By: Debra Devi
You can travel to the Delta to hear some traditional acoustic blues—and I recommend that you do!—or just keep an eye out for the True Blues trio: Corey Harris, Guy Davis and Alvin Youngblood Hart.
I saw these Generation X bluesmen at Culture Project in New York City last week, where they served up a guitar-rich feast of acoustic country blues, drawn from their own unique root-searching journeys.
More True Blues tour dates are TBA for spring 2013, and Concord Music Group is set to release the live CD/DVD set TRUE BLUES: Live at the Howard Theatre.
The DVD is narrated by Corey Harris, who leads a contemporary revival of roots blues that reaches far beyond rote imitation. Both Harris and Hart were featured in Martin Scorsese’s The Blues: A Musical Journey, which followed Harris to West Africa, where he explored his familial and musical roots.
Guy Davis, meanwhile has become known both for authentic down-home acoustic blues and for following in the actor footsteps of his parents, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, most recently playing blues harpist “Sunny” in the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow.
Davis took the Culture Project stage with his vintage acoustic Gibson 12-string, which he set to shimmering, like a choir of funky angels with his big brass slide. He stomped out a rhythm with his black boot on the resonant wood floor and slammed into a decidedly male variation on the Memphis Minnie tune “Bumblebee,” singing about having “a stinger long as my right arm.”
I felt transported to a Southern turn-of-the-century juke on a Saturday night.
Davis brought up opening act Dirk Powell and Riley Baugus to join him on “Shortening Bread.” Powell and Baugus are a traditional folk duo who had serenaded us with some beautiful “old-time” mountain tunes, including “John Henry” on violin and banjo. Baugus had also led the audience through a fascinating display of the Scottish tradition of call-and-response “congregational singing,” that he grew up with in the Southern Baptist church.
As we sang back his complex, bluesy melodies, it was easy to connect the dots between “white” and “black” music. “We cross-pollinated,” Davis agreed, as he, Powell and Baugus got the audience singing along again with “Shortening Bread.”
For Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” Davis called up long-haired Mexican harmonica player Hook Herrera. Herrara has also played with The Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule and Anders Osborne, and even did a stint on bass with Alvin Youngblood Hart Muscle Theory.
Herrara killed it, and came up again during the next set with Corey Harris, who opened by congratulating the audience, “You could’ve stayed home and watched the Internet, but you came out to participate in art.”
Whereas Davis brings the gutbucket blues, Harris takes a more cerebral, polished approach marked by a deliberate eclecticism resulting from his world travels. He began his career as a New Orleans street singer and lived in Cameroon, West Africa for a year during his early twenties. His deep smooth voice has the range and strength of a soul blues singer like Bobby “Blue” Bland.
Harris played perfect trad blues, like his impeccable cover of “Devil Got My Woman” by Skip James, and his original “Black Woman Gate” would not be out of place in Robert Johnson’s canon. Yet, on original tunes like “Watching You” (about which Harris said, “Just think of it as the Patriot Act set to song,”) he melded reggae and West African lilts with the blues. Harris had several beautiful acoustic guitars on stage with him, including a Taylor 514ce cutaway and a 1995 National Triolian, strung with a mixed set that includes an unwound third string.
Alvin Youngblood Hart was up next, playing slide on a sweet orange Gretsch Electromatic Pro-Jet with a Bigsby tremolo. Born in Oakland, CA, Hart spent time as a child with relatives in the Mississippi Delta, listening to their stories about Charlie Patton and soaking in the country blues. Like Harris, though, Hart has never limited his blues—ripping up with his electric band, and also experimenting with Western swing and country.
Hart’s 1996 album of country blues, Big Mama’s Door, won him a W.C. Handy award for best new artist, and his 2003 traditional blues album, Down in the Alley, was nominated for a Grammy. Hart was instrumental in shaping the riveting soundtrack for the 2006 film “Black Snake Moan,” and served as Samuel L. Jackson’s guitar tutor for his role.
At Culture Theater, Hart opened with an original he called “a Halloween story about mayhem in Missouri and people just trying to get out with their scalps intact.” He also talked about his friendship with St. Louis blues legend Henry Townsend and played a pitch-perfect cover of Charlie Patton’s “Pony Blues.”
The show closed with all three guitarists back on stage, joined by Harerra on harp, for a rousing “Catfish Blues,” first recording in 1941 by Robert Petway. The True Blues trio intends to donate a portion of any profits from the tour, CD and DVD to “a blues-related charity.”
The blues is in good hands, folks, the blues is in good hands.
Guy Davis – “Things About Coming My Way”
Corey Harris – “Honeysuckle”
Alvin Youngblood Hart – “Illinois Blues”