Up From Way Down, Denver’s Delta Sonics Put Soulful Blues on High
December 4, 2015
Denver’s got the blues, and it ain’t no part time gig. On a chilly November evening I stopped by the timeless Skylark Lounge on South Broadway (skylarklounge.com) to check out the Delta Sonics, Colorado’s premiere blues act. They did not disappoint. Averaging 250 shows per year, Wash Park’s own frontman Al Chesis and company give credence to the 10,000 hours of practice theory, displaying a wide range of musical style and craft that shatters the soul and stirs the imagination. From Chicago blues to old school rock ‘n’ roll straight out the swamps of Louisiana, the Delta Sonics implored an eclectic, multigenerational crowd to subconsciously question what city they were actually in.
In what I was told by Chesis is typical Delta Sonics fashion, there wasn’t a set list, establishing that this trip I was on had no map. In the same gesture, however, the show was not without direction. Chesis, a harmonica slayer and authentic blues man, contends this is all part of the plan. “We try to see what’s working in the moment, see what people are responding to,” Chesis said. “The secret of blues, you know, is make every song sound different every time.” Indeed.
After opening with an anything-but-standard blues ripper which featured an extended harmonica solo over the tight rhythmic groove of bassist John Butler and the phenomenal fillings of drummer Tony Pantellis, the Delta Sonics moved through three hours of original songs while also featuring covers by greats like T-Bone Walker and Bo Diddley. Whether original or cover, all songs were anchored by lead guitarist extraordinaire Bob Pellegrino, who made his dirty work with the slide look easy. When not trading licks with Chesis’ harmonica, Pellegrino’s guitar was at times simply chilling and made the avid blues fans in attendance question whether or not he was channeling the ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughn. The presence lingered into the early morning hours.
The highlight of the evening, though, was Al Chesis himself who engaged in a style of performance showmanship rarely seen these days: one moment he was soloing clean rips on the harp as he moved through the crowd, the next he was hopping up on tables or laying out flat on the giant square bar. All the while, Chesis lead the band through an extended jam featuring a classic “Low Rider” tease which got the crowd dancing and cheering. All appeared to be business as usual for Denver’s hardest-working blues band.
Though well known in some circles, the Delta Sonics just may yet be the city’s best-kept secret. In a genre that’s hardly heard in this part of the country, this four-piece show pulls no punches and regularly creates a magic that most bands have a hard time finding. With a rigorous touring schedule in place and sometimes playing multiple shows a night, they’re not a hard band to check out.
Denver: hundreds of days of sunshine, hundreds of nights of blues.
by Nick Schelke
December 4, 2015
Robert Cray at the Boulder Theater
Written by Kalene McCort for The Grateful Web
June 30 2009
On Sunday, the Boulder Theater simmered with genuine blues bravado, the kind that clings to the air with an intoxicating presence. The source of this beautifully hazy down-home sound came in the form of guitarist and vocalist Robert Cray. This velvet-voiced musician has earned the approval and praise of Eric Clapton, Diana Ross and Tina Turner— and after experiencing his emotion-evoking gig, it was ever so evident why.
Before Cray took to the stage, attendees were treated to the sounds of Denver’s own Delta Sonics. Producing a mixture of blues, jazz, swing and all around juke-joint jamability, these skilled musicians set the mood. Al Chesis’ harmonica playing was reminiscent of Little Walter, while his blue suit was akin to the threads of Little Richard.
After a swing-heavy opener, the Delta Sonics jumped into Sonny Boy Williamson’s classic, ‘Red Hot Kisses.’
The Delta Sonics pushed musical collaboration to the next level. The local group’s set came equipped with on-stage jumping, shoe-shuffling and the overall spicy showmanship of yesteryear.
The Consummate Blues Band
Al Chesis is the classic band leader and front man. He has a great blues voice and adds a lot of high-energy foot stomping and jumping but it's his harmonica playing that makes you stand up and take notice. Al is amazing! He plays the meanest blues harp and takes a backseat to no one when it comes to "blowing his face off."
Westword June 2009- Delta Sonics Never Enough
Outlook on the Blues
Twenty Eighth Street has a big secret. Well, two really. One is The Boulder Outlook Hotel and Suites, which is being discovered by more and more locals as the only place to put up visiting friends and relatives; or to hold a child's birthday party at the fabulous indoor pool. Certainly Boulder's quirkiest hotel. The lobby has the look and feel of stepping into a giant Matisse canvas with Calder accents. A visual treat with vibrant colors reminiscent of a Dutch garden in May (think tulips). So many colors.
