Up From Way Down, Denver’s Delta Sonics Put Soulful Blues on High

by Nick Schelke
December 4, 2015

7:35 AM

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
7:35 AM

Robert Cray at the Boulder Theater

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.

Full Review

The Consummate Blues Band

by Chick Caveallero

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

On Never Enough, Margolin and the Sonics collaborate on four cuts, and local blues pianist Ralph Dafermo joins in on three others. Esteemed guests aside, the core unit sounds as rock-solid as ever here, with singer Al Chesis offering some killer harmonica and guitarist Erik Boa tearing it up throughout. And with bassist John Butler and drummer Willie Panker rounding out the lineup, it's hard to get enough of Never Enough.   Jon Solomon- Westword.

Outlook on the Blues

July 2007 By Honey Sepeda, bouldershomeoftheblues.com

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.