Highway 61 is the famous stretch of road that carried many blues musicians from the south to places like St. Louis and Chicago to find work on assembly lines, in the days before there was an interstate highway system. It runs 1,400 miles from New Orleans, Louisiana, to the city of Wyoming, Minnesota and generally follows the course of the Mississippi river. The highway is often called “The Blues Highway,” because of the course it takes from Minnesota through Memphis and on to New Orleans. It’s also, of course, used in the title of an album by Duluth, Minnesota’s most famous son, Bob Dylan. The road is said to be the “Crossroads” where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play blues guitar.

Rising from another south, the southern part of New Jersey, comes a band that carries on the blues tradition, although in more of a jam-band format. They call themselves 61 North, and the moniker seems to fit them. “We feel the name is appropriate for our band because our music is mostly blues influenced, but contains elements of funk, rock and jam band stylings with the goal to push the blues in a new and unique direction,” explains Brian LaPann, who handles lead vocals and guitar in the group.

He is joined by Ryan “Gooch” Nelson on slide guitar, Bob Comfort on bass, and Joe Bross on drums. Together they form a tight unit that encompasses sounds reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and classic ‘60s bands such as Cream. “We describe it as blues/rock/funk,” says Brian. “It always has a rootsy vibe, but the goal is to take the basis of the blues and push forward the form and function in our own unique style, incorporating slide guitar in every composition and working with our basic rock and roll framework of two guitars, bass and drums to get a powerful, electric sound. We are members of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Electric Church’ concept, so to speak.”

The band had its genesis with the childhood friendship of Brian and Gooch. In 2004, Gooch got in a severe car accident, partially severing his vertebrae and rendering him a quadriplegic. After rehabbing at Magee Rehab Hospital in Philadelphia for six months, he slowly regained motion. Always a guitar nut, he found he could no longer fret notes with his hand due to paralysis. But after the introduction of an electric guitar in 2006 by his grandfather that could be laid flat on his chair arms and played with a slide, he began to develop his own technique.

Brian was studying music at the University of Delaware, taking classical guitar, and would come home as often as possible and show Gooch blues progressions and his original songs. What started as just jamming on the blues soon turned into a musical collaboration, and the concept behind 61 North’s music was formed.

They were soon playing coffee houses around the area as a duo, with Gooch on slide and Brian playing fingerstyle guitar. They played blues covers and a few originals, both written separately and co-written. Soon after, Brian asked Bob to jam, and instantly they knew had another mate in the band. After a year with a previous drummer, Joe was asked to join the band, and readily accepted. Joe is the youngest member of the band at 21, and is exceptionally powerful and dynamic.

In recent years the band has been growing, both musically and as a performing entity, with shows at prestigious venues such as the World Café Live in Philadelphia, The National Underground in New York City, and the Smyrna Opera House in Delaware. They have also been invited to play at festivals such as the Union County Music Festival, the Cape May Wine Festival, and the Appel Farm Arts & Music Festival in Elmer, NJ.

As you might expect, the group has influences ranging from The Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, and The Black Crowes, to Phish, The Beatles and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. And throw in blues/rock greats such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Derek Trucks and Jeff Beck.

Brian and Gooch still do the majority of the writing, penning their initial ideas solo and then coming to each other with the unfinished pieces as a starting point. While they sometimes complete a song on their own, the more collaboration that occurs the more of a 61 North character the songs seem to have. Bob recently started to bring in some material as well. Once the initial songwriter has a cohesive idea, and at least two of the three songwriters have hashed out the parts, the song is jammed on with the full band and usually, if the song is good and meant for the band, the other members instinctively come up with their parts. One of the tracks, “Funk You,” has been getting airplay on the influential station WXPN in Philadelphia.

“Our goals, musically and professionally, are simple,” relates Brian. “We want to continue to write, record, and perform great music and hope to make the transition to doing it for a living. Performing original music is a high that can’t be matched. Also, we are dedicated to giving back as we have done numerous fundraisers in the past, and put on an annual Benefit Concert for Spinal Cord Injury to give back to The Adam Taliaferro Foundation and Magee Rehab Hospital, who are dedicated to rehabilitating victims of devastating Spinal Cord Injuries. We wouldn’t be a band if these organizations didn’t exist, as Gooch’s six months in Magee has enabled him to get back the motion and quality of life he has today.”

Further information about 61 North, check out 61northband.com. You can get in touch with them at 61northband@gmail.com.

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