Blue Heron takes listeners through history with bluesy tone

Editor’s note: Throughout the summer, Sentinel reporter Dusty W. Sipes has written weekly features on local artists who perform various genres of music. This week’s feature is the final installment of the series, and focuses on the bluesy beginnings of Blue Heron.

MIFFLINTOWN – At the core of Blue Heron lies a passion for nostalgia, beautiful memories, emotions, and the blues. Lead singer Delphine Kirkland says one of their trademarks is the group’s wild variation in style: from Gershwin to Tom Waits, and Aretha Franklin to Stevie Nicks.

“The thing that is at the top of the list when choosing songs to cover is love for the song or the artist or both. The love is for the mood, the lyrics, memories from the time the song was popular, personal meaning. Some (songs) are obscure and some were very popular at some point. Sometimes I’m singing something I haven’t though of since I was a kid and Dave (guitarist of Blue Heron and Kirkland’s husband) hears me and says, ‘We ought to do that one.’ Or one of the other guys that play with us says, ‘Hey, have you ever though about doing” Kirkland said.

Dave and Delphine met in 1978 when she was a student at Duke University – Durham was Dave’s hometown. Delphine says Dave heard her singing Dan Fogleberg’s “To the Morning” and loved it.

“Since he played guitar, we messed around with the idea a bit but he wasn’t really into just learning other people’s stuff lick for lick,” she said.

“When we lived in Canada, we played a few gigs with friends and people encouraged me to sing but it was still not a big deal,” Delphine said.

Delphine says her early singing had nothing to do with entertaining others,

“My family was involved with gospel music. My father was the spokesman, manager and mouth bass player for a gospel band called the Metrotones. On Saturday nights, there were ‘singings’ with a variety of gospel groups. This was happening in the early ’60s in South Carolina. They actually did pretty well, and being close to Augusta, Ga., they were able to attract some groups that became big names: The Five Blind Boys, The Mighty Clouds of Joy. When the gospel groups played, everyone joined in. So I was about 5 or 6 and I sang real loud because it was fun. Then there was also the fact they practiced in our living room, so I grew up with live music. There were a lot of people that sang well where I grew up so I never paid singing much attention. I never sang in public, in the choir or chorus, and I don’t recall ever thinking there was any reason I should,” Delphine said.

During her early years, Delphine spent a lot of time reading and went through a poetry era. “When someone gave me a Dan Fogelburg album, I loved it. He’s still my favorite. I had to sing those poems so I sang with him hours a day. Got every album as they came out and kept singing. I was a DJ at the local radio station, WDOG, all through high school. The station was a trailer in the middle of a field surrounded by the towers, isolated. So I was in there with some pretty good sound during the mid- and late-’70s. It was a top pop station but pop was good back then. Paul Simon, Warren Zevon, all of that stuff was hot and I sang along, alone in the radio station,” Delphine said.

Dave has been playing guitar for 47 years and starting making a musical transition when he began working with Delphine,

“At first I didn’t have any approach to other people’s music because I only played my own stuff. Over time I started learning other people’s music to accompany Del,” he said.

“I started out playing rock and emulating the bands I like. Later I took lessons from players that were more jazz-oriented so that changed my playing. Before that I lived in North Carolina, so my rock was heavily influenced by bluegrass back when I met Del in 1978. I always loved the old blues players and used to listen to them all night long on the radio – that was in the ’60s. Rock was new when I was a kid so I was fascinated with the cutting edge work of people like the Beatles, Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd.

“James Taylor played in Durham, N.C. often so I really liked his music. I arrived in San Francisco the year after ‘the summer of love’ and music was in the streets and the parks. I was at Woodstock; made it through the whole thing and saw Hendrix that last morning. I came out of the whole thing knowing that I wanted to play some music and express myself that way,” David said.

Blue Heron is the most recent project fronted by Dave and Delphine. Occasionally, musicians John Mertz will sit in on live shows on bass, and Marc Aucker will cover percussion. In addition to playing an array of music covers, Dave will sometimes compose original material for the band.

“I come up with a lot of music ideas. I usually come up with instrumental stuff first and then work up lyrics to fit. Sometime, less often, I get a fragment of lyric and start there. I come up with ideas all the time and they drift in and out. But sometimes I come back to the same thing over and over and I end up making it into something. It’s been a while. I can usually decide I’m going to work on writing and if I work on it, it happens. We really feel like we need to get back to writing more of our own stuff,” Dave said.

Delphine considers the 2010 Big Tree a magic moment on stage.

“We were playing with Clark Lewis that day. He’s incredible and no one had ever seen him so that was a buzz. The sun was setting behind us and there were really a lot of people in the audience. The reaction was great! The crowd was really helpful. It was sweet because the most encouraging people were other musicians. This was our second time on a stage in over 20 years for Dave and I so we were pretty nervous. Clark was sweating bullets. When we play the Tom Waits song people were really into it. They were pretty wild,” Delphine said.

Delphine said the group wants to play out more in the future and develop more original material.

“We also want more genre-specific sets. We want to be good enough to go into a larger venue and play, say, a Billie Holiday set, or a blues or jazz set. We want to be able to play blocks of soul, reggae, jazz, blues, folk and other styles,” Delphine said.

Blue Heron’s next public show will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 5, at the Juniata Winery October Festival. They will also perform from 9:30 to 11:30 that night at the County Village Restaurant and Lounge in Yeagertown.

Blue Heron can be contacted through Delphine Kirland or Back Home Trading Facebook pages. A Blue Heron specific page is currently in the works.