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Music Review: Chicago Blues Harmonica Project – More Rare Gems

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It’s been said that ‘the blues ain’t pretty,' and this disc proves the point.  It’s dirty and nasty, a little bit sloppy (in a good way), and sounds downright dangerous. ‘Pretty' is not an operative word here …

This is a follow-up to a successful 2005 release that saw a core band of hard-working Chicago musicians backing a handful of harmonicists on a hard-hitting collection of blues laced with funk and soul. Here we have another seven guests – none of them widely known outside the Windy City – demonstrating just how expressive the humble harmonica can be.

Usually relegated to a supporting role, the harmonica is the only instrument in western music to permit both blowing and drawing of air. As such it’s arguably the closest approximation of the human voice. And in capable hands, it’s surprisingly versatile, with a broad tonal palette that can range from guttural growls to piercing wails with (forgive the pun) breathtaking ease.

First up this time around is Reginald Cooper with “Shade Tree Mechanic.” It’s not the most auspicious opening – Cooper’s vocals are a little thin, his phrasing awkward, and his harmonica work not much above rudimentary. But Charlie Love follows with a fine cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Ooh Baby, Hold Me,” his harp restrained but effective and his vocals much more powerful. Harmonica Hinds contributes “Kill That Mouse,” a driving shuffle with the band firing on all cylinders. The late Little Arthur Duncan is next with “Can’t Stand It No More,” returning later to close out the set with “Gone To Main Street.” Both tunes highlight his slightly slurred vocals and almost minimalist harp, more accent than lead instrument – his brief solos rely more on tone and taste than dazzling dexterity.

Indeed, tone and taste are the operatives throughout the project. None of the players goes over the top, all opting for an approach that highlights the harp’s role as part of the musical tapestry. Even a harmonica duet between Jeff Taylor and Russ Green on Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s “Gangster Of Love” is a lesson in cooperation rather than a cutting contest. Relative youngster Big D does a fine job with some melodic, Jimmy Reed-style work on “I’ve Got To Be With You Tonight,” again avoiding the extraneous and concentrating on ‘feel’ – that intangible but essential quality that gives the blues such emotional impact.

Green is the only artist here who doesn’t make a return appearance. Hinds provides the lone instrumental with “Sunday Morning Blues,” a classic if unremarkable shuffle, Cooper is back with “Give Me Back That Wig,” a slow grinder that proves a much better fit for his impassioned pleading, while Taylor funks up the aforementioned Mr. Reed’s immortal “Honest I Do” to excellent effect. Big D’s “Well You Know” is a mid-tempo shuffle, and Love delivers a tough-as-nails “12 Year Old Boy.”

Ultimately, though, the success of this collection depends largely on expectations. If it’s harmonica pyrotechnics you’re after, look elsewhere – there are surely more advanced players around, capable of faster and more complex displays of technical proficiency. This is classic bar-band stuff, the sweaty, grinding music heard in clubs night after night, where instrumental accompaniment is simply a part of the story, not the focus. And again, it’s feel, not precision or advanced theory that’s on display here, with the band – veterans all – providing righteously ragged support throughout.

It ain’t pretty. But it sure sounds sweet …!

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