Blues, arguably more than any other musical genre, is music that demands ‘authenticity’ – a vague concept indeed. It’s not a matter of geography or pedigree, though; few of today’s successful blues artists turned to music to escape a life picking cotton, after all, and blues is one of America’s most successful musical exports, with blues bands from around the world quite capable of getting it right. It is, rather, about feel – intangible but absolutely essential if the music’s to mean anything at all.
Swiss-born ‘Swississippi’ Chris Harper (great name for a harmonica player!) understands feel. He knows it’s not about squeezing in lots of notes designed to impress; instead, it’s about making each note count, delivering a potent musical punch with economical ease and authority. And for his recording debut on his own Swississippi Records label he’s recruited the cream of the old-school crop to help deliver a thoroughly convincing and satisfying outing steeped in tradition.
Harper’s ‘Four Aces’ – the core backing band here – have all lived and breathed this music for many years. On drums we get Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith. On bass, veteran Bob Stroger. And on guitar, it’s Jimmy Burns and journeyman John Primer. All are masters of their craft, able to lock into a groove with seemingly effortless aplomb. There’s also an impressive guest list of Chicago blues stalwarts, including the likes of guitarists Rockin’ Johnny Burgin and Little Frank Krakowski, drummer Kenny ‘Beady Eyes’ Smith (whose lineage is rather obvious) and vocalist Tail Dragger.
Together with producer/guitarist Dave Katzman, Harper hand-picked the cast with the intention of crafting a collection showcasing classic Chicago Blues – half electric (‘cause that’s what Chicago is known for) and half acoustic, to illustrate where the music came from. And they’ve succeeded on every level, with eighteen tracks that represent the width of the blue spectrum – songs made famous by Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf as well as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sleepy John Estes. Also included are a handful of original compositions from Harper that fit seamlessly, and a delightful harmonica romp through Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
Rather than a chronological approach, the acoustic and electric cuts are scattered across the collection, with rotating participants – particularly vocalists – giving proceedings a revue-style feel that keeps things interesting. Emphasis is on the ensemble sound, rather than spotlighting individual contributions; solos are invariably short and succinct, integral elements in the instrumental fabric rather than embellishments, but there are highlights. The two-harmonica interplay between Harper and the elder Smith (Willie, revered as one of the finest shuffle drummers of all time, started out on harp and has taken to stepping up front of late) on Smith’s own “Born In Arkansas” is wonderful, and every guitarist on board is well-versed in delivering an effective statement with minimal fuss. Vocalists, too, are top-notch, with Harper holding his own reasonably well. (He’s fine, but in truth is the weakest in an otherwise superbly strong bunch, with just a hint of a slightly distracting accent).
With a decidedly retro approach and a reverence for both the music and it’s originators, Harper and friends haven’t created anything particularly new or innovative here. But the material is uniformly strong – almost a ‘blues greatest hits,’ if you will – and the form and format are timeless. So the question, really, comes down to how well it’s all done. And the answer, in this case, is very well indeed. There are more than enough artists determined to stretch the boundaries of the blues; this collection proves just how sturdy and satisfying the classic blues sound remains to this day.
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