I would say we're always drifting...

It’s been a few years since the celebrated Georgia blues band Delta Moon has played in our area, and in that time, they’ve gone through several changes.

The core group of lap-style slide guitarist Tom Gray, bottleneck guitarist Mark Johnson, and drummer Scott Callison are still onboard, but they have recently welcomed a new bassist into the fold.

Perhaps most importantly, their longtime female vocalist Gina Leigh is no longer with them, having left the band late last year. Her replacement, Kristin Markiton, signed up not long thereafter, and since late 2004, the band has slowly been moving farther away from their already jumbled roots.

Originally an acoustic blues group that wasn’t afraid to place their own idiosyncratic tunes alongside standards in well-received bar and coffehouse sets, the band soon began to develop their own unique sound – a mixture of roots-rock, blues, country and Appalachian balladry that fit nicely into the burgeoning Americana genre. Before too long, they were collecting accolades and playing well-received shows around the region.

That period seemed to culminate in January of 2003, when they beat out fifty other acts to win top honors at Memphis’ prestigious International Blues Challenge.

Yet, since then, they have refused to rest on their laurels and have instead continued to evolve. In fact their latest album features a version of the Iggy Pop glam-rock nugget “Nightclubbing,” of all things.

Their current incarnation is being praised as their best yet, and as time goes by, more and more echoes of vocalist Gray’s pop and rock sensibilities seem to come to the fore (he wrote, among other things, Cyndi Lauper’s mega hit “Money Changes Everything”).

To hear Johnson tell it, though, the band is extremely concerned with not veering too far from their initial course.

I caught up with Mark Johnson by phone during what the band’s manager termed a “much-needed vacation.”

Connect Savannah: I hope I haven’t called you at a bad time.

Mark Johnson: Nope. I’m about to jump into the hot tub out here in Golden, Colorado! (laughs) We already went out to Red Rocks and saw some shows this weekend. We caught Widespread Panic, and it was really great. It’s gotta be the most beautiful music venue in America. There’s a limited number of seats, and it’s really spectacular.

Connect Savannah: I know your bandmates all have a wealth of other musical influences besides roots-rock and blues. Does it ever get hard to keep the band’s sound from drifting too awfully far from what people know you for?

Mark Johnson: Well, I would say we’re always drifting... Especially when we’re writing. Then, at the end of the day when we sit back and listen to the song – whether it’s something we’re writing, or a cover we’re learning – we say, hey, is this Delta Moon? And how we define what we are may be a little difficult. But it has to fit the overall sound of the band. We throw an awful lot of stuff out. It’s hard not to unconsciously draw on a lot of our influences. We’re constantly trying to push the envelope, at least as far as blues goes.

Connect Savannah: Do you tend to throw things out because they’re too rock?

Mark Johnson: Sure. Or too country. ‘Cause we’re not really a country band. Although we do pull in influences like Hank Williams from time to time.

Connect Savannah: Do you wind up writing great songs you just can’t use?

Mark Johnson: All the time. When people ask me what kind of music we play, I have a hard time describing it, and I think that’s when I’m on the right track. When things are hard to explain easily that means there are a lot of different forces at work. People tell us that we sound very unique, and that we’re a breath of fresh air. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment. I think that’s what it’s all about. You know, when you look back closely at all the early blues and country guys that we’ve studied, and compare them to their contemporaries of their time, they’re al so different that you can’t even call ‘em the same thing! They only had regional influences. They were influenced by two guys down the street, or maybe some guy from across the line in Mississippi, and that was it. That was their style, and they put it all together in their own way. I think it’s key to find your own voice. We’re still pushing.

Connect Savannah: The loosely configured Americana format must be a boon to a group like yours, because people it’s much more accepting and tolerant of dichotomous acts – instead of insisting that they be spoon-fed.

