Blues Band. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • The Fortified Blues Band members Bo Henderson, left, and Doug Plavin during a practice in Wendell. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • The Fortified Blues Band bassist John “€œKlondike”€ Koehler picks at his guitar on Monday in Wendell. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • The Fortified Blues Band vocalist Doug Smith gazes on as his band members rehearse in Wendell. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

Recorder Staff
Wednesday, December 06, 2017

While water, barley, hops and yeast team up to create craft beer behind the scenes at Tree House Brewing Co. in Charlton, there will be a different type of chemistry brewing under the nearly 4,000-square-foot outdoor pavilion. This will be exhibited in the members of the Fortified Blues Band, a tight-knit collection of five musicians who love their art form and each other.

“It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever been connected to, and I’ve been playing 40 years,” says guitarist Tom Filiault of Sunderland. “These guys are really extra great. No sandbaggers here. Everybody is really top of the heap and really humble, too.

“We just enjoy each other’s company,” he adds.

Singer Doug Smith says the five-piece ensemble is bursting at the seams with camaraderie.

“It’s a pretty amazing band. We just love to get together and play, and plus everybody in the band loves each other,” he says. “It’s kind of an honor to be playing with these guys because they’re all so talented.”

The Fortified Blues Band formed in 2009 as The Wailin’ Dave Blues Band, with frontman David “Wailin’ Dave” Robinson on lead vocals. Doug Plavin joined as a drummer and John “Klondike” Koehler enlisted as a bassist. Robinson soon retired from music and was replaced by New Salem resident Bo Henderson, who used to play with Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson, a collaborator of blues legend Muddy Waters, who Henderson grew up idolizing. Koehler says he became the full-time bass player about a year ago to round out the squad.

Early beginnings

Henderson recalls meeting Johnson in the 1970s at The Rusty Nail, a storied Sunderland club that burned down years ago. He says Johnson’s guitarist failed to show up for a gig and during a break, Henderson drove back to his Amherst apartment to retrieve a guitar and an amplifier. He asked Johnson if he could fill in. Johnson was so impressed that he offered a job to Henderson, who played professionally for around eight years.

“It was very fortuitous,” Henderson, now 66, says. “It was just like a magic carpet ride. It was great.”

He says the chemistry of the Fortified Blues Band is unmatched.

“We’ve known each other for years,” he says. “I love playing with all those guys. It’s such a treat. And, of course, Dougy Smith sings like an angel. I’ve known him since he was toddler, and he’s just fabulous.”

Koehler, 67, says the band’s atmosphere is spontaneous, exciting, and full of trust. He compares the guys to a basketball team that values passing over ball hogging, though he was quick to praise the lead singer.

“Doug Smith is force of nature,” he says. “And my favorite story of Doug is when he showed up at a gig at Deja Brew in Wendell. (He) comes in, with a little torn-up notebook of songs he’d written and he wanted to sing with us. He looked like he had just crawled out from under a diesel truck in an oil change bay. And he basically just brought the house down. He sings with the power of Joe Cocker and the range of Sting, and the songs were great.”

Smith, 49, is the youngest member of the band, joining in 2010. He came highly recommended as a singer whose voice emulates that of blues musician Lightnin’ Hopkins.

“He’s just a great, laid-back guy,” Filiault, 57, says of his bandmate, a U.S. Army infantry veteran. “He’s a really sweet guy and he just sings his butt off.”

Musical upbringings

Smith, who lives in Whately, says he grew up in “a very musical household” in Petersham, and once played in a different blues band with Henderson. He opened for B.B. King’s second-to-last show before King’s death in 2015. His favorite part about performing is “getting people up to dance and have fun.”

Plavin, 59, who once played with iconic folk musician Joan Baez, says The Fortified Blues Band’s gigs are always fun.

“These are like my neighbors,” he says. “There’s some sort of automatic telepathy that we get into when we’re all playing together.

Filiault says he and his bandmates enjoy the blues because of the stories it tells.

“It’s good music. It’s the original Americana,” he says. “I just like that kind of music.”

Most the songs the band plays are originals, with Filiault saying members write about what they know. Well-written music, he says, allows musicians to connect with people and their lives. For him, it also a chance to feel closer to his father.

“When I was 12 years old, my dad passed away. My dad was a musician. He played piano and guitar,” Filiault says. “I always loved watching him play. The reason I started to play guitar is because I missed him so much. It might sound cliché, but every time I play, I really think of my dad. That’s the real reason I started to play guitar.”

Catch the Fortified Blues Band on Dec. 9. at the Tree House Brewing Co., 129 Sturbridge Road in Charlton at 2 p.m. where it will play tunes from a self-titled CD. The band also plays at the Shutesbury Athletic Club at 282 Wendell Road every other month.