It used to be the most common combination for a duo in blues music, but nowadays it seems to be getting harder and harder to find the old harmonica-and-guitar mix that dominated the scene for so long. Sure there are still some really good harp players out there, but more and more the genre is becoming dominated by the guitarists. Off the top of my head I can only think of three or four harp players who are even band leaders anymore, and none of them are the household names that people like Sonny Boy Williamson (either the original or the copy) or Corey Bell once were among blues fans.
One of the reasons for there being fewer and fewer harp players is the fact that while it's a fairly easy instrument to just pick up and start blowing, to really master its intricacies a player must be willing to dedicate themselves to years of daily practice. I remember reading of one harmonica player telling how he'd spend up to eight hours a day in front of a mirror practicing to ensure that his technique was as good as it possibly could be. How many people do you think are going to be willing to put that kind of effort into learning an instrument which really doesn't offer the opportunities for fame and glory that the guitar does?
Thankfully that doesn't seem to have completely stopped people from picking up the harmonica and learning how to play; and I don't doubt there are plenty toiling away in obscurity in bars and honky tonks around the world.
One of those who deserves far more recognition then he likely gets already is Bob Corritore, who is one half of a great guitar-and-harmonica duo. The guitar half, Dave Riley, was born in Hattiesberg, Mississippi and moved to Chicago when barely a teenager. He was living near Maxwell Street when he was drafted and sent off to Vietnam, and there he eventually ended up in a military band that toured bases and opened for USO shows. Those are the types of life experiences that are bound to give you the blues, but it wasn't until the mid-1990's that Riley returned to his Mississippi roots and the music of the Delta full time.
Lucky To Be Living on Blue Witch Records is the duo's second recording and will be released on September 9. Their first disc together, Travellin' The Dirt Road, was nominated for a Blues Music Award as Best Acoustic Album in 2008, and there's no reason why this new disc shouldn't receive the same consideration. This collection of ten songs, four of them originals written by Riley, covers a lot of territory musically as it mixes the slow, drawn-out deep blues that carries with it echoes of the slaves whom the music sprung from originally, with the uptempo swing of the juke joints that dot the byways and highways of the South. While their sound is filled out by bass and drums on most tracks—and piano and an extra guitar helping out on tracks two, six and ten—the focus remains solidly on the two leads throughout.
I don't think it would matter whether or not they had a multi-piece band accompanying them all the time or if it was just the two of them playing, your focus would remain fixed on them. They are each dynamic enough performers in their own rights to hold down center stage, so taken together they form a formidable combination difficult to ignore. Riley's guitar work and vocals tell the stories, while Corritore's harmonica provides an emotional accent that takes the music to another level. Whether it's the laid-back sounds of "Country Rules," the deep pathos of "Sharecropper Blues" or the the fun of "Jelly Roll King," they compliment each other's sound so well that you could almost think it was a solo performance.
Of course that's not possible as no one can sing and play harmonica at the same time—or at least to my knowledge they can't—but the interplay between these two guys is so seamless that you're hard-pressed to tell them apart. What makes them most effective as a duo is the fact that they both serve as conduits for the music instead of using the material as opportunities to show off. Listen to any of the songs on this disc and you'll see what I mean, for instead of either of them playing elaborate leads or adding in any of the extra flourishes that so many players use, they take the approach that simplest is best. As a result, their music is filled with the emotional power of the songs they play and that's what stays with listeners, not anything that either of them did in particular with their playing.
That's not to say they aren't talented musicians and don't know their way 'round their instruments; it just means they are confident enough in their abilities and the music they're playing to focus on making sure what they do serves the music rather than themselves. Riley's guitar work, for instance, somehow combines the smoothness of a jazz player with the rough and raw edge required for the blues. However, what I notice the most about it is how clean it sounds with each not ringing out distinct from the others and being allowed to have it's say in the song. In contrast, his voice is rough hewn and road weary and the sounds of the Delta come through loud and clear with every word he sings.
It's easy to be impressive on the harmonica by playing a lot of notes and blowing your head off to fast songs. What's hard to do is draw notes out of the instrument in such a way that they take on the character and the spirit of the song. Corritore can blow as wicked and mean as anybody out there, but at the same time he can draw out a note in such a way you feel its weight tumbling out of the speakers. It's like he picks emotions out of the air and then funnels them through the reeds in his harmonica to give them voice. It's been a long time since someone has managed to send shivers up my spine with their harp playing but Corritore did on this disc.
If you've missed listening to the old-fashioned duo of guitar and harmonica playing the blues, but have no patience for those who have forgotten the blues are supposed to be about life and not the past, you'll not want to miss Lucky To Be Living by Dave Riley and Bob Corritore. Not only are they gifted players who have the sensitivity to let the music take center stage, they also imbue it with the necessary passion to bring it alive. This is twenty-first century blues music that knows where it came from, but is perfectly happy to be living in the present.