Mark Johnson: I think it’s moving even farther in that direction. There’s a whole group of people in America right now that are desperate for some good music. Those are the kind of folks who are travelling great distances to go to places like Red Rocks. They’re already open-minded, and they don’t want their music choices pigeonholed for them. Tom was raised in Appalachia near Boone, North Carolina. They have a family farm near there that goes back generations. I’m more of a hardcore blues player, but we’ve wound up with kind of country flair to what we do. For us, it’s perfect, because all the good acts are all fighting to play festivals, but we’re able to play both Americana and blues.

Connect Savannah: Young people are now getting getting turned onto blues more and more through things like the Fat Possum label, and by alternative acts like The White Stripes or The Black Keys deconstructing and spitting it back out as a modern form of garage rock. How does that relate to what your band is doing?

Mark Johnson: I think the common denominator between the two things is dance. I mean, I love all the stuff you just mentioned – especially the Fat Possum stuff, and it really comes down to providing music that grooves so hard that people just wanna get up and shake their butts. I saw R.L. Burnside at The Variety Playhouse as part of a trio, and he’s just sittin’ there in a chair, and he had the whole place up dancing! That’s what gets the younger people excited. Some of that Chicago stuff just got really stale.

Connect Savannah: One endless shuffle...

Mark Johnson: Hey man, we don’t even do a shuffle! (laughs) We’re clearly trying to stay off the beaten path, but apparently the “blues police” still accept us, so we must be rooted in something traditional.

I gotta admit though, the first time I heard a Robert Johnson tape, I thought boy, I don’t know. I just didn’t hear it. It was so old and scratchy... But I kept at it, and paid attention, and then one day I got it! It’s not about Marshall amplifiers and Les Pauls at this point. Those things weren’t around. But here this guy was – playing with the same intensity.

Tonnect Savannah: What is it about the blues that attracts you to it as a musician?

Mark Johnson: Clearly, the emotion in the playing and in the voices. But, I now hear that in a lot of early country as well. Even a few contemporary artists like Gillian Welch or Lucinda Williams have that same sort of passion and heart in their voices.

Connect Savannah: How difficult was it to weather the loss of your frontwoman, and how smoothly were you able to make the transition to working with Kristin?

Mark Johnson: Amazingly smoothly. We auditioned about a dozen singers, and when she came in, her personality clicked with us right from the start. She’s totally different from Gina, but every bit as talented. Her influences are Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. That’s stuff we were already listening to on the bus, so it worked out just great.

Connect Savannah: You have a brand-new bassist in the group?

Mark Johnson: Well, our drummer Scott Callison and Phil Skipper played for something like five years on the road with (blues guitarist) Tinsley Ellis, so they knew each other real well, and Phil most recently played with a bluegrass band called Cast Iron Filter.

Connect Savannah: For those who remember you from last time you played here, what changes will they notice?

Mark Johnson: I’d say we’re sounding better than ever. And, it’s more groove-oriented. The band’s tighter and stronger. We’ve finally got the right rhythm section with us and I’m smilin’ from ear to ear. I’m having so much fun now that I can’t tell you. I’m so excited about the band because I feel it’s where I’ve needed it to be since it began.

Connect Savannah: Well, I hope it lasts as long as you want it to.

Mark Johnson: I think it will. That’s the key – getting the right people together to make the music you want to make. If you’re really enjoying it, I think the rest just takes care of itself.

Delta Moon’s free concert Saturday night on River Street is part of The Savannah Waterfront Association’s Fantastic Fourth on The River celebration, which also includes all manner of family-oriented entertainment such as: Arts & Crafts Booths, a variety of Food Vendors, The Humane Society’s “Most Patriotic Pet Contest,” a Yellow Ribbon Tribute to our military around the world, and the area’s largest fireworks display set to music.

In addition to Delta Moon, several other popular regional and local acts will be performing on River Street throughout this holiday weekend – including Liquid Ginger, Shol’ Nuff, High Velocity, Jacey Falk and others. For a complete listing (and start times), see this week’s Soundboard Calendar.

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