Feb 15, 2007
Before picking up a harmonica to play the contemporary blues, Ernie Pinata immersed himself in the roots of the music. As a college student, he became interested in cotton-field hollers and work songs, the same a capella numbers sung by African-American slaves as they toiled in the fields that preceded the blues.
An art major at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts in the early ’70s, Pinata learned about the early phases of the blues after convincing his professors to let him embark on an interdisciplinary study of the music. After hours spent researching the music in the UC Berkeley library, the budding harmonica player and vocalist formed the Delta Wires to explore the stuff he was studying.
“The band started as a project, which was an anthology of blues music,” he says.
The Delta Wires began with field hollers and then moved into the country blues of artists including Son House and Charley Patton, the acoustic guitarists credited with pioneering the Delta Blues style. Then, the band started to emulate Muddy Waters and play the electrified version of the music that is still called the Chicago Blues.
When the Delta Wires performed their first gig at his college’s art gallery, Pinata led his new group through a set of numbers encompassing blues’ early history—from the hollers to the works of greats like Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Johnson. Before launching into each number, Pinata explained to the audience the origin of the song.
“I had to really have it together,” he says. “I was getting college credit for this shit, and all my teachers were there.”
Luckily, the crowd was receptive to the Delta Wires first performance. “It was wild,” he says. “Everybody was excited. We were like the school band.”
Pinata believes that his study of the blues was as important as his other coursework. “Blues—c’mon, it’s an art form,” he says. “The history of art is the history of people, you know.”
Pinata also felt that playing all the early phases of the music gave him a greater understanding of the blues. “You appreciate what these people did, and you respect the music,” he says. “You have a respect for the roots of the blues.”
While Pinata was still attending school, the Delta Wires graduated to performing in clubs around the Bay Area. The bandleader recalls playing venues including Berkeley’s Mandrakes and Oakland’s On Broadway. “They were hard to play, because they were so good,” he says.
Even on the day he graduated from college, Pinata had a gig that evening with the Delta Wires. After a party at his grandfather’s house, Pinata played West Oakland’s Continental Club.
Since then, the Delta Wires have made history on their own. The band has picked up a “Best Live Band” nod from the readers of the East Bay Express, which calls the band’s shows “a powerhouse performance marked by riveting horn riffs.” And the Delta Wires have developed somewhat of a local following—the band has performed at the Monterey Bay Blues Festival seven times.
In addition, the group has put out four albums, including 2002’s Tears Like Rain, which included guest spots from Latin-jazz percussionist legend Pete Escovedo, and Vince Welnick, formerly of The Tubes and Grateful Dead.
The Delta Wires’ latest CD is titled Them That’s Got. The title track is a cover of the slinky, jazzy Ray Charles number that reveals the Delta Wires as a well-oiled machine. Meanwhile, the band’s take on Fenton Robinson’s funky soul song “Down Home Girl”—with its watery harmonica solos, guitars licks and ascending and descending horns—also shows the group’s proficiency at playing complicated numbers.
Though complex, “Down Home Girl” has some simply amusing lyrics. Pinata starts the song by singing: “Lord, I swear/ the perfume you wear/ is made out of turnip greens. Every time I kiss your lips/ it tastes like pork and beans.”
Less horn-heavy numbers include the original “Saturday Night in North Beach,” which is a showcase for Pinata’s harmonica playing, and the leaner, bluesier “Devil Got My Woman.”
Having started their career by playing field hollers, Pinata says, the Delta Wires have evolved into something totally different. “Of course, we are as modern as we can be now,” he says.
These days, the horn section is an integral part of the band’s sound. “I will not play unless I have three horns,” the bandleader says.
When asked what kind of blues the Delta Wires currently play, Pinata is decidedly non-academic.
“I just think it’s good-feeling music,” he says. “It’s big band blues.”
THE DELTA WIRES play Sly McFly’s, 700 Cannery Row in Monterey, Saturday, Feb. 17, at 9pm. 649-8050.