Texas Music Hall Of Fame member Van Wilks Band with special guests Mike Morgan and The Crawl
When you think Texas blues-rock, you think Van Wilks’. There are few names that have lasted and flourished within the Texas music scene like Wilks. Fads come and go, but Van Wilks is here to stay, as evidenced by his latest release, 21st Century Blues.
Like the steam engine on the cover, 21st Century Blues, his first studio album in 10 years, is a powerful beast that keeps on rolling from start to finish. Recorded at studios in Austin and France, 21st Century Blues is the real deal. This diverse collection of songs highlights Wilks’ impressive guitar styling with his striking lyricism to create a contemporary blues-rock masterpiece.
As Wilks says, “This is not a typical “blues” record. This is “MY BLUES” and even though the songs jump from one feel to another the common thread that holds it all together is my guitar. It’s just that ‘Low Down, Wound Up, Rockin’ Texas Blues.’”
The lead track, “Strange Girl,” lets you know from the onset what kind of album 21st Century Blues will be. With its fiery guitar work and cutting lyrics, “Strange Girl” bridges the gap between the blues-rock of yesteryear and contemporary rock, leaving the listener wanting more. Van Wilks does not leave us waiting, as the following track, “Drive By Lover, ” co-written with long time friend and ZZ Top member, Billy F. Gibbons, delivers an inexplicably Texas fueled performance dripping in blues guitar goodness.
As described by Wilks, the path to having “Drive By Lover” on the album was long and winding. “We played around with the idea for years in late night hours at my house on Elizabeth St. in South Austin. It was forgotten until Billy asked me if I could revive it or even remember it! I sent him a few vignettes from a barely working cassette and a few hours later he played me the track from a LA studio. ‘Whip up some words, Dusty’s ready to give it a go’, he said. So I put the pen to the paper and the, long in the making, tune ends up on ZZ’s ‘La Futura.’ Billy came out to the studio and we “messed it up” just right for my take on our tune.”
Just as you feel you have 21st Century Blues figured out, tracks like “Just Walk Away” and “There’s A Sin In There Somewhere” emerge to reassemble the listeners’ image of Van Wilks. “Just Walk Away” is a slow ballad that creates an atmosphere that draws the listener in and allows them to connect with Wilks on a level that transcends music. After listening to “Just Walk Away,” one would think Dan Auerbach took a page from Van Wilks’ book, as the comparison is only a natural one.
One of Wilks’ favorite tracks, “There’s A Sin In There Somewhere” is a 6-minute tour de force that is truly a tale of two songs. The track begins with the crackle of a vinyl record, paying homage to the greats that came before him. Soon, a slick, 1929 Dobro lick emerges, accompanied by the stomp of Wilks foot, his robust voice, and the continued crackle of vinyl. Once you begin to settle into the song, a roaring electric guitar vaults you from your seat, bringing the song into the 21st Century. Wilks flexes the guitar muscle he is known for, filling the song with incredible solos. Overall, “There’s A Sin In There Somewhere,” reminds you why Van Wilks’ music is built to last.
Born in Galveston, TX, Van Wilks began playing guitar at a young age as a youthful refuge while his family constantly moved around Texas. Influenced heavily by the British Invasion, Wilks began to hone in on his sound early on. He moved to Austin in the early 70s, a time when guitar was defined by volume and power. Combining previous influences and his own style, Wilks brought his guitar muscle and class to the people of Austin through his popular band, Fools. Wilks’ distinct and unique ability caught the attention of many notable industry names, including ZZ Top manager, Bill Ham. In 1979, he signed with Mercury records and released his first record, Bombay Tears, in 1980.
Since his first release, Van Wilks has built an illustrious career that includes six solo albums, one live album, and multiple globe-spanning tours with acts such as ZZ Top, Heart, Van Halen, Journey, Aerosmith, and countless other. His career has led him on a scorched earth path from Texas to Moscow, the Virgin Islands to India, and everywhere in between. Along with that, Van Wilks was featured on ZZ Top’s Live at Montreux Jazz Festival DVD.
Throughout the years, Wilks has acquired an impressive trophy collection, winning multiple Austin Music Awards, being voted best electric and acoustic guitarist in the Austin Chronicle Readers Poll, and being inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. In addition to that, Wilks guitar prowess has been featured on albums such as the Geezinslaw Brothers’ The Eclectic Horseman (w/ Willie Nelson), The Texas Christmas Collection (Duet w/ Eric Johnson), Texas Guitarslingers Volume I, Double Trouble’s Been A Long Time, and KLBJ-FM’s Local Licks.
Van Wilks credentials highlight his successful and storied past. 21st Century Blues lets us know that Van Wilks will continue to be a trendsetter that is here to stay.
Mike Morgan was born in Dallas on November 30, 1959, and grew up in nearby Hillsboro, Texas. Morgan displayed an avid interest in music as a youngster, listening intently to the impassioned soul sounds of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett on local radio stations. He received his first guitar while in the third grade, but didn't begin to take playing seriously until he discovered Stevie Ray Vaughan's album, Texas Flood, in 1985.
