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(Rounder 3219 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/22/2005)
The blues is great American music with lots of traditions. Unlike in rock and pop, older blues performers are revered and many blues fans take umbrage if the music's traditions are messed with. But that has not stopped generations of performers from mixing the blues with other styles and generally taking liberty with the traditions. Rock music itself is at its core, a variation on the blues. And in a previous generation, the British blues-rock movement gave us some of the biggest names in rock, such as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. These days, since the current, long-running blues revival started, not that many young performers are achieving wide popularity the field, and those that have, tend to stay rather traditional in sound.
This week, we have the latest recording by a genuine eclectic in the blues, Corey Harris, whose CD is called Daily Bread.
A native of Denver, 36 year old Corey Harris grew up in a musical household, and was steeped in the blues. After college, he took two extended trips to Cameroon in West Africa, to absorb the music, culture and language. Settling down in rural Louisiana, Harris worked as a French teacher for a while, but the blues were his main calling. He continued to be fascinated by the connection between African folk music and rural American Delta style blues. He released his debut album in 1995, which got a lot of attention for its eclectic approach to acoustic blues. Harris then became known to millions through his appearance in the Martin Scorsese-directed Public TV mini-series on the blues. In it, Harris goes to Mali to perform and record with area musicians, including the world renowned Malian kora player Toumane Diabate. Harris also released a CD that came out of those musical meetings, called Mississippi to Mali, which built on those transatlantic encounters. He also recorded an excellent joint album with new Orleans jazz and blues piano whiz Henry Butler. Corey Harris is currently based in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Harris has not been afraid of mixing influences with the blues, not only the African sounds, but more contemporary elements, and each of his CDs has had a rather different sound.
Daily Bread is perhaps his most wide-ranging, though in a more subtle way. He brings in African influences, reggae, which he has also incorporated in the past, plus elements of 1960s soul, as well as his strong influence by Delta blues. Harris plays both electric and acoustic guitar, sometimes playing the opposite instrument than what you might expect, such as the acoustic guitar on rockier songs, and electric on the low-down rural-style blues. He is joined by a band that includes Vic Brown on bass, Henry Dennis, Jr. and Johnny Gilmore on percussion and drums, plus Henry Butler himself on keyboards on various tracks, and a violinist named Morwenna Lasko whose style is an interesting blend of blues and folk. Eclectic trumpet man and vocalist Olu Dara also makes some appearances on the more African-influenced pieces. The CD was produced by the New Orleans based team of Scott Billington and Steve Reynolds, who comprise Tangle Eye, the group which did some highly creative remixes of old rural folk music field recordings made by Alan Lomax.
Most of the music is original, but many of the lyrics have a traditional sound. Harris does include a cover of an old soul song, as well as one piece dealing with current events.
The CD gets under way with the title track Daily Bread, a good example of the interesting stylistic mix of this CD. The violin adds a distinctive touch, with the rhythmic pattern often suggesting African influence. <<>>
One of several tracks bringing some reggae influence to the proceedings is See Your Face, a fun, and quite infectious love song. <<>>
One of the cover songs is the soul-styled A Nickel and a Nail, originally recorded by Otis Clay. Henry Butler puts in an appearance on piano. <<>>
One of the tracks featuring Olu Dara is Mami Wata. There is a distinctly African sound, in this song in praise of water in Nature, though Harris plays electric guitar. Dara does the recitation, in this fascinating musical amalgam. <<>>
The Sweetest Fruit represents yet another very different facet of the CD. It's a love song done in an acoustic setting, with just Harris' guitar and Ms. Lasko's violin. For me it's one of the CD's highlights. <<>>
Two songs have a war-related lyrical theme. Just in Time takes yet another stylistic direction in the form of a jazzy samba, with the song's composer Henry Dennis, Jr. featured on flute. <<>>
Also on the subject of war, specifically the Iraq war and the people behind it is The Bush Is Burning The song delivers its message in an upbeat ska-oriented setting that makes it one of the most danceable tracks on the CD. <<>>
The album ends with a long , what the liner notes call a bonus track, The Peach, a low-down acoustic Delta-styles blues with Olu Dara providing a kind of rapped vocal. <<>> Attached to that is a long unnamed reggae jam with Olu Dara on the trumpet, which provides a nice conclusion to this eclectic album. <<>>
Corey Harris is certainly one of the most interesting of the younger-generation blues performers on the scene. He has traversed Delta blues, African sounds and reggae on his various previous recordings. It all comes together on his new CD Daily Bread, which is his most consistently high in quality, and yet eclectic. And though the styles vary quite a bit in rhythm, Harris keeps it all real sounding, and often understated with the predominance of the acoustic guitar. It makes for both absorbing and enjoyable listening.
Our sound quality grade is close to an "A." The mix captures the mood of each song well, including the informal feeling, with some technical imperfections left in. But there is good clarity on the vocals and acoustic instruments, and a dynamic range, the span between loud and soft moments, I would call "fair."
Corey Harris throughout his career has, either intentionally or by inspiration, been shaking up the blues from his earliest recording to today. The new CD is one of his best yet, with eclecticism that works, and is fun to listen to.
(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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