Currently, however, the most important color at the Outlook is blue. Well, blues to be more exact. Owner, Dan King, is a true bluesman. A fan. A connoisseur, if you will. He's familiar with the best and is in the distinctive position of being able to book the best at the hotel's bar and restaurant. Over the course of the last year, he has thrice booked legendary blues guitarist, Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin. Which is how I learned the secret, and this preeminent local secret periodically graces Boulder and the Outlook.
I had the great fortune of being introduced to the blues while still in my teens. And also to my great fortune, it was Steady Rollin' himself who provided that introduction. And all these years later, he is still introducing me to the best.
In mid-summer of '05, I learned that Bob was playing at Oskar Blues in Lyons. We'd not seen each other in many years, so after a few emails between us, our reunion was confirmed. Upon arrival, he introduced me to Al Chesis, assuring me I was going to be blown away by his harmonica. We hadn't much catching-up time before he had to take the stage, joining Chesis, John Butler on bass, and Kyle Roberts on drums. I knew to expect only greatness from Bob; to be blown away by his playing as always. Then Chesis hit that harp and I hit the other side of knowledge. Who knew a mere mortal could make a harmonica sound like that ? And those sounds he creates are complemented by a possessive energy that won't release him. Al Chesis is a Master. Having been blessed to have seen countless blues legends live, I have an idea of how it's supposed to be done. Chesis gets it done. All the way done.
When not backing Steady Rollin', Chesis fronts The Delta Sonics. As the name implies, the Mississippi and Delta Blues are present, which is thrilling. But that's not all. Their website, deltasonics.net , is quite informative. The opening of their "Bio" section states: "The Delta Sonics...have been playing in Colorado since 1992, and have established themselves as one of the finest blues acts in the area with their solid musicianship and exciting live performances. Their musical stylings include Chicago Blues, West Coast Swing, New Orleans R&B, and some early Rock n' Roll."
OK. Fair enough, with one grand exception. "Area" is especially misleading, as The Delta Sonics are one of the finest blues acts on the planet. So, if by "area" the author meant for a Universal comparison, then the statement stands correct.
In terms of our local "area," we are truly fortunate. The Delta Sonics are pretty much local. And Boulder now has some regular monthly dates set up.
I only recently got to enjoy the experience that is the Delta Sonics all together.
Chesis. Well, the power of his voice is clear of my verbal capabilities. But it comes with the same possessive energy that seemingly is well beyond his control. His voice is as mesmerizing as his harmonica playing is commanding.
Mr. Butler, the giant gentleman on bass with more than forty years of professional playing, offers the soulful, rhythmic balance to the frenetic physical energy of Chesis. With eyes closed, he rocks back and forth with a calming sway that should seem out of place with his compatriots, but instead feels more like a parent's soothing hand when the kids have had too much sugar.
Speaking of sugar. Willie Panker. Panker is the first drummer to make me take notice of the instrument. I'm kind of a guitar girl myself, so I've not really paid much attention to drummers. After Steady Rollin' introduced me to Willie last year, he told me “He's one of the best drummers around.” He didn't exaggerate. And Panker didn't disappoint. He is, as with his fellow masters on the bandstand, a devotee to the tradition that is the blues, and he does the tradition proud.
As tremendous the distinct talents are of each, as an ensemble they are unreserved perfection, possessing a visceral zeal both dominating and infectious in equal measure; and with that amalgamation, innate physiological reflex disallows the human being the facility to remain sedentary during a performance. At least that was my experience. Or, as D.H. Lawrence puts it so eloquently, “Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.” The Delta Sonics say it hot. And, there is no shortage of genuine passion on the bandstand.
There is also no shortage of vigor, be it unitary or en masse. At times, one is hard pressed to isolate the sources of the detonations of energy radiating from the stage, as they often emerge as one. Then Chesis decides to go to the bar. And Panker decides to give the windows a sound check. Don't understand? Go to one of their gigs and you will. And if you're really lucky, Chesis will be in a guitar mood. He has recently been venturing into the acoustic realm, opening with Panker, just the two of them doing Muddy proud. All the force and fidgeting that overtakes him while on harp are mystifyingly absent; the guitar stills the beast and gives the audience a whole other glimpse into this complex and talented musician. Margolin better watch out.
