Phil Wiggins and George Kilby pushed the blues forward while looking back
If You Go …
Who: Phil Wiggins & George Kilby, Jr.
Where: Turk’s, Snowmass Village
When: Thursday, Feb. 18, 9 p.m.
How much: $15-$20
Tickets: http://www.ticketfly.com and at the door
Harmonica player Phil Wiggins and singer-guitarist George Kilby, Jr. want to make blues music contemporary and keep the form alive. To do that, they’re making music that aims to break the mold, while also talking to young people about the cultural legacy of the blues in America.
“This is not your typical blues show,” Kilby said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t even like using that term.”
The pair will perform Thursday night at Turk’s in Snowmass Village after spending a day with middle schoolers in Aspen.
Wiggins performed for 30 years with John Cephas in the legendary acoustic duo Cephas & Wiggins — a partnership that endured until Cephas’s death in 2009. Kilby, meanwhile, spent two decades with pianist and Muddy Waters acolyte Pinetop Perkins. When Perkins died in 2011, Kilby and Wiggins met and began collaborating.
Together, they’re trying to bring blues into the 21st century while also educating a new generation about its rich past.
“Phil is in his early 60s, I’m in my 50s — we’re not the people that sharecropped and all that stuff,” he said. “We’re really trying to break new ground with the genre.”
In song, these blues masters are tackling contemporary life and issues, looking at racism, religion, economic inequality and climate change. Kilby dubs the Turk’s concert “a conversational show,” in which they give some context for songs, where they came from, why they wrote them and what they’re trying to do with the blues today.
“I guess we realized that, at this point, if blues is ever going to have a new face, it’s this generation — people our age — who are going to do it,” he said. “And if we keep playing Muddy Waters songs and Piedmont blues, then the blues is going to stay the same.”
The pair made the 2012 record “Six Pack” with that in mind. A second album is in the works.
“It’s not a keeper of the flame record,” Kilby said. “We hope blues fans will like it, but we hope those blues folks will become a little more open-minded as to the definition of what the blues is.”
While they’re writing and performing a progressive form of the blues on this tour, Wiggins and Kilby also are talking to young people about history of the art form. Each stop on the tour during Black History Month includes school visits — here in Aspen, they’ll be talking to middle schoolers about how music and race relations in America have intertwined.
Titled “Racism, Reconciliation and the Blues,” the lecture/concert examines the birth of the blues, “race music” and the early days of rock ’n’ roll against the backdrop of race relations in America.
“Blues was looked at, from the ’40s until the ’60s, as primarily black music,” Kilby said. “Up until Chuck Berry and Elvis came along, the blues was made by black people for black people.”
Their talk goes through the schism and controversy surrounding DJs playing songs by black musicians, how the Great Migration birthed the Chicago blues, and how performers pushed for integration of music clubs long before the rest of America gave up segregation.
“It’s a very telling story about our society and about the way we look at race,” said Kilby. “One of the themes is showing the way that music took us apart and how it can put us back together.”
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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