When Phil Wiggins and George Kilby Jr. share a stage there’s more than music going on. Sure, audiences hear great music from these genre-hopping veterans, but as George tells it, you’ll also get to sit in on one of their conversations. When holding such a conversation, Phil and George pull the audience into a space where the verbal blends with the musical, songs spark memories, and memories spark even more more music.
Swallow Hill audiences get to experience what this is like first hand when Phil and George play Tuft Theatre on Friday, February 8 at 8 p.m. We recently got in touch with George via email to learn more about his musical partnership with Phil, their current projects, and his music career.
First off, for fans who might know either you or Phil as solo artists, what can they expect from your concert in Tuft Theatre at Swallow Hill on February 8?
Phil and I have come up with a great formula for our concerts. A word I sometimes use when I describe them is “conversational.” By this, I mean that the three of us (including our bassist Andy Calder) are at home not only talking, joking around with each other, and telling stories, but we often engage the audience in conversation as well. Musically, Phil and I take turns singing our respective songs throughout the gig. The addition of the upright bass is key in that it takes the music one step toward a “band vibe” and allows us to play some grooves that would not fly as a duo. For instance, we do a couple of New Orleans style rhumbas and some blues that hints at the Chicago style. We also incorporate bluegrass, folk and songs that lean toward jazz and rock and roll. Like many artists, we tend to eschew labels.
On a related note, you and Phil have recorded an album together. What is it called and do you know when will fans have a chance to hear it?
We are tentatively calling the record Walk to the Water, which is a song I wrote about the universal nature of the world’s religions. However, that is certainly not the theme of of the album. Included in the collection of songs are themes social consciousness, including racism, the environment, and the difficult issue of gun control, songs of love and loss, and songs that are just plain fun. The album is sitting on Soundcloud right now and we are considering a few options as far as our release. As a special treat to the Swallow Hill Community, we are allowing folks to stream it here. We are also offering “Black Man on the Corner” and “Forgiveness” as free downloads until the day after the show. These two tunes are the flagship songs in the Racism, Reconciliation, and the Blues program.
Before you teamed up with Phil, you performed with Pinetop Perkins for 20 years. How did you become immersed in the blues?
When I was young, I listened to my uncle play Hank Williams songs on the porch. He could do a good rendition of damn near every one of the hits. Then I got into Southern Rock when I finally got my first electric guitar. A typical path for a kid from Alabama. When you really start to understand bands like the Allman Brothers, you start to see that their sound is deeply indebted to the blues. Plus most of the Southern Rock bands made a point of giving credit to the older blues guys on liner notes, in interviews, and even on stage.
By the way, neither Phil nor I consider ourselves “immersed” in the blues. We certainly enjoy playing blues. Don’t get us wrong. If we had to own up to being immersed in anything, I would say that we were immersed in finding our own “voice” and creating our own sound when we play our music, especially our original material. As our mutual friend Bill Dicey once put it: “I am the baddest Bill Dicey this world has ever seen.”
While you are in the Colorado for some concerts, you and Phil will also appear at places like Red Rocks Community College and Youth On Record to share with students a program called Racism, Reconciliation and The Blues. The program is a mixture of music and spoken word that explores our nation’s complex racial history. How – or when – did you and Phil decide to not just collaborate, but to use your unique talents and perspectives to create Racism, Reconciliation and The Blues?
Phil and I were on the road once, and like many musicians on the road, there were mid-week gaps in gigs and income. Performing at schools are a natural place to fill those gaps. I once wrote a performance piece about the history of American roots music that was performed primarily at schools. Our program has some similarities. However it occurred to us that since both the Wiggins and the Kilby families are from Alabama, we have valuable insight on the subject. As well, we both spent much our formative years in Alabama during the civil rights era. This certainly gave us a unique perspective on racism which made a lasting impression on each of us.
Racism, Reconciliation and The Blues can be performed in various settings, from concert halls to school assemblies and other gatherings. Why is it important to you to be able to take it into a multitude of settings?
The most important thing in doing this program is to enact change. It is paramount to adapt the program to lots of settings, especially settings where the audiences experience racism first hand and on a daily basis.
How has your blues background prepared you for a performance piece like Racism, Reconciliation and The Blues?
Mostly from the historical perspective. Blues was originally called “Race Music.” Chuck Berry changed all that. After our introductory (original) tune we start the historical musical journey with a “Field Holler” and a “Work Song”. This is a great way to open up the discussion on racism and to embed that discussion in music.
You’ve worked with Phil, recipient of a NEA National Heritage Fellowship, and before him, Pinetop Perkins, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and Blues Hall of Fame inductee. How does it feel to be part of their legacies, and by extension, the greater legacy of the blues?
Working with what blues fans and the blues music industry calls “Blues Legends” is indeed an honor. However, as my largely unknown (but extremely talented) friend Coco Robicheaux used to say: “Famous is as famous does.” Pine and Phil were and are just plain good people first, and award-winners and blues legends second. You always learn a lot when you work with anyone who has extensive experience in one’s field. However these guys are who they are because of their genuineness, humility, and kindness. Yes, they both can certainly play. Of that there is no doubt. However, Pinetop always used to think of himself as just a piano player, not a star. He always recognized that there were plenty of folks out there that “can play a hell of lot more piano that I can!” Phil will be the first one to make sure that when the industry and fans bring him accolades, that everyone should know about unrecognized players such as Archie Edwards who paved the way for him to arrive in the fortunate place he currently sits.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
That is a leading and dangerous question.