When one considers that the most common type of harmonica is, by definition, limited – the diatonic scale omits flat and sharp notes – it’s astonishing just how expressive an instrument it can be in the hands of a master like Edmonton’s Harpdog Brown.
Above And Beyond, Brown’s latest on his own Dog Breath Records, finds him teamed with fellow Edmontonian Graham Guest, pianist extraordinaire, who spent years working with blues chanteuse Sue Foley among many others. Together they tear through a delightful collection of blues and boogie favorites that’s both intimate and exuberant.
It helps that Harpdog, who hails from Edmonton, is blessed with a big but supple voice and a raconteur’s charm. He approaches each tune from a storyteller’s perspective, with sly phrasing and nod-‘n’-a-wink aplomb that’s just right for the material.
Brown is a disciple of Sonny Boy Williamson, the innovative genius who virtually defined what the acoustic harmonica is capable of, and covers a pair of Williamson’s tunes here. There are a handful of standards recognizable by even the most casual blues fan – “You Don’t Have To Go,” “Rocket 88,” “Big Boss Man,” and “Flip, Flop & Fly” – but the duo setting and Brown’s singular delivery keep ‘em all fresh. Surprises come with a bluesy romp through Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and the delightful “Canadian Man,” written by Brown’s friend, Steve Pineo. (As a country song it was a hit for Paul Brandt).
Brown sticks to acoustic harmonica for the entire collection, meaning he’s free to employ a full arsenal of hand movements that vary air flow, with the result a dazzling array of tones and expressions, from guttural moans to whoops of joy. Guest is a marvel throughout, providing a solid rhythmic foundation for every tune and embellishing each with sparkling yet seemingly effortless fills that render the lack of additional instrumentation a moot point. Indeed, the two seem to be of one musical mind, audibly responding to each other as the songs unfold – performances were captured ‘live’ in the studio, with the organic interplay between musicians an integral element in the proceedings.
This one’s honest and real, and best of all it’s fun to listen to (and just try to keep your toes from tapping!). Recommended!