Feb. 26, Henkel has become a lynchpin of the San Diego acoustic music scene.
A virtuoso guitarist, he has introduced generations to the blues, mentored dozens of musicians and actively helped nurture the local music community. While Henkel has been a local mainstay since the release of his album “Let’s Get Squished” in 1979, the past decade has seen his music take off on both a local and national level, with Henkel now firmly in the role of elder statesman.
He acknowledges a major shift in attitude over the past decade or so.
“It comes from watching Billy Watson play and entertain back in the late 1990s,” Henkel recalled. “I got it through my head to start having fun playing music. Playing music became less about showing off to overcome my insecurities. It became more about just having fun with it. Mix that in with the hard-headedness of doing it relentlessly over the years, and now things are going pretty good. Now I’m 61 and I enjoy and look forward to practicing more than I ever did when I was young.”
While Henkel certainly has plenty of blues gigs on his schedule and has won two “Best Blues Album” trophies at the San Diego Music Awards in 2000 and 2004, his sound is actually much more varied.
“I don’t really stick strictly to blues,” he said. “Many of the tunes I play on gigs have a folksy finger-picking vibe. I also compose jazz and funk for my horn band.”
Though he can often be found in solo, duo or trio format, for this gig he’ll be performing with his horn band.
“For me, it’s the coolest thing I do, but I don’t feel that the band and repertoire have ever broken through in a popular way. I have to stay true to my art but I also have to make a living. Plenty of restaurants and wine bars hire me on an ongoing basis as a blues soloist. Gigs for a five- or six-piece band playing jazz are less abundant.”
Known as a serial collaborator, it’s a rare gig from Henkel that doesn’t have a musical friend or two sitting in.
“Collaborating? It brings in the fresh, new energy and talents of the other person,” he said. “As long as I dig what the other person is doing, I enjoy applying my skill-set to their style and work. As for live performances, it’s fun to not have to be the focal point of the entire show. When someone else is singing or soloing I can engage and get deep into the rhythm section — that’s fun.”
Though he has released nine successful albums to date, and several projects are in progress, no new music has been released since 2009’s “Steel Guitar Lounge.” It’s unclear when a new album might emerge.
“I’ve done at least three recording sessions since 2010 and haven’t released any of it,” Henkel said. “Halfway through the project, I get distracted by gigs and other projects. Six months later, I forget what I was working on.”
With nearly five decades of stage time behind him, Henkel has a huge list of tunes to choose from, though he couldn’t pin the exact number down.
“Even with a large repertoire, certain songs that people love get played and overplayed,” he said. “Around 2010, I used to play the ‘Egg’ song a lot, burned out on it, didn’t do it for a while. Now when I do it, it feels fresh again.”
Though Henkel could play anything with six strings, and has a vast collection of guitars to choose from, he has narrowed his stage gear to three particular models: a 1930s wood Dobro in G tuning, a 1937 National for standard guitar tuning and a Dan Electro reissue in D tuning.
“The biggest reason for using three is so I don’t have to re-tune the same guitar to play in the various tunings,” he said. “But over the years I have realized the different sound of each instrument lends a cool variety to my performances.”
From his vantage point, Henkel considers the blues to be more popular than ever.
“I don’t know if there is a crop of young people working to keep the blues alive, but there are a few,” he said. “And I will point out, it seems young people are hipper than they were 15 to 20 years ago. It seems more people know what blues is and that it’s in the musical lineage of the music they hear today.”
• Robin Henkel performs at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26 at Humphreys Backstage Live, 2241 Shelter Island Drive. www.humphreysbackstagelive.com for more information.