Let me start by saying that my girlfriend is a blues junkie and it is because of her that I’m writing about blues in Colorado. We recently went out to catch some local blues bands. I started writing a critique about what I saw on stage. She disapproved. I started over.
Blues is well over a hundred years old. Today, it’s like that old dog-eared novel that you pull out for comfort. You no longer really read it for the detail; instead you put it on for the feels, like a throw blanket on the coach that should have been discarded years ago but is too comfortable to let go.
And, artists keep chasing it – the feels – the groove – the “blues.”
Most of what passes for blues bands in Colorado today are backyard concert party bands playing in small bar and grills and, well, backyard parties and suburban centers and events attended by aging boomers and GenX parents, grandparents and pre-tween kids swingin’ on the grass.
Despite that outlook, there are some stellar blues players capable of capturing broader attention given the right set of circumstances: Some of whom are award winners playing to national and international audiences.
When it comes to blues in Colorado music history, some notable names and organizations come to mind.
Judy Roderick – A University of Colorado student, Judy signed with Columbia and Vanguard Records and released two albums; Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues (1964) and Woman Blue (1965). She also founded and fronted 60,000,000 Buffalo, a Denver based funky blues-rock band that broke up after one album, Nevada Jukebox, in 1973.
Candy Givens emerged with the band Zephyr in 1969. Powered by the hard rock blues guitar of Tommy Bolin, Zephyr put out two well received blues-rock albums before pivoting stylistically in subsequent albums. Tommy Bolin and Zephyr were inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2019.
Although not strictly speaking a blues artist at the time, award winning finger style guitarist Mary Flower moved to Colorado in 1972 and became an instrumental part of Swallow Hill Music and the Blues Foundation’s Blues In the Schools program.
Mary moved to Oregon in 2004, and was the Blues Music Award nominee for Acoustic Artist of The Year in 2008.
Filling the void left by the demise of Zephyr in the early 80s, Big Head Todd and the Monsters embraced blues-rock beginning in the mid-80s. The band would go all in on the blues for two albums as Big Head Blues Club, “100 Years of Robert Johnson” (2011), and “Way Down Inside, the Songs of Willie Dixon” (2016).
Their version of John Lee Hooker‘s classic Boom Boom (Beautiful World, 1997) remains a staple of the band’s live shows today.
The most heavily awarded blues artist in the Colorado blues pantheon is multi-award winner and Colorado Music Hall of Fame inductee Otis Taylor.
In the seventies Otis performed alongside Candy Givens in Zephyr and in the Legendary 4Nikators, another popular Boulder band. Otis left music in 1977 and wouldn’t return until 1997 when he self-released the stunning blues-trance debut When Negroes Walked the Earth.
Otis’ 2008 album Recapturing the Banjo is remarkable, as much for who appears on it as how he reintroduces the banjo as an historical blues instrument.
Other than Otis Taylor, no other significant blues band or artist emerged during the 1990s. Recording was still too expensive for most locally based bands. Exceptions included the late Creighton Holley, Dan Treanor’s band Arclight, David Booker’s Alleygators and Boa and the Constrictors.
Baby boomers now in their mid-thirties to mid-fifties, who grew up on the blues-rock of the 1960s and wanted to escape the deluge of 80s hair-metal bands and 90s grunge, flocked to area bars to catch acts like the Creighton Holley Band, JD & the Love Bandits featuring the late trombonist JD Kelly, the Alleygators, Arclight and Boa and the Constrictors to name a few.
In 1995, under the leadership of David McIntyre, the Colorado Blues Society was formed and opened the door for national and regional blues bands at the growing list of blues specific venues and festivals.
However, it wouldn’t be until the beginning of the 21st century that the next group of blues artists would truly begin to emerge.
To learn more about blues in Colorado, there are two organizations that serve to preserve not only the legacy of blues in Colorado, but also advance it via educational programs: The Colorado Blues Society and the Mile High Blues Society. Please visit and support.
I’ll be back soon for The Blues in Colorado – Part II – the 21st Century