"When I heard Stevie's first album, that was it," Morgan recalls. "I already knew how to play the guitar, but Stevie showed me a lot of things I didn't know. After that, I dove headlong into playing the blues."
As his prowess on the guitar developed, it became clear that he was not merely a Stevie knock-off, but rather an original player with a sound and style all his own. Mike moved to Dallas in 1986 and soon hooked up with experienced vocalist Darrell Nulisch (formerly with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets) to form The Crawl (named after an old jukebox hit by guitar great, Lonnie Brooks). Darrell had a tremendous knowledge of blues and a deep collection of blues records, and he exposed Morgan to the music of the Chicago blues scene and many of its key players.
Mike Morgan and The Crawl quickly made a name for themselves as one of the best contemporary blues bands in Texas, writing original songs that were on a par with the classics they chose to cover. After Nulisch left the band in 1989, Morgan set out to find a vocalist who would fit his desire for a broader-based R&B sound. He found the perfect match in Kansas City native and blues veteran Lee McBee, whose smoky, seasoned vocals were reminiscent of the legendary 1960s soul singers Morgan listened to while growing up. The fact that McBee was also an accomplished and revered harmonica player added more fuel to The Crawl's fire.
Mike and Lee's collaboration proved popular with blues fans and appearances at the Benson & Hedges Blues Festival, the Dallas Blues Festival, the Atlantic City Blues Festival, and the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival soon followed. As the profile of the band continued to rise, Mike's friend Anson Funderburgh recommended them to Blacktop Records owner Hammond Scott. Scott first saw the band at a show at The George Street Grocery in Jackson, Mississippi. He was so impressed he met with the band at their hotel immediately after the show to discuss signing with the label.
Mike Morgan and The Crawl found a national audience with the release of their debut recording, Raw & Ready, in 1990. Backed up by extensive national and international touring, Mike Morgan and The Crawl continued to amaze their fans throughout the 1990s by releasing five highly regarded albums, Mighty Fine Dancin, Full Moon Over Dallas, Ain't Worried No More, Looky Here!, The Road, and I Like The Way You Work It. Morgan even kept a high profile during some downtime away from the band in 1994 by recording Let The Dogs Run, a highly acclaimed record that paired him with fellow Dallas guitarist Jim Suhler.
Meanwhile, praise for Morgan and the band came flooding in. Guitar World Magazine called Morgan "a genuine blues guitar hero!!"
Blues Access Magazine raved, "Mike Morgan and The Crawl crank up an irrepressible mix of fresh gritty blues and romping Stax/Volt-era soul."
New Years' Eve 1999 saw an end to the Morgan /McBee era of Mike Morgan and the Crawl. As Lee ventured out to do his own band back in his home state of Kansas, Morgan decided it was high time he took over as front man. After years of great frontmen such as Lee McBee, Darrell Nulisch, Chris Whynaught, and Keith Dunn, Mike was ready to take on the new challenge.
In 2000, Texas Man, Mike's first vocal outing was released on Severn Records. Texas Man met rave reviews and was followed up in 2004 by Live in Dallas. Stronger Every Day was released by Seven Records in 2007 and had guest appearances by Lee McBee and Randy McAllister.
Mike did not tour much after 2006. While he still played local gigs and a few scattered tour appearances, he spent most of his time with his other love, motorcycles. As the sales manager of a Mesquite, TX-based motorcycle dealership, he was not able to tour often, but always found time to play and jam around DFW.
"Basically I didn't write any new songs between 2007 and 2018," says Morgan. "I just quit writing and I got into that work slump. I came home from work, turned on the TV, had dinner, maybe a drink, and went to bed. The difference was I got to sleep in my own bed every night and I got paid every day I worked. I didn't have to cold call bars in far-flung places, no booking hotel rooms, and no rushing around the country trying to get to gigs on time. In comparison, a regular day job was almost a vacation."
When that shop closed, Mike once again felt the draw of the music business. He landed a new job at another motorcycle shop but he now hopes to get out and tour again.
"When the motorcycle shop shut down, I made myself start writing again," says Morgan. "Once I got going I came up with a bunch of ideas for songs. I do plan on touring if it makes sense financially," says Morgan. "I want to tour. I want to play. The last time we went out was a midwest tour with 12 or 13 nights in a row back in 2019. We made money on that tour, but it's very hard to get that many dates together anymore. And that was before Covid. People think you're just partying out on the road but it's supposed to be WORK. If I have to sit around a hotel room for days between gigs I'd rather be at the motorcycle shop, making money every day, and sleeping in my own bed."
In addition to his own band, Mike has been working with some of his old friends, Anson Funderburgh and Shawn Pittman, as The Texas Blues Guitar Summit. Fresh off an incredible European tour in 2022 and just signed to M.C. Records finds Mike is reinvigorated and feeling the call of music once again. His new CD on M.C. Records is expected out in September 2022. With his years of experience, knowledge, skills, and talent, we can look forward to a lot of great new music from Mike Morgan and the Crawl.