Buddy Guy is the last of the great guitar slingers. Inspired by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, he was an inspiration for Hendrix and Clapton, as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan and a host of lesser lights. But after Vaughan’s untimely death in the summer of 1990, a generation began to lose interest in the blues. Now Buddy Guy is afraid that the music he loves may die with him.
He may be right about the shuddering, grimacing guitar hero—all the signs point to his demise. But the music is alive and well in the hands of a new generation who, like the Rolling Stones in the early ’60s, are digging into the roots of the music created by Waters and Wolf and reviving its spirit. If you venture down to Rhythm & Brews on Thursday night you’ll hear the blues born again when the Nashville-based band, The Delta Saints, start to play.
The band’s members met in the music program at Belmont University in Nashville a few years ago. The bass player, David Supica, and the drummer, Ben Azzi, are from Kansas City, while the band’s singer and dobro player, Ben Ringel, and guitarist, Dylan Fitch, are from Nashville. The newest addition, Alabama-born harmonica player Steven Henner, replaced Greg Hommert, whose furious energy is a high point of the band’s recently released debut album, Death Letter Jubilee. But Henner, who joined the band during its recent European tour, more than holds his own.
Ringel and Fitch are devotees of the guitar heroes mentioned earlier, but this is a band of equals, and neither of them indulge in lengthy solos. In fact, on many tunes it’s Henner on the harmonica who plays that role as he shadows Ringel’s vocals, pushing and prodding the singer.
But Ringel is a gospel fan, and he more often takes his cue from the preachers and players he’s listened to on Nashville’s gospel station, The Light. “There’s so much attention to dynamics in gospel music, and that’s something we try really hard to put into our live shows,” he told me recently.
The band’s attention to dynamics is apparent from the first song on its debut album. Called “Liar,” it’s a limber, second-line shuffle with an edgy lyric about a heartbreaker with few qualms about the singer’s obvious distress. But the edge in his voice, combined with the band’s punchy thrust and intense, throaty harmonica, go a long way toward making the case that he’s the one that’s been done wrong.
It’s on “Death Letter Jubilee,” however—a great example of the band’s gospel-rooted approach to the blues—that The Delta Saints’ remarkable sense of dynamics really kicks in. The temperature slowly rises as the tempo increases until they reach the middle eight and suddenly everyone drops out, and the tune turns into a handclapping-and-harmonica-driven ring shout until the drummer slowly fades in and the train begins picking up steam again. Their carefully honed dynamics developed over countless one-nighters over the past two years makes the song a show-stopper on the record. Live, it surely brings the crowd to its feet.
“Jezebel,” a deliberately paced showcase for Ringel and the harmonica player, segues into a racing Mississippi Fred McDowell-style strut with a wailing Little Walter harmonica, searing slide guitar and a demon-possessed vocal from Ringel, who sounds as if he’s finally reached the end of his tether with that jezebel who’s been pulling his chain since the beginning of the album.
That push-forward, pull-back dynamic is repeated throughout the album. “Drink It Slow” is a medium-tempo shuffle followed by “From The Dirt,” a tense rocker that opens with the bass tracing thick, circling lines around the drummer’s steady 4/4 beat. Slowly the slide slips between them as Ringel begins amping up the tempo, his smoker’s rasp raging against that same insensitive hussy.
Ringel is the quintessential preacher exhorting his congregation while driving his band mates ever higher. If you miss the show on Thursday, no worries. I’d be willing to bet it won’t be long before they’re back.
The Delta Saints
Thursday, Jan. 17
Rhythm & Brews
221 Market St.
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.