The Delta Sonics are popular in Denver and are quietly finding their audience in Boulder. That is in large degree because of King's dogged determination to establish a much-needed blues club for our music-loving masses, and with dedicated blues masters like the Delta Sonics regularly dropping by, putting the Outlook on the Blues Map shouldn't take long.
Check out the music calendar at bouldershomeoftheblues.com for their next Boulder gig you won't want to miss a note from these masters. And the pizza is a perfect accompaniment.
BluesWax Online Magazine
For both player and promoter, booking a Blues gig is like romance: you do your best, but sometimes it just doesn't work out well. Every professional Blues musician, from the best on down, has had the experience of traveling thousands of miles to play to a handful of folks or a clueless audience. But sometimes gigs turn out much better than we could reasonably hope for...
Over the last couple of years I've flown to Colorado four times to do gigs with Al Chesis and the Deltasonics , a fine Blues band. I've really enjoyed every show. They play the Chicago Blues I love so well; we can just hit the bandstand and get it. Singing and playing his harp, Al understands the language of playing Blues - where to punctuate, when to support, and when to drive it all the way home. When we play at The Lincoln Roadhouse in Denver, a neighborhood bar whose regular customers are soulful, dancing, down-to-earth music lovers, I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing with my life.
more on www.blueswax.com
Grand County Blues Society
Al and the boys back all the legends that come to Denver because they got the blues down to a sweet science. Pinetop Perkins, Bob Margolin, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, and Bo Diddley have all used the Delta Sonics to support them in their Denver appearances over the years.
Denver Post: Local Scene
"From blues to swing to New Orleans R&B, the Delta Sonics have proved themselves the area's best harmonica led band."
What's Doing In Denver
The Delta Sonics blew it out at Lincoln's Friday and Saturday night. Al Chesis, harmonica player, puts on a fabulous show. Al keeps things rolling. He stands on the bar and blows, he duck walks through the dance floor and around the bar floor never missing a blow on that powerful harmonica. No one else in Denver can blow like Al blows. Catch one of their shows asap.
Bob Margolin Interview: Boulder Camera
"Al Chesis and his band are fine musicians and I'm really looking forward to working with them. We've toured together in the past." ~Bob Margolin
Colorado Bluesmen Defend Tradition
There's still dozens of acts out there that struggle to prove that, no matter what cultural pundits say, blues isn't a dead style. Some attempt to modernize it, fuse it with rock or otherwise tweak the form so much it's hardly recognizable. There's others who are ready to show the style still has a lot of miles left in it simply by showing how contagious traditional sounds can be when they're done right. With a love of blues history, The Delta Sonics are certainly of the latter variety.
The Denver blues act doesn't need any fancy tricks to put its genre on life support; in the Sonics' able hands the blues are a natural, breathing genre. While the band specializes in the Mississippi strains its name implies, its also got a knack for finding a raunchy New Orleans groove that straddles the line between blues and early rock. Of course it isn't anything that hasn't been done for the past 60 years, but the Sonics don't care. Musicologists can ponder the blues' future; its present lies on stage in front of audiences.
-from Hohner International Harmonica Magazine, 1993
Hohner's newest harmonica endorser, Al Chesis, has come a long way since his high school days when he first started playing the harmonica. He used to hide in the school bathroom to practice. And, when cruising with his pals, his friends constantly threatened to kick him out of the car and make him walk if he kept practicing his harp.
Today, fronting his current band, The Delta Sonics, Chesis has been described as "One of the few legitimate harp players." One critic said "Chesis actually makes his harmonica sound like a saxophone, a trombone, and a three-piece horn section."
Chesis, who primarily uses the Hohner Marine Band harmonica, also plays Hohner's Super 64 Chromatic to achieve his harp playing brilliance.
Recently Chesis' harmonica playing has served as a show opener for both the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Taj Mahal.
