Chris Daniels on ‘Blues with Horns’ and When the Student Becomes the Master
Chris Daniels believes Blues With Horns Volume 1, the new album by Chris Daniels & the Kings with Freddi Gowdy, “just scratched the surface.”
The album and future releases aim to “keep the tradition of blues with horns going,” says Daniels who was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2013. “There is so much we didn’t get to—Albert King, Al Kooper’s catalog, Gatemouth Brown, Allen Toussaint, plus the tunes we are writing.”
Blues With Horns Volume 1 is dedicated, Daniels says in the album’s colorful, multi-layered liner notes, to King, Kooper, Bobby Blue Bland, Koko Taylor, Johnny Taylor, Mamie Smith “and all those remarkable men and women who recorded with killer horn sections that I listened to as a kid.” The 10-song album, which comes in the band’s 33rd year together, has four original songs, including the opening-cut blockbuster ”Sweet Memphis,” written by Daniels and featuring Sonny Landreth on slide guitar. Cover songs include compositions by Sam Cooke, Buddy Miles, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
Daniels tells me the album is his long-running group’s best release.
“Freddi Gowdy’s singing is out of the park, his best ever,” Daniels says. “My producing has developed, and I think this album may be the best balance between getting great performances out of the players and the tech side of things. These are players interacting with each other —unlike an assembled track that you create on a DAW (digital audio workstation). Everybody in the band brought their ideas, and that makes for a great feel on every song. I still get excited listening to the record because of the song choices — even after hearing these songs a zillion times while recording and mixing.”
Daniels says he’s excited and thankful, after health-related challenges, to still be creating music.
“I feel like my writing is finally getting to where I like what’s coming out — it’s crafted, heartfelt, and honest. So that’s what I’m thinking about when I’m hiking. That and the fact that I’m still alive to get to do this. Being cancer survivors, Freddi and I are in extra innings. As the old blues song starts, ‘I woke up this morning,’ and, damn, that’s a total gift —something I’m aware of, and thankful for, every day.”
Daniels has lived in Colorado since 1969, so I ask him how the state has seeped into his music and lyrics.
“I think it is in the outlook,” he says. “I think if we were a Brooklyn band or a Philadelphia band our music would reflect that reality. Out here, there are 300 days of sunshine. If you want to be authentic, from the heart, you have to put some of that in the music. Take a song like ‘Fried Food/Hard Liquor’ (the new album’s second song). It could have been a pretty serious, the-world-sucks blues, but instead it’s a celebration of those clubs we’ve played like the Little Bear (located about 30 miles west of Denver) in Colorado.”
Besides Daniels, two original members of Chris Daniels & the Kings—Jim Waddell on saxophone and Kevin Lege on bass—are still in the band.
“Jim’s probably the most melodic sax player I’ve ever worked with” Daniels says. “He draws his lines in a solo like a painter. Kevin has too many tools in his trick bag. The trick with Kevin is to get him to use the right one for the song. He always starts by overplaying and then self-corrects and finds the funky bottom that’s got to be there. I’m just a piker – I don’t know why they keep me around.”
What label can be put on the group’s music?
“It’s horn-drenched funk ’n’ roll or funky roots music with horns,” Daniels says. “But on the new album, Blues With Horns says it all. The Europeans call what we do, what Sam & Dave did, what Tower of Power does, funky blues. But we have a lot more Little Feat in our roots, so roots rock with horns is what my son calls it.”
Daniels says playing on stage with the Kings “is magical — there’s no greater high — when we are listening to each other, playing off each other.”
Such a high has sometimes occurred when the Kings have backed other bands, such as the Colorado Music Hall of Fame show in Denver in August.
“We backed Garth Brooks, John Oates, Amy Grant, Vince Gill, and others, and spent a month working up the show,” Daniels says. “They came in, loved the band, and had a blast. Our band went to another level of playing together. Garth was hilarious. In soundcheck, he kept tossing songs at us and said, ‘Man this is a blast, I could do this all day.’ ”
Daniels lived in Colorado during the 1970s, a golden era for music in the state. So I ask which Colorado-based musicians from that era he views as the best.
“Woof, a batch of them,” he responds, and then mentions a host of nationally known musicians and local legends. “At the top of the list is John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He can play anything. From the same group, Jeff Hanna is one of the best. Randy Barker, Colin Jones, Tommy Bolin, and Sam Broussard are the guitar players, but that doesn’t scratch the surface. Others include Jock Bartley, Michael Reese, Michael Roach, Joe Walsh, Robert McEntee, Tim Goodman, Will Luckey, and on and on. The best singers include Max Gronenthal, Richie Furay, Freddi Gowdy, Henchi Graves, Candy Givens, and Rick Roberts. There is such a wealth of talent in Colorado. That’s why I came here—to get to work with the best—and that’s happened. Lawdy, what a gift.”
Daniels says the best concert he ever witnessed as a spectator was the first one he attended.
“You never forget your first—right?” he asks. “It was the Midwest Rock Festival in Milwaukee in 1969, and I saw Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith, Johnny Winter, John Mayall, Joe Cocker, Bob Seger, and more.”
Daniels, whose band has backed, and recorded with, David Bromberg, says Bromberg is the best showman he has ever seen perform live. Little Feat played the “best guitar tones” he has heard live, and the piano solos of Little Feat pianist Bill Payne “were, and are, epic.” And Gatemouth Brown’s performances taught Daniels “the meaning of the word ‘dynamics.’”
Like some of his mentors, Daniels has also done his share of teaching. He is an assistant professor of music business at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus, and has been teaching college students about the music business for nearly 16 years.
“I started teaching as an assistant professor at a community college in 2002, loved it, and then was hired by the University of Colorado University in 2006,” Daniels says. “The young musicians I work with are smarter, more savvy, more on top of it than my generation ever was.
“What I love is that it is not a one-way street. I’m not the sage on the stage — oh, no. It is an interactive classroom where we work together. I learn, they learn, and the outcomes are incredible. I see my students everywhere — running sound, working as promoters’ helpers, playing in bands that we play with. Hell, I’m opening for their bands. And that is the total gift of teaching: Seeing your student go farther than you could ever have imagined. The student becomes the master.”