Iowa Blues Hall of Famer Dennis McMurrin plays Yacht Club

BY RYAN FOSMARK | JULY 30, 2009 7:11 AM

He’s got heaps of soul and tubs of funk, and, evidently, he’s got blues enough to make it into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame.

Dennis McMurrin has been entertaining people with his guitar since before he was out of high school, playing his first paying gig in 1963. Scott Kading, the current owner of the Yacht Club, saw McMurrin in the ’80s and early ’90s — the days of the old Yacht Club — and that spurred him to bring McMurrin back to the renovated venue on the first Saturday of every month.

Dennis McMurrin & the Demolition Band play on Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Yacht Club, 13 S. Linn St., in support of McMurrin’s new record Dennis McMurrin: They Call Me Daddy-O. The album features collaborations with Terry Lawless of U2 and Sly Stone. Admission is $6.

“This is a really big release for me,” McMurrin said.

Yacht Club manager Pete McCarthy recalled the countless times McMurrin has graced the venue’s stage.

“He’s an incredible guitar player,” McCarthy said. “I’ve never seen anyone like him. His band can barely keep up with him.”

On top of McMurrin’s skilled hands, he’s also very inventive with his playing. He utilizes the tuning knobs on the headstock of his guitar for a certain musical effect and also creates what he calls the Banjo Synthesizer.

“He’ll put a clean bar rag over his guitar and make it sound like a banjo and all this other shit,” McCarthy said. “I’ve never seen anyone do stuff like that. That’s part of the allure of the show — you never know what he’s going to do. He’s always doing something different, and he’s always really good.”

Marty Christensen, one of the owners of the Mill and a renowned bass player, has known McMurrin for more than 20 years, and he played with him in the Demolition Band for more than half of that.

“I met him on a gig,” Christensen said. “He walked in about five minutes before we were supposed to play. We were introduced, and I said, ‘So what are we going to do tonight?’ and he said, ‘Well, ehh … just keep your eyes on me.’ We’ve rehearsed probably four times in 20 years. I learned a lot from playing with him, and I learned almost all of it on stage.”

Christensen describes his relationship with McMurrin as brotherly — he has a deeper, more personal connection with the local legend than do a lot of people.

“One of the most interesting things about Dennis is while he does a lot of guitar-player stuff, what he hears in his head is a lot of horns,” Christensen said. “Listen to his rhythm playing. If he’s not doing a straight boogie-woogie lick or a blues lick or something like that, when he’s playing behind Bobby’s solo, if you really pay attention to it, he’s playing horn parts.”

And not just horns. McMurrin has developed an interest in all types of musical instruments, having taught himself to play a wide array of them over the past five years including trumpet, saxophone, and cello. In an effort to emulate the sounds of stringed instruments, he has also been working on a device used for bowing a guitar, the same way one bows a cello or violin.

“He’s not just a guitar player, although he is as acrobatic and deft a guitar player as I’ve ever seen,” Christensen said. “I’ve often said Dennis can play the same chord in 15 different inversions across the neck in five seconds. His facility is as good as anybody’s, especially at chords. The guy’s understanding of harmony and chords is really amazing.”

Digging deeper than McMurrin’s down-home stage persona and righteous guitar-playing, one finds a man steeped in spirituality.

“He’s one of the most saintly people I know,” Christensen said. “He said something to me one time when we were talking about some serious things. He said, ‘You know, there are days I’m driving down the street, and I’ll see a person standing on the corner, and I’ll just bless them.’ His heart is so big that he has incredible compassion for humanity. It’s very mind-blowing.”

Saintliness aside, McMurrin is also a strict practitioner of Rodney Dangerfield jokes and other crude sorts of humor that he uses to lighten up the crowd and get them down with the tunes.

“I was on the phone with him the other night for about an hour and a half, and half of the conversation was about how do you endure life’s pain, and 30 percent of it was flippant, semi-misogynistic jokes about sex and stuff,” Christensen said. “He’s got all those elements to his personality. That’s all Dennis.”

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