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Wolf at the Door

Reignwolf—the rabid, guitar-mauling alter ego of Jordan Cook—is this year’s most talked-about Seattle musician. After two decades in music, will the Wolf lead to Cook’s big break?

It’s 10 minutes before Jordan Cook is set to walk onstage at Bumbershoot’s Mural Amphitheatre for his highest-profile concert yet, and the 27-year-old musician, who performs as Reignwolf, is claiming he isn’t anxious.

“I never get nervous,” he says, trying to look confident yet giving the exact opposite impression. “I’m ready to go.” He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself of this fact.

And then, almost immediately, Cook contradicts himself, as he often does. “I couldn’t sleep last night,” he says. A combination of nerves and anticipation kept him up, but like every challenge he faces, Cook says this is “a good thing.” He promises the people within earshot backstage—his two band members, his manager, plus the Latin Elvis Impersonator El Vez—that his show is going to kill nonetheless.

Bad things are often good in Cook’s world, a world marked by contradiction: He’s a young, white Canadian guitar player who sings and plays like an ancient African-American bluesman. Young sounds old. Bad is good.

But before Cook goes onstage to demonstrate any of that, he has to rehearse with a street performer who plays percussion on overturned plastic buckets. Cook ran into the bucket guy the night before outside Seattle Center and decided on the spot to invite him to play at Bumbershoot. It’s exactly the sort of left-field decision that drives Cook through life and through music: He’s intuitive, moving with feel—which is also how he plays guitar, rather spectacularly.

The bucket player, who goes by the name Amazen King Roe, tries to follow along as Cook shows off a few fancy guitar moves. “I had no idea I was going to be doing this when I woke up yesterday morning,” Roe says, shaking his head in disbelief. In just a few short hours, he’s gone from busking in obscurity to playing the Mural stage.

The same might also be said of Cook. He came to Seattle only last December, after living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for his entire life. There’s a whiff of the Canadian prairie still in his speech, and he only recently received his immigration visa, which means that Bumbershoot is one of his first U.S. gigs for which he can be legally paid.

“When I was first going out in the States I was kind of desperate because I was wanting to make money, but I was unable to take any,” he says. “Now with my visa, I can play rock ’n’ roll and get paid.”

Like much of Cook’s career, his extended Seattle residency happened by happy accident. He came to town to surprise a friend—Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden. When one of Shepherd’s buddies, Ryan Crase, met Cook at the airport, a new friendship ensued. Crase was eventually enlisted to become Cook’s manager. “I certainly didn’t think I was going to be a rock manager,” Crase says. “But Jordan and I got along great, and it just kind of evolved.”

Through connections with Shepherd, Crase arranged for Cook to get a few small slots on opening bills at the Comet and the Cha Cha. Though they were only 10-minute performances, Cook made the most of them, playing guitar solos that wowed the crowds. People started talking.

It was at his third show, at the Sunset Tavern, when he first played under the name Reignwolf. The idea came to Cook that day, and he drew up a design of a wolf that he had etched to the drum head. Shepherd showed up at the club and discovered Cook’s new moniker. “So apparently you’re now ‘Regina-Wolf?’” the dry-humored bassist joked, referencing the second biggest city in Saskatchewan but making it sound like the world “vagina.”

Cook is always quick to smile and his Canadian affability disarms any attempt to mock him—or take him too seriously. With a beard and wild black hair, he looks remarkably like Bruce Springsteen on the cover of Born to Run. “Reignwolf is just the way I feel,” he says backstage at the Mural. “I play the way I feel, and it just happens. It’s exactly who I am, and exactly who I feel. It’s me.”

Then he pauses for a moment and rethinks. “But then again,” he adds, “as Jordan Cook I’m also exactly who I am as well. It just feels good, so I do it.”

Cook has promised to go onstage and kill, and a few minutes later that’s exactly what he does. After a night without sleep, and with a street performer pounding on plastic buckets next to him, his guitar wails. A thousand people watch his 40-minute set of improvisational blues, equal parts Jack White and Jimi Hendrix. Cook stops short of setting his guitar afire, but he does a trick Hendrix never did–he plays guitar while playing the kick drum. It’s a moment of intuition captured on a thousand cell-phone videos, cemented forever on YouTube.

* * *

Cook was born in Saskatoon in 1985, perfectly timed to come up during the Internet era. Music was already in his blood.

“Basically, there’s a really long winter in Saskatchewan, and it can get to 40 below,” he says. “It kind of keeps you indoors. So what else are you gonna do? My dad played guitar, so I knew what I wanted to do from age two.”

By that age, Cook’s father was taking him to jam sessions in the city of 200,000 people. Cook would sit by the side of the stage and watch his father play. A couple years later, after his first public performance, his photo landed in the local paper under the headline “Hot Licks at Six.” Cook had to recently dig up that old, weathered newspaper clipping to prove to the immigration department that he truly was a working musician for 20 years.

