A harmonica can be haunting; it can be joyous, and it can feel suitable
for so many blues moods. These two recent releases, saturated with harp
and featuring multiple artists, illustrate the broad range of modern
Spanning half a century, the music on This Is the Blues Harmonica
is offered in part as homage to the blues harp players who created a
tradition and lent their own signatures to blues music, and in part
as a tasty sampler from the Delmark catalog, with the title being a
nod to Junior Wells. The album also demonstrates the influence of the
Chicago blues harmonica scene in shaping many of the innovations and
modern methods of harp playing.
Ranging from the rough 1950s cut "Sputnik" by Harmonica George
(Smith) to more consummate tracks from the period like Little Walter’s
"Red Headed Woman" and Big Walter Horton’s "Hard-Hearted
Woman," the disc moves into the ’60s and ’70s, leaps over the ’80s,
then offers eight tunes from the ’90s. The newer songs benefit from
more polished production, but they also demonstrate that the blues harmonica
is enjoying a renaissance, with numerous older players returning to
recording and handing the harp over to a newer generation during the
last decade or so.
Little Sammy Davis howls wolfishly on "Hey Little Girl,"
Golden "Big" Wheeler blows like the windy city on "Guilty,"
and Billy Boy Arnold muscles around his "Streetwise Advisor,"
making the music rock. The younger players on the block prove that they
have mastered their chops too: Billy Branch punctuates Bonnie Lee’s
singing on "I Got the Blues About My Baby" and Kim Wilson
does a stinging turn on Steve Freund’s "‘C’ For Chicago."
This Is the Blues Harmonica also serves as a reminder that blues
harp has been moaning and wailing a mournful sound for over a century
and needs few present-day production techniques to make it memorable
or moving. Cuts such as Carey Bell’s "Deep Down South" feel
like they are carved into the collective blues consciousness and those
alone would make the disc worth the price of admission. Yet it should
also send harp fans back to important source material such as Hoodoo
Man Blues by Junior Wells.
On the other hand, Superharps II uses today’s technology and
a tight backing band to show off the talents of four harp players who
can wail until the trains come home. Carey Bell, Lazy Lester, Raful
Neal and Snooky Pryor show off their talents individually and collectively
on this disc, further solidifying their places in blues history.
Following on the heels of the Grammy-nominated Superharps, this
second harmonica super-session pairs another quartet of legendary harp
players with essentially the same excellent band — Kid Bangham on guitar,
pianist Anthony Geraci, Mudcat Ward on acoustic bass and drummer Per
Hanson — to make a winning combo and some delicious music. Although
the band comes close to overpowering these players a couple times, it
backs off enough to remind us what we came to taste.
Carey Bell leads off with Muddy Waters’ "Walking Thru the Park."
Anthony Geraci’s piano boogies and Bell blows the harp with passion,
echoing his influences as well as those who have followed in his footsteps.
Later, Bell renders Waters’ "She’s 19 Years Old" into a passionate
narrative, adding a Snooky Pryor solo that communicates yearning and
Bangham’s righteous guitar work accentuates Raful Neal’s "I Miss
You Baby," and Neal’s scorching vocals make this slow blues smoke
in an aural atmosphere imbued with that hazy, late-night club atmosphere.
His "Starlight Diamond" simmers some country blues with a
bit of bayou tossed in, and Lazy Lester peppers the mix with a savory
The other stars of the show also provide some luminous moments when
they take the lead. Pryor wails on "Keyhole in Your Door,"
with Carey Bell jumping in with a supporting solo. Pryor also sounds
energized on "Let Your Hair Down," while Lazy Lester whets
the appetite with "Strange Things Happen" and "I Made
Up My Mind" and really reaches deep inside to reverberate the emotions
with "Blood Stains on the Wall."
After letting each player cook through his solos before symbolically
passing the harp, the disc closes with a grand harmonica finale, "Harp
to Harp." By the time the last breath is blown, Superharps II
has found another recipe for success. It’s probably only a matter of
time before someone tries to make it into a franchise.
— John Koetzner