Def Leppard's Phil Collen goes back to the roots of it all with Delta Deep
I guess it is inevitable. At some point during every great guitarist's life, they seem to take that Mecca-like pilgrimage to the blues. It's only natural. Blues takes its name from that state of depression or feeling melancholy, while the performer and listener overcome those feelings and lift spirits in the space of a few minutes.
Legendary blues guitarist B.B. King describes it, "The blues is pain, but it's pain that brings joy."
After selling more than 100 million albums and having two albums with RIAA Diamond certification for selling 10 million copies, Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen has taken that trip down the Delta on his latest side project that he said reminds him of his younger days when he first picked up a guitar.
"I got my first guitar when I was 16 after seeing Deep Purple in concert," he said. "I remember Richie Blackmore playing right in front of me and see that aggressive outpouring of expression. I knew that I wanted to do that. I learned to play by listening to the blues from guys like BB King, Duane Allman, Albert King, and Freddie King. They were true blues players. Then you had Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page that you could tell they played the blues but made it their own. They had this passion and fire that you could hear in their playing that you just don't see today.
"So many musicians today say that they play the blues, but it is a glossy style of blues. There is no agony or pain. I really wanted to bring that expression that you would see from a guy like BB King. That's what led me to Delta Deep."
GOING DOWN THE DELTA
Delta Deep, what Collen calls his extreme blues project, is the band he put together with singer Debbi Blackwell-Cook, drummer Forrest Robinson, and Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo with special guests David Coverdale (Whitesnake) and Joe Elliott (Def Leppard).
Collen said he wanted to keep the expression and write songs from the heart that he remembers hearing out of his blues guitar heroes instead of the stylized, commerical reproduction of the blues that we hear today.
"The blues started from slavery, then it was spiritual and gospel songs, and blues," he said. "The blues were started by a bunch of guys who could barely play guitar, but were able to express themselves. They sang about the hardships they experienced in the Deep South, and you could feel the pain and agony that they felt in their music.
"Those musicians didn't follow a script or a set list. They just played what they felt. I think that if you are a true musician, then there shouldn't be any restrictions or limitations. No boundaries."
Collen says working on the album was effortless and gave him that freedom to step outside his comfort zone musically and explore new areas, including learning to play slide guitar for the song "Bang the Lid."
AN INNOCENT ACOUSTIC GUITAR
And this whole train started rolling with just an innocent acoustic guitar.
"It really happened by accident. One day, I started playing on my acoustic and Debbi started singing. We played a bunch of Motown tunes and then we just started writing songs with my wife Helen.
"That love of the blues really came out in our songs. It felt very natural."
And Collen said hearing Debbi sing was like hearing Aretha Franklin for the first time.
"Debbi lost her son to gun violence and you can really hear her pain and anguish in her voice. She channels that pain when she sings. Her expression is just wonderful. And when she gets out front of an audience, she is just killing it. It's a thrill to watch her sing."
ENJOYING THE CREATIVE PROCESS
One of the first songs that the two wrote together was "Miss Me," with Collen taking co-lead vocals as well as an opening guitar lick that sounds like a tribute to Austin's own straight-ahead bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan. Collen's vocals have the raw, gritty power you would expect from someone who has been schooled from some of the best.
It quickly became apparent that they had a recipe for something special, so they went out searching for like-minded musicians with the same passion.
"I met Forrest years ago and knew that he had the chops to play with us. Forrest can play hip hop like he has with TLC and Arrested Development, but what he really wanted to play was metal. I told him about this blues project I was developing. I played it for him and he was like 'I've got to do this.' He was all in.
"And adding Robert was a no brainer. Everybody knows him from Stone Temple Pilots, but not many people know his love of Motown. That really added that final piece we needed to form Delta Deep."
But don't think that Collen strayed away from his rock and roll roots completely, as one review said that "Delta Deep kicks the blues in the ass," as it has electrified the blues without losing the feeling. It's coming from a truthful place.
"The album goes from spiritual, gospel to electric Chicago blues," he said. "It touches on all those genres of music."
With a bunch of original songs and covers of Deep Purple's "Mistreated" and Humble Pie's "Black Coffee," Collen and his band have given the music business the injection of energy it has been lacking in recent years.
"I had so much fun doing it," Collen said about recording Delta Deep's debut album. "This record really came out of my love of true blues music."
The opening track "Bang the Lid" has that infectious electric slide guitar hook that blends perfectly with Debbi's soulful vocals, while "Down in the Delta" is a raucous song about slavery that lets Collen delve into new territory and experiment into areas that being in Def Leppard doesn't allow you to go.
"(Def Leppard) was sort of a product of its own success as our fans expect a certain sound or song from us," Collen said. "I couldn't do a song like "Treat Her Like A Lady" or "Down in the Delta" on a Def Leppard album. There are certain parameters that you can't stray from. It is a bit restricted. This album has been a brand new experience for us."
And Collen said that his years working in the studio with Def Leppard have crept its way onto his new batch of songs.
"Oh of course it was an influence," he said. "Mutt Lange was a genius. I learned so much from him. He is so inspiring. He was so focused and wanted things a certain way. I took the same approach to recording this album."
Playing bringing his new music to the masses is something that has Collen grinning from ear-to-ear, as the reaction from his early live gigs have been extremely rewarding.
"Wherever we play live, it really seems to work," he said. "We toured on West Coast last summer and we were shocked at the reaction. Debi's voice really reached a whole new level and helped us bring out the toughness in the songs. The crowd was really into it and couldn't have been any better. They seemed to really get into the music.
"And the chemistry we have on stage is undeniable. This is why I picked up a guitar in the first place."
Delta Deep is set to commence a short tour of the East Coast which begins at Howard Theater in Washington DC on March 28 before Phil heads out with Def Leppard on their summer tour with REO Speedwagon and Tesla beginning on May 4 with a stop in Austin on Aug. 19.
DELTA DEEP's East Coast "Sugar Shack" Tour Itinerary
March 28 Howard Theatre Washington, DC
March 29 Ortlieb's Lounge Philadelphia, PA
March 30 Wonder Bar Asbury Park, NJ
March 31 Iron Horse Music Hall Northampton, MA
April 3 BB Kings New York, NY
April 5 Cavern Club at Hard Rock Café Boston, MA
April 6 Daryl's House Pawling, NY
April 8 YMCA Boulton Center Bay Shore, NY