In Canada, Cook became a bit of a child star. At age seven, he self-released his debut album on cassette titled Bluesman. “We should have called it Blues Child,” he chuckles. He started a band called the Blues Boys, which consisted of him and two other kids he went to elementary school with. They made good money playing clubs and blues festivals as a kind of novelty/variety act. He kept it up for years, never venturing much father than Western Canada but playing dozens of shows every year. A following ensued, and by the time he was 16, he started attracting major-label interest.

“What we were doing at the time was Cream-esque, but it also had a lot of edge to it,” Cook says. “It wasn’t the blues, but it sort of was the blues, also.” Though Cook’s father had exposed him to all the great Chess Records music, Cook was into harder rock. “Eddie Van Halen was a huge influence,” he says. “So was Stevie Ray Vaughan. If you listen to what he does on David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance,’ he plays only four or five notes, but what he plays is perfect.” Epic Records swooped in and signed Cook to a development deal when he was still a teenager.

A long line of music industry legends started off as teenage guitar whizzes—from Jonny Lang to Eddie Van Halen. But an equally long line were flashes-in-the-pan who wowed crowds onstage but couldn’t write hits. Cook was still playing around Canada at the time, but Epic decided to take him into the studio to work on songwriting. What ensued was a series of stops and starts in Cook’s career—he’d gear up to release a record but come short of actually doing so. It didn’t help matters that Epic blew through a series of executive shuffles, which meant Cook was working with new A&R honchos every few months.

At the time, Cook’s band included two childhood friends. They performed as the New Alone. At a studio in Toronto with producer Peter Collins, they cut what Cook calls his first “true” album—one of a half-dozen releases that never saw the light of day. Cook had wanted to work with Eddie Kramer: “I thought, ‘Who better to work with than Hendrix’s guy?’”

The idea that a 21-year-old kid from Saskatchewan would send Eddie Kramer a tape, and expect to hire him, is exactly the sort of over-reaching confidence Cook puts into everything. In this case, as in others, it was well placed. “He’d said he’d do it,” Cook says. “But the label didn’t like that idea so it never happened.”

Instead, Cook’s band fell apart. His two friends felt that label executives ignored them to focus on Cook, so they quit. Cook was left with an album’s worth of material that he called Seven Deadly Sins, but no band and few prospects. He turned the album in to Epic but new label executives didn’t like it. “It was a great record,” Cook says, then rethinks. “But it was probably not a great enough record.”

* * *

Another ill-fated recording project in the same era redirected Cook’s career to Seattle. Around 2010 (he’s deliberately fuzzy with dates), he was trying to cut another album, this time in Memphis. Epic had hired Seattle drummer Matt Chamberlain to play the session. The first few days, it was just Chamberlain and Cook, but they decided they needed a bass player. Chamberlain suggested Ben Shepherd, who hadn’t done much since Soundgarden had broken up.

“You mean Ben Shepherd of the band Soundgarden?” Cook asked, incredulous. “He’d play on my record?”

Chamberlain made a phone call and Shepherd showed up in Memphis the next morning.

“Ben didn’t even bring a bass,” Cook recalls. “He just said, ‘Whatever you got, I’ll make it work.’ Ben hadn’t played in a few years, but suddenly I had my dream band backing me.”

The album project—like so many of Cook’s studio efforts—was never released. But Chamberlin and Shepherd agreed to tour Canada with Cook—in the middle of a winter blizzard. “It was literally minus 40 at one gig,” Cook says. “Some of the shows were dead, but others were packed. People in Canada go out, even if it’s a bit cold.”

At one show in Edmonton, the band played for so long that they exhausted every song in Cook’s repertoire. “By the encore, we’d played it all, but the crowd was still cheering,” Cook says. “So I decided to go out by myself with just my acoustic guitar, but plug it into my amps. Ben and Matt didn’t come onstage, so I just went to the drum kit, and I started playing the drums while I was shredding.” Though Cook didn’t have the name yet, in that moment Reignwolf was born: a mad guitar player who uses everything onstage at his disposal—drum kit, mic stand, drumstick—to make noise.

When Shepherd returned to Seattle after the tour, Ryan Crase asked about the Canadian wunderkind guitar player.

“Ben doesn’t talk,” Crase observes. “I mean, he’s not mute, but he doesn’t say a whole lot, and he rarely speaks. He just shook his head. His only comment was, ‘Let’s just say he put on a show.’” Crase reached out to Cook through MySpace and the two formed a friendship.

Crase suggested Cook come to Seattle to surprise Shepherd at Soundgarden’s “Nudedragons” Showbox concert in April 2010. During that visit, Crase, Shepherd and Cook had such a fun time hanging out that Crase asked Cook to relocate.

