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Mike Stevens: Breathe in the World, Breathe Out Music
(Stony Plain Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/18/2022)
The harmonica has generally been thought of as a humble instrument. I suppose that’s partly because you can put it in your pocket, and getting sound out of it is not hard. But like anything else in the arts, something seemingly modest can achieve significance. So there have been great harmonica players in blues and jazz, such as Little Walter and Toots Thielemans respectively. And there are those who have been bringing the harmonica into other styles where it is not often heard.
This week we have a new album by a versatile harmonica player who demonstrates his eclecticism on the instrument running from blues to country to rock & foll and a little Gospel. It’s Mike Stevens and his new release is called Breathe in the World, Breathe Out Music.
Mike Stevens is from Ontario, Canada, and has worked as a sideman, racking up over 300 gigs at the Grand Ole Opry, playing bluegrass harmonica, where he won the praise of country music icon Roy Acuff. His harmonica work took him on gigs on most of the continents, and even did played at the North Pole. He has been an advocate for indigenous Northern people, in Canada and Alaska, founding a group called Artscan Circle supporting use the arts as a means of mean of self expression.
For some 35 years he has been performing on his own, and often doing solo shows creating layers by looping the sound on stage.
On his new album, he is joined by a varied cast including handful of guest vocals in this otherwise mostly instrumental recording. Among the regulars are Jeff Getty and Kevin Breit on guitars, Jeff Bird on bass and Art Hratchian on drums. Most of the music is original, but there’s an adaptation of a couple of traditional songs, with the material drawing on both the harmonica traditions, the bluegrass and blues that Stevens has played over the years. Stevens don’t not sing much on the album, but when he does it makes things interesting, in a good way. In his lin0er notes, Stevens writes that when it came time for the recording sessions, he came down with a rather rough case of Lyme disease, which with the heavy antibiotics he was taking, left him weak in all his joints, and significantly affected his short-term memory. He writes “Because I couldn’t remember anything, I just played and reacted to the music with no chance to overthink.”
But his playing is solid throughout, and reflects his wide-ranging approach and his intent to make this an album that represented the various facets of his instrument.
Opening it a piece that gets the album off to an eclectic start. Like a Little Bird runs toward the reggae, and can evoke Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. The vocal is by Polly Harris. Stevens said that song was inspired by a time he was a caregiver for his mother who was near death. Her parakeet came and perched on her for hours. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals is called Watermelon Pie which combines two facets of Stevens’ playing – a bluesy approach to the harmonica with a country-style beat. <<>>
A song called Life in Sarnia was inspired by Stevens returning home to Sarnia, Ontario, after a grueling tour, and rejoining his family. The low harmonica part was originally something Stevens came up with to entertain his young son Colin. <<>>
The traditional song Grumbling Old Man, Grumbling Old Woman, also known as “Little Beggar Man” is given a fun treatment with an almost funky beat with Stevens’ bluesy harmonica. <<>>
Stevens includes an instrumental version of the Gordon Lightfoot classic The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald which seems like an odd choice, given how integral the lyrics are to the song. But the arrangement works well to convey the elegaic mood of the song. <<>>
A track that epitomizes the kind of dichotomy between Stevens’ blues and bluegrass approach is the bluegrass classic Orange Blossom Special, which is done in two parts with the slow bluesy opening section, <<>> followed by a somewhat manic reading of the familiar melody of the tune. <<>>
Stevens puts in a mostly solo performance of the traditional hymn Amazing Grace which he plays mostly in the upper register, giving it a haunting quality. <<>>
The album ends with an original called Put the Phone Down which is has the quality of an improvised piece. Stevens told his drummer Art Hratchian to lay down a New Orleans groove while he plays his harmonica and does some stream of consciousness pronouncements. <<>>
Mike Stevens’ Breathe in the World, Breathe Out Music is a worthwhile album that spotlights the harmonica man’s various musical facets, from playing bluegrass to the blues. With the album recorded under difficult medical circumstance, Stevens nevertheless rises to the occasion and delivers an eclectic mix, sometimes juxtaposing styles, and often does it with a spirit of good fun and cleverness. His musical colleagues are nicely compatible and help to bring out the best from Stevens’ instrument.
Our grade for sound quality is close to a “A.” The harmonica is given an acoustic treatment, rather being amplified in the manner of electric blues bands, though Stevens can get quite bluesy on his harp when he wants to. The mix keeps things in the right proportion and the dynamic range is not bad by current standards.
Albums by harmonica players are not very common, and they are usually in the straight electric blues mode with amplified harmonica, or jazz with the use of a chromatic harmonica. But Mike Stevens with his diatonic harmonica serves up an engaging album that shows that a little instrument can make interesting music.
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