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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.)

Much of the music's long-AWOL soul and fire has been restored of late, thanks largely to Delta blues revisionists Keb' Mo', Corey Harris, and Alvin Youngblood-Hart. Likewise, Mississippi primitivists R.L. Burnside, Cydell Davis, and Junior Kimbrough have each crafted excellent albums built around jagged, idiosyncratic guitar playing and raw, unbridled vocals. Bobby Bland's 1995 release Sad Streets was a gritty, urban soul triumph that, typically, never found an audience outside the soul markets of the mid-South. And for a while there, back in the mid-Eighties, Robert Cray was breaking new ground all over the place -- as a singer, songwriter, bandleader, and guitarist -- redefining the music's vocabulary just as he expanded its audience. His 1986 album Strong Persuader was a huge hit that year -- one of those fluke occurrences when a great album actually finds its way into the mainstream.

Morgan isn't that good yet, as either a singer or a songwriter, and because his two albums have each featured different casts of backing players, it's hard to gauge his strengths as a bandleader. He cut his first album, 1994's Ridin' in Style, with backing by the Sevilles duo, but the new one features a wide cast of players, including former Blasters pianist Gene Taylor, Austin guitarist Derek O'Brien, and -- on "Full Grown Man" -- Kim Wilson. Morgan's road band these days includes drummer Robb Stupka (who has played with Luther Allison and Gary Primach) and bassist Jon Penner, a long-time sideman for Austin blues artist Sue Foley.

Louisiana Rain is a marked improvement over its predecessor, from his more assured vocals to his growing confidence as a writer. Where Ridin' in Style checked in with only three Morgan-penned cuts (the remaining six being obscure blues covers), the new album features eight Morgan originals, including the autobiographical "Full Grown Man" and the fairly remarkable title cut, which he says came to him during a stay in Mandeville, Louisiana, just north of New Orleans, in the disquieting still of an impending hurricane. He keeps the covers to a minimum, but opens the set with an amazing rendition of Don Covay's lost nugget "Take This Hurt Off Me" and turns in a smoldering revamp of Jimmy Rogers's Chicago blues gem "You're the One." His playing throughout the set is impressive, from the short, furious blast that interrupts the Texas-blues shuffle "You Wouldn't Change" to the contemplative licks he peels off during the Cajun swamp rocker "Baby Don't Leave Me," a zydeco instrumental by Geno Delafose to which Morgan added a pleading lyric.

"I think my songs are getting better," Morgan says, somewhat cautiously. "It's something that keeps developing. I only started writing just before I moved to Austin because I realized it was something I had to do. Sometimes, like with 'Louisiana Rain,' it just happens. I got this whole story and melody in my mind that day and finished it a few days later. I hit a spurt there for a while where I wrote a bunch of songs in a real short period of time." He pauses and laughs, then admits he's been suffering lately from writer's block. "I'm waiting for one of those spurts again. It's getting a little frustrating, because I keep coming up with these cool ideas, but nothing else. I have some things in the works, but nothing is finished. It hasn't been for a while."

If Morgan can chip a hole through his current block, he'll have to do it on the road: He just finished a six-week tour before the holidays, and will be back on the bus through March for treks across the U.S. and Europe, then he's off to Australia for two weeks of early-summer dates. Morgan is on the road so much he hasn't even bothered to find an apartment in Austin, but his schedule suits him fine. "We're out all the time, but I love it. There's just something about playing constantly in different cities and meeting different people. You gotta play no matter how you feel, but usually I feel great. If you're sick or something, you get up on-stage and you just forget about it. When you travel on the road, there aren't any distractions; you don't have to think about anything but playing. It's like a vacation."

Teddy Morgan performs Saturday, January 11, at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave; 374-1198. Showtime is 10:00 p.m. Cover charge is $5.


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