Blues with the Band

Teddy Morgan is only 25 years old, but the blues-guitar hotshot brings to his playing an economy, precision, and taste that is rare among the young guns currently slugging it out on the modern blues circuit. One listen to Morgan's fine second album Louisiana Rain (Antone's/Discovery) proves he has little interest in wearing the guitar god's crown, last owned by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Blues fans impressed solely by speed and flash will find little of interest in Morgan's thoughtful, brief guitar solos. He prefers to keep the emphasis on the songs, and plays with his band rather than over it, leaving plenty of room for flourishes of harmonica, horns, accordion, and organ.

"I've never been a fan of hot-dogging. It's more important to get that band sound," Morgan says somewhat proudly during an interview from Minneapolis. Although he lives in Austin, Morgan was born and reared in the Twin Cities and was enjoying a week off there for the Christmas holiday before climbing back on the tour bus for a run through Texas and Florida. "You don't need to just go over the top with a bunch of selfish licks," he continues, summarizing his musical philosophy. "Let the whole band play and breathe. You've got to work together."

It takes brains to think like that, not to mention ample amounts of restraint and an instinct that tells you when to just sit out and ride the rhythm. Morgan's simple, no-flash style has a lot in common with Memphis session legend Steve Cropper, the guy you hear on soul classics from Stax studio such as "Green Onions," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," and "Soul Man." Cropper was an influence, Morgan says, as was Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin' Hopkins, and ex-Fabulous Thunderbird Jimmie Vaughan, but he honed his skills mostly with the help of some local pickers in Minneapolis. Drawn to music through his exploration of the Morgan family's album collection -- which Morgan says was loaded with "blues, folk, jazz, classical, opera, you name it" -- young Teddy gravitated first to drums, then guitar. In his early teens, he picked up some instructional tips and some blues records from Larry Hayes, guitarist with the regionally renowned blues group the Lamont Cranston Band and a friend of the Morgans.

After quitting school at seventeen to work at music full-time, Morgan landed a spot the next year with the Cranston bunch. As his reputation began to spread throughout the Midwest, he soon attracted the attention of both Kim Wilson (the Fabulous Thunderbirds vocalist/harmonica blower and a fellow Minneapolite) and Los Angeles harpist James Harman, who liked Morgan enough to fly the 21-year-old out to the West Coast to join his retro-R&B combo. After a year's worth of recording and touring with Harman, Morgan was invited down to Austin by Wilson. At the same time, the young guitarist was also being courted by Lone Star blues mogul Clifford Antone, whose Antone's nightclub and record label have been meccas of the domestic blues world for more than twenty years. Morgan was signed to the label in 1994.

"I was really lucky that Clifford took an interest in me," Morgan admits. "He said there were a lot of things he could do for me if I moved down there, that he could sort of point me in the right direction. So I just moved." It didn't take Morgan long to fall hard for the city, known for its vast and rich music history and its vibrant club and recording scene. "It's a great town to live in," he says, "because the music there is so great and you get so many influences there." As an example he cites the artistic vision of Doug Sahm, an Austin hero whose 40-year career has encompassed everything from Tex-Mex and garage rock to doo-wop, soul, swamp pop, and blues. "He doesn't do just one thing, but everything he does is so soulful," Morgan gushes. "And that's what I'm trying to do. It happens that blues music is my favorite, but really I'm into any music with a soul to it."

That's one thing a lot of blues music has been missing for the last twenty or so years. Certainly its mutations following its late-Sixties appropriations by such pyrotechnical masters as Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor have presented the blues as a showcase for elaborate, lengthy, and technically dazzling solos. In the process it lost a lot of its emotional soul and fire: The sound of a tight band riffing intensely in joyous, passionate unison was replaced by the sound of a lead guitarist wailing endlessly over the generic boogie thump of what could be any of a thousand different rhythm sections.

That emphasis on musical showmanship explains why a mediocre singer like Buddy Guy can be hailed as a genius solely on the basis of his fretboard talents. And that's why a singer like Bobby Bland -- maybe the finest blues vocalist alive -- is still touring the same chitlin circuit he did in the Fifties and Sixties, recording for an independent label (Malaco Records of Jackson, Mississippi) that isn't even equipped to handle a national hit if it ever had one. (It hasn't.)

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