My Night with Pinetop
The place was packed. And on a Wednesday night, for crying out loud. The Soiled Dove. May 3. Market Street, LODO, Denver, CO. An hour before show time and the waitresses were already giddy with tips. Pinetop Perkins was in the house. The joint was hopping. I made the trip up I25 from Colorado Springs with Santi Guarnerra, half bassman/half blues library. We stopped by his friend Joe the drummer's house. Then Twist & Shout, Santi's favorite Denver music store. Three hours later, we're sitting in pretty decent seats, surrounded by other talented people with facial hair. Musicians are good company. Nothing makes live music sound better than the glorious rumblings of a full house ripe with anticipation. The clinking of glasses. Laughter. Wise cracks. Stories. Blues trivia. Women in tight clothing. Sexual innuendoes. Names being shouted. Cigarette smoke. Beer being spilled. A raucous reunion of old friends making new memories.
Then, the stage lights kicked on. Al Chesis, local blues harp sensation, took the stage with the Delta Sonics and blew the roof off the house. So much for a stuffy smoked filled room. The Delta Sonics, with Al Chesis on harmonica, Leo LeDell and Easy Bill on guitar, John Butler on bass and Kyle Roberts on drums, put the pedal down and screwed it to the floor. And they didn't let it up until they yielded to the headliner. It was a tough act to follow. Dan Todd was sitting next to me. He's a blues legend in the Pikes Peak Blues Community. Deep into it, that Dan. Anyway, Dan whispered to me that it was Al Chesis who put this whole Pinetop thing together but it was Leo LeDell who made it stick. Dan pointed out Leo in the two-tone shirt, saying, "Look how confident Leo is. He's relaxed. He's got range. Totally cool. Hell of a guitar player. Not just a big bag of licks. You should hear him play harp."
The Delta Sonics finished an awesome set and turned it back over to the sounds of a full house, the volume cranked a little higher than before. Bar orders being shouted. Glasses tinkling. More women in tight clothing. Dan Todd and I went outside, during the break, for some fresh air.
The sounds of a jazz club drifted across the street. A sax. A piano. A bass. A ride cymbal. We ambled over and found ourselves standing inches from the band at the stage door. Denver was on fire and nobody was turning in the alarm.
Meanwhile, back inside The Soiled Dove, Willie, Mookie and Bob were starting to kick it off. Dan and I hustled back, showed our hand tattoos at the door and worked our way back to our seats. Pinetop shuffled out of his dressing room wearing a white satin suit with white pinstripes, argyle socks and a snappy pair of black loafers; a taste of Chicago stepping out across the plains, a lesson in style.At mile high altitude you move a little slower, never mind that you have ninety plus years of life-god-almighty under your belt. A bouncer boosted the white satin form up the final eight inches of
stage riser and Pinetop took the stage to a standing ovation. Then he took to the keys, nodding and smiling his appreciation. The bass and drums kicked it into gear and it was hold onto your seat time.
Ahhhhh. So this is how it sounds. Muddy's old band. I was blown away. Imagine your most comfortable pair of shoes turned into music. The immediate effect it had on me was a welling up in my chest. I wondered, "Why does this make me want to cry?" I glanced over at J.C., the 80-year-old DJ - Sr. Citizen of The Airwaves - host of her own Friday night Blues and Jazz radio show on KUVO, 89.3 FM. There was no wondering with J.C. The band was letting it out and so was
she. The Sr. Citizen of The Airwaves and her friend, Mary, were all dolled up for a night on the town, just beautiful. And this was the night. And this was the town. Three legends.
Pinetop Perkins on piano, Willie Big Eyes Smith on drums and Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin on guitar; all riding the spell binding pulse of bassman Mookie Brill, who absolutely killed me later when he played harp and sang.
You can imagine the playlist. With those dudes laying it down, it's enough to say that Muddy was in the room. The blues were alive. And so was Denver. The final set brought members of the Delta Sonics back to share the stage with the legends. Too good to be true, I'm sure, for Al, Leo, Easy Bill, John and Kyle, the lucky bastards.
A couple of cool moments: Willie Big Eyes Smith surprised the bejesus out of Dan Todd when he got up and played Little Walter's Juke damn near note for note. "The drummer for crissakes!" Then, Dan lost his mind completely when Willie followed up with Junior Well's classic HooDoo Man, vocals, harp, the whole deal. Dan was lucky to make it home after that. Poor guy.
Between songs, the ninety year old Pinetop Perkins vamped "shave and a haircut", like a tickled twelve year old; a musical giggle that I took with me on my trip home, back down I25 to Colorado Springs.I opened the car door and pushed Santi into his yard about 2:30 AM. I didn't make it back home to Woodland Park until after 3 A.M. A week or so later, I'm still warm from the fire.