Before I talk about the show I’d like to talk about Swallow Hill, because Swallow Hill is amazing. I’ve only ever lived in Denver so I don’t know if places like this are common in most cities but I really hope they are, because every community should have an organization like this. They are a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and celebration of folk, roots, and acoustic music. They hold classes for people of all ages year round and they present unique musical experiences at several different venues all across the city. The Big Bill Morganfield show was at Daniels Hall in their main building. There are two venues there along with a small stage in a cafe that is used for open mics. Neither of the venues are large but they are acoustically impressive, delivering great sound every time. Possibly the most interesting thing about seeing a show at Swallow Hill, at least at their main office, is that the crowd is extremely respectful. No one talks during the show. No one. Yeah people clap and stomp and even sing along, but no one talks. This might be partially because they don’t serve alcohol so no one can get really rowdy. That means that no one is there for the party, no one is there for just another night out. Everyone is there for the music and it’s a beautiful thing.
Now, on to the show. I grew up on the Blues. My dad listened to the Blues (Muddy Waters especially) when I was a kid. In turn I listened them extensively in high school. This might also have been in part due to Adventures in Babysitting, but was probably more my dad. I’ve always felt that you can’t truly appreciate any western music without also appreciating a little Blues, because the Blues is the foundation of it all. Perhaps because he was who I was most exposed to and perhaps just because he is an incredible musician Muddy was always my favorite. To this day I can still set my iPod to Muddy Waters (where there are 247 songs) I just get lost for hours. He was an incredible talent who seemed to deliver excellence on each and every recording. He inspired the Rolling Stones name with this song, his song Can’t Be Satisfied was reworked by them into Satisfaction, he was transcendent and infinitely influential. Granted he wasn’t the only one who inspired, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and many many others left a mark on the world of music that can still be felt and heard to this day. Sadly, Muddy passed away in 1983, when I was only 6 years old. So I never had the pleasure of seeing him live. So when the opportunity came along to see his son Big Bill Morganfield I felt like I couldn’t pass it up. Sure it’s not the same thing, and I knew it wouldn’t be, but it was a rare opportunity to see a bit of Blues legacy so I took it and Big Bill did not disappoint.
The Delta Sonics are a Blues band that is local to Denver and as far as blues bands go they are pretty good. At this point the Blues tends to be all about Solos because the music itself is so simple and formulaic. It’s a nice calm cool back-beat that the guitarists and harmonica players can play around in and play around The Delta Sonics did. Technically they are sound, they hit all the right notes and they solo with passion but, for the first few songs when their lead singer (A bald guy I couldn’t help but see as Bruce Willis) well, when he lead sang. I just didn’t get any passion from him, his vocals were hollow and weak and without soul. He just didn’t have a Blues voice and it just didn’t work.
After a few songs they let the lead guitarist sing a few songs and it was like night and day. I was especially impressed when the first song he sang was B.B. Kings The Thrill Is Gone and he absolutely nailed it. Once the guitarist started singing and the singer started playing that harmonica they became a wholly different and a much better band. The singer was an excellent harmonica player and it was while he played that his passion and love for the blues really came out. He sang other songs throughout the night but it never felt quite right when he was singing. I fell that, overall, the band would be much better served if he stuck to his true love, the harmonica, and left the singing up to the lead guitarist who exuded the Blues like few people I’ve seen.
Speaking of harmonica, another local musician Clay Kirkland, who is an incredible harmonica player sat in with the band and when he and the singer were both playing at the same time it was a thing of beauty. There was this beautiful back and forth play that was just breathtaking. Especially if you love the harmonica as much as I do.
In the end I don’t know how much I can endorse seeing The Delta Sonics. I mean, they weren’t bad but there are better blues options out there. Maybe they would be better served in a bar or a club where dancing was the primary goal because they do play good music. I don’t know, if you like the blues and you just want a fun night you should probably give them a shot. If you’re looking for something more then they probably won’t do it for you.
So, first things first. Big Bill Morganfield is not his father, not that I was expecting him to be, but I’d imagine that some people go see him in hopes of catching a glimpse of the man that was. He is not that. The man that was. He is however very much the man that is and while he may not be his father he is certainly his father’s son in that he carries with him that same love and passion for the Blues. Big Bill played with The Delta Sonics backing him and he made it instantly clear that in the blues the front man is everything. I suppose you could say that of any genre, it’s not like Queen is the same without Freddie Mercury, but with Blues music being so standard outside of the solos you need a big voice and a big personality to carry things between solos. There is a reason, after all, that Muddy Waters is a well known name but a lot of the musicians he played with aren’t. That’s because the front man matters. The voice, the passion, the personality that is required to take a song over the top. Big Bill has all of these and he knows how to use them.
Half way through the concert I wrote the following note to myself: There are people that play the Blues, and people that are the Blues. He is the latter. A tried and true bluesman who gave everything to both his original songs and the songs of his father’s that he covered. Speaking of those covers I really liked that he made them his own, they were his father’s songs but he didn’t fall into the trap of just mimicking what each song was before, he tweaked here and there, and added his own vocal touches. It was fun to watch. If I had to choose, I’d say that I like Muddy’s voice more but comparign them isn’t fair because Big Bill has a great blues voice it’s just a bit of a deeper, gruffer, blues voice.
I don’t know that I have much more to say here. He’s good, maybe even great, and if you like the Blues at all you should make a point of seeing him because he represents something that there isn’t a lot of these day. An honest to god bluesman.