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Music Review: Harpdog Brown with Graham Guest – … naturally

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The humble harmonica, usually relegated to a supporting role, is arguably the most “organic” of instruments; simply breathe (in or out) and sound is produced. Yet in the hands (and mouth!) of a skilled practitioner, it’s an exceptionally expressive instrument. And Harpdog Brown is an out-and-out master, able to coax a dazzling tonal palette from the tiny tin sandwich.

… naturally is the second recorded collaboration between Brown and pianist Graham Guest, and while the latter gets lower billing, he’s an integral part of proceedings. From driving boogie-woogie to delicate filigrees that make exquisite use of the space between notes, Guest provides a firm yet supple foundation for Brown’s sly ruminations on life and love.

Brown takes a raconteur’s approach to the 10 tunes on offer here, with the great Louis Armstrong an obvious vocal influence. The sparse backing – there’s clarinet on a pair courtesy of Brian Coughlan, but other than that it’s just Guest’s piano, punctuated by diatonic harmonica – means there’s lots of room to fill. But Brown’s an entertainer through and through, delivering each song with a born storyteller’s flair and easy-going aplomb.

Material ranges from the familiar (the oft-covered “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Blue Light Boogie”) to original compositions – two each – from Canadian songwriters Brandon Isaaks and Wayne Berezan, all fitting seamlessly into the playlist. Also included are relatively rare tunes from Willie Dixon (“Tell That Woman”) and Rice Miller, the second Sonny Boy Williamson, with the solo harp-and-voice excursion “Movin’ Down The River Rhine” that closes the collection.

Performances throughout are impeccable, but exuberance, rather than precision, is the operating principle. Every tune fairly bursts with life. Even “I Had My Fun,” the disc’s leadoff track (also known as “Goin’ Down Slow”), is delivered with jaunty good humor rather than the usual air of somber regret. And on Berezan’s “Sacrifice,” ostensibly a lament for the bluesman’s lot, his nod-and-a-wink delivery keeps things decidedly upbeat. Brown’s here to keep the party going, and does so with wit and verve.

Guest is an ideal accompanist, his rollicking rhythms providing irresistible momentum and allowing Brown to choose his moments wisely – a little harp goes a long way, but Brown never overplays, and his work on the lickin’ stick manages to be finely nuanced yet exuberant at the same time. He sticks exclusively to acoustic harmonica, leaving him free to employ various hand and mouth effects to shape his sound, and he does so in endlessly inventive fashion that’s constantly surprising yet always compliments Guest’s rollicking rhythms.

A delightful romp with superb performances and top-notch material, this one’s a winner!

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