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Paul Filipowicz

Wisconsin blues guitarist aims to knock fans off their feet

Paul Filipowicz has little mercy for his audience.

Whether it’s at the Badger Bowl in Madison, an American Legion beer tent in Lake Mills or Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago, the blues guitarist — who makes his home just east of the Crawfish River in Jefferson County — goes into each show hoping to knock his fans off their feet and leave them gasping for air.

If they’re still standing at what should have been the end of the set list, it’s a signal to Filipowicz to crank out another hard-driving tune on one of his worn Fender guitars.

“He’s just real high energy and just gives it his all at every performance,” said Christine Johnson, president of the Madison Blues Society, who has been with MBS for four years. “He’s just one of those guys that from the first note to the last note just puts it all out there. He has lots of respect for the music and brings his own technique and voice to the blues genre.”

But there is a softer side to the 66-year-old Chicago native who has lived in Wisconsin for the past 50 years and who was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame last fall. Filipowicz takes a few moments during each show to remember those who have influenced his take on the blues, a genre he discovered when he was 14 years old standing outside a club on the Windy City’s south side.

Those names include Walter “Lefty Dizz” Williams, Jimmy Dawkins, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Magic Sam, B.B. King and Muddy Waters.

“I don’t take myself seriously but I take the music seriously,” Filipowicz said last week while seated on the front porch of his 1908 farmhouse. “I feel that the old guys had a hand in getting me into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame ... and when I say their names they’re in the room once again. So I try to do that.”

He also has Madison Area Music Awards for best blues album in 2005 and best blues song in 2006.

Filipowicz is salt-of-the-earth.

He’s been playing the blues for more than 40 years but at the same time has worked full time in construction and roofing to pay the bills. Bad knees and elbows forced him to retire from that work this year, but he’s still building a cabin near Tomahawk using timber harvested from his 70-acre property.

When he’s back home and not playing his guitars, he likely has a wrench in hand. He’s restoring a 1949 Ford pickup truck with duel carburetors on a flat-head eight-cylinder engine and a 1948 Ford Super Deluxe four-door car with suicide doors — the hinges are at the rear of the door. There’s also a 1965 Mercury Comet and a 1950 Ford pickup in the yard. He uses a 2002 Toyota Sienna minivan with more than 140,000 miles on the odometer to haul his gear to shows around the Midwest.

“I’ve been wrenching all my life,” Filipowicz said, as he showed off his vehicles and a garage packed with tools, engines and other parts. “I’m a Ford guy.”

His construction and car work stand in contrast to his stage presence — he wears suits from Mitchell Street Men’s Wear in Milwaukee, cuff links, Stacy Adams shoes in red, black, white or blue, and a fedora. In 2013, he was named best-dressed male by Big City Rhythm & Blues magazine.

He learned to wrench from his father who worked full time making sausage for Armour & Co. in Chicago but on the weekends worked on cars. When Filipowicz was a sophomore in high school, his father took a job at Jones Dairy Farm in Fort Atkinson and moved the family to Wisconsin.

His father also played the harmonica and trumpet, his mother taught piano, his two sisters played piano and they all sang in church. Filipowicz gravitated to the guitar when he was about 7 years old. After graduating from Fort Atkinson High School in 1968, he attended UW-Whitewater for five semesters before getting into construction work and moving to Denver. He returned to Wisconsin in 1974 and formed a band. His first paid gig was in 1971 when Filipowicz played harmonica at the Mint Lounge at Humboldt and North in Milwaukee.

He doesn’t read music. He learned by ear and plays his guitars without a pick.

“I knew it was the way to feel the guitar. It gives you a different tone,” Filipowicz said. “Music is a feeling and I try and transfer the feeling that I felt. When I’d go and see Otis Rush or Fenton Robinson or Jimmy Dawkins, I wouldn’t sit there and look at their hands. I would just close my eyes and go with them. It would just elevate you to the moon.”

His guitars, all Fenders, include a 1973 Stratocaster, a 1973 Telecaster and a 1963 Jaguar that he bought in 1973 for $100 after his 1957 Stratocaster was stolen.

Filipowicz has lived east of Lake Mills about a mile from Aztalan State Park and near the Aztalan Cycle Club motocross track for nearly 30 years with his wife of 34 years, Katherine Herro. They share space with Spike, a 7-year-old white shepherd, and Bammer, a 17-year-old black and white tuxedo cat. They also have three adult sons.

Filipowicz has nine albums under his belt and scores of original songs. His albums have cracked the top 10 on the Living Blues magazine charts while his Chickenwire album, released in 2007, was in the top 100 of Real Blues magazine in Canada for 32 months.

Filipowicz grew up in a time when the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and other legendary rockers were getting their start but their popularity did not sway his taste.

“I’ve always been a blues guitar player,” he said. “I wasn’t put here to play rock gigs and I’ve always known that. I’ve always known my place. (Induction into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame) reaffirmed my commitment to try and play the music that I was exposed to the way it sounded to me when I was exposed to it.”

This is an AP member exchange story shared by the Wisconsin State Journal.

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