“Ryan suggested I come for a period of time,” Cook says. “He said, ‘It would be cool if you came here and basically rock ’n’ roll all over Seattle.’ So I did.”

* * *

Cook’s first few ventures in Seattle earned him buzz as a hot guitar player, but the tipping point didn’t come until a late spring show at the Eagles Hall in West Seattle.

“I think it was only my third show in Seattle,” Cook says. “It was a horrible place to play, but that’s what made it wonderful. It could have gone really bad because this wasn’t a normal concert venue; it was like playing a school gym. I asked the lighting guy if he could just leave the lights on white.” The lighting guy didn’t listen to Cook (something that seems to happen often) and instead of a white light used a multi-colored strobe and smoke machine. In a way it was ridiculous, but it also prodded Cook to play wilder and wilder solos. He hated it at first, but the audience seemed to love it.

Matt Vaughan of Easy Street Records witnessed the Eagles show and became one of Cook’s early disciples. “Jordan walked out during the first part of his set and just pummeled through with his guitar and kick drum,” he says. “Then a few songs later, his pick-up band came in. It was just one of those nights. Just incredible.” Vaughan had brought a few friends, including photographer Lance Mercer, and all came away singing Reignwolf’s praises.

Things happened quickly from there. Cook was booked to play this summer’s Sasquatch! Festival. In typically unusual fashion, he played not only his one scheduled set but three additional impromptu performances around the festival site, including one on the roof of the Easy Street Van. All four of those shows, like almost everything Cook does as Reignwolf these days, were caught on video and posted online.

Producer Phil Ek first saw Cook at the Capitol Hill Block Party in July. “I came up to him during soundcheck, and he was already playing so hard that he was bleeding all over his guitar,” Ek recalls. That moment wasn’t caught on video, but Cook’s show at Barboza was. It soon had thousands of viewers online.

Ek and Cook struck up a friendship and booked Ironwood Studios in August for a three-day session with an EP in mind. When, and if, those songs come out, they will either represent Cook’s first official release or his eighth, depending on how Cook counts. A few of his previous albums have appeared on the Internet over the years, including childhood efforts that Cook sought to squash because they weren’t up to his current standard. Last year Cook was able to break his Epic contract, so he’s now a free agent, and though a few labels have expressed interest, the EP he recorded with Ek will most likely be self-released. After being backed by a major for more than a decade without achieving star status in the U.S., maybe he can do it on his own as Reignwolf.

“The record business is in such a terrible place right now,” Cook says. “It’s a good thing. I like where it is now because you can create on your own and you don’t have to fit into a mold.” Once again, Cook’s optimism—or naiveté, depending on your perspective—equates bad with good.

Cook has enough local draw to land headlining slots at the Neptune and the Laserdome (as part of the Heineken City Arts Fest), but what he doesn’t have is a catalog of well-known songs. He writes constantly, but his live shows—and even his studio sessions—tend to swing into wild improvisation. The highlight of his live shows, at least as measured by YouTube views, is his cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” It’s a brilliant moment onstage, with Cook reimagining Stevie Nicks as Jimmy Page. He’s unsure if he’ll release the cover on the EP or save it for the album he hopes to put out in the next year.

“I think I might put it on the album,” he says. “It’s a winner.”

* * *

Onstage during Bumbershoot, Cook plays “The Chain” on electric mandolin, something he’s only done a few times. It’s one of a few climaxes in his short set, a song that shifts any non-believers in the audience.

Oddly, he doesn’t play what he considers his best song. It’s called “The War,” and it’s his strongest case for being something more than a flashy guitar slinger. He wrote it a few years ago, after witnessing his father suffer a fatal heart attack.

“It’s the best song I ever wrote because of the truth in it,” Cook says. “My dad had just turned 54, and when I found him on the ground, I already knew. He was my best friend. He gave me everything–the guitar, music, himself.” Cook says he needs to “feel” the song, and at Bumbershoot he felt “touchy” about showing such raw emotion.

When he comes offstage after his Mural show, he’s soaked with sweat, but that doesn’t stop him from embracing everyone backstage as if they were family. The biggest hug goes to Amazen King Roe, the bucket player, who ultimately held his own onstage for the two songs he contributed to. Roe still can’t believe he went from the street outside McDonald’s to the Mural stage, and he keeps thanking Cook, who keeps thanking him. “I’ll play with you anytime you want. You got a card, man?” he asks, offering Reignwolf his own.

Cook has nothing to offer in return. He doesn’t believe in such things as a business card for a guitar player. If it’s meant to be, it will be.

He puts his arm around the bucket guy. “The best things in life,” he says, “just happen naturally.”

Reignwolf plays Heineken City Arts Fest on Friday, Oct. 19 at the Laserdome. Reignwolf portrait by D'Arcy McGrath, Reigwolf at Sasquatch! by Nate Watters.

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