Blog, Meet the Pros

RIP Toots Thielemans

I learned a few minutes ago that Toots Thielemans died at the age of 94.

Toots Thielemans at 90, blowing strong.

Toots Thielemans at 90, blowing strong.

It’s impossible to overstate how important Toots is and was to the development of modern harmonica styles. If you play chromatic harmonica, you had to decide whether you were going to follow Toots’ lead, or find your own path; he was impossible to ignore either way. His sound was his own–you knew it was him after hearing two notes of a recording. His rhythmic conception was shaped by John Coltrane, and his harmonic conception cleverly took into account the physical structure of the chromatic harmonica and the things that structure would and would not allow. He made beauty on every record he touched.

Thanks, Toots, for all the great music, for the generous spirit, and for choosing harmonica as your voice.

Blog, Meet the Pros, Recommended Artists & Recordings

Harmonica Master Boris Plotnikov is Teaching in Denver on June 15!

We saw a post recently on harp-L about Boris Plotnikov teaching a harmonica master class in Denver on June 15. Boris originally hails from Yekaterinburg, Russia, and it’s pretty rare that he sets foot in the USA, so this is a great opportunity for anyone willing to go to Denver to get some hands-on instruction from this master of modern harmonica.

We’ve highlighted Boris in our blog on several occasions. Boris seems to be able to play just about anything convincingly–his skills and his conception are wide-screen and technicolor. He’s one of the most in demand harmonica players and teachers in Russia. He’s won prizes at two international contests: the World Harmonica Festival 2013 (Trossingen, Germany), and the MasterJam Fest 2013 (Odessa, Ukraine). A cursory listen to his videos shows just how much ground he covers with his work.

June 15 is the day before Boris plays a gig with Mikhail Bashakov in Denver, so catch that too if you’re still in the neighborhood. The harmonica master class is taking place at Art Gallery 975, Lincoln Street, Denver, CO. Start time is 7 PM, and it’ll end around 9 PM. The main topic is “How to play faster”, but Boris says he’s ready to discuss any other questions on demand. (You can email him at if you have some specific questions to discuss.) The donation is $25, cash only.

You need to go to this thing if you live within 100 miles of Denver. while you’re thinking it over, here’s Boris playing with Mikhail Bashakov. Dig.

Blog, Meet the Pros

Help Grant Dermody Record the “Louisiana Sessions!”

Grant Dermody is one of our favorite harp players, with great chops and a pile of excellent recordings in a wide range of roots-based styles on his resume. We got a message from Grant this morning to the effect that he’s getting set to record some roots music with a band in Louisiana, and he’s looking for donations to fund the project.

Grant Dermody

Grant Dermody

We’re planning to donate to this project ourselves, and we hope you will too. Here are the details, straight from Grant:

I wanted to let you know that I have just launched a new fundraising campaign, through Indiegogo, for my newest recording project; The Louisiana Sessions.

I start recording this January at Dirk Powell’s studio in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Dirk will be wearing the engineer hat for the project as well as playing on all the songs and tunes.

Orville Johnson will also join us on every track. Cedric Watson will play fiddle on the Old Time and Cajun tunes and Rich Del Grosso will play mandolin on the Country Blues songs. Dirk and Orville and I will produce the record.

My last two CDs each took over two years to complete. Doing them that way, a song at a time, for a few hundred bucks, with some down time in between, was doable financially.

Since I am playing with four musicians this time, instead of twenty-five plus, I have to record the whole CD in two, three or four day sessions.

I am playing with the best musicians available to make the best record I can. To pay them what they are worth is expensive. They all need to be paid all at once, as does the engineer. Then there is travel and lodging, and all this adds up in a hurry. This is why I need your help.

I am ready to create new music that is strong and joyful and deep. I have written a bunch of new songs and tunes. It is time for me to make an excellent record with great players in the musical mecca of Louisiana.

Please contribute what you can at one of the links below. I also need you, please, to pass this information on to anyone and everyone you know who might be interested in helping. It takes a village, and not just the people in the village that I know! or

We can’t wait to hear this new project. Check it out, and be part of it: help Grant with a donation.

Blog, Meet the Pros

Jackson Kincheloe Interview, Part 2: Gear and Roles

As I noted previously on this blog, I interviewed Jackson Kincheloe of Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds right after the band’s performance on the afternoon of Sunday, July 21 2013 at Targheefest in Alta, Wyoming. The band sounded great at this show, with a sound that combined a horn section of bari sax, trombone, and trumpet, a female lead singer with a big R&B tone, a BIG rock guitar, an amped harmonica, and a rock rhythm section.
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Blog, Meet the Pros

Record review: “The Wine Dark Sea,” Dave Goodman & Steve Baker

I was given a copy of “The Wine Dark Sea” by Steve Baker back in July 2012. Since then I’ve listened to it dozens of times. The main reason I keep returning to it is that it’s one hell of a hot disk. It contains 14 mostly excellent (sometimes good-as-it-gets) songs in a style that’s strongly reminiscent of Ry Cooder, Little Feat, and Bonnie Raitt, performed by a small group of topnotch musicians whose respect for groove is obvious. Anyone who likes this style is going to end up playing this record frequently. And if, like me, you always thought a little more world-class harmonica would make any of the above-named bands sound even better, well, this record is going to make you very happy.

All of the stringed instruments on the record, including various guitars, bass, lapsteel, banjo guitar, and Weissenborn (acoustic lap steel guitar), were played by Goodman, who also handled all the lead vocals, with Baker on harmonicas. The songs are heavy with picking and strumming, but Goodman’s excellent arrangements (and an incredibly clear, full mix) keep everything in balance. The guitar work is simply as good as it gets in this style, as deft as it is thrilling. When the harp steps out front, which happens often enough for me considering how much other cool stuff is going on here, the impact is tremendous. When the harp isn’t dominant, it’s one of the colors in the mix, as carefully chosen and presented as any of the guitars. Martin Rottger, who’s worked with Baker in his trio with Abi Wallenstein, handles drums and percussion with a deft touch, with Oliver Spanuth handling drums on three tunes.

The key to hearing this record is playing it loud enough to hear the details. There are a lot of parts on these songs, and there’s nothing arbitrary about the placement of any of them in the mixes. (These are in fact some of the best mixes in this style I have ever heard.) At low levels you can clearly hear the big-ticket items like the vocals and the big guitars, but listening to this record at too low a level makes it hard to hear a lot brilliant, subtle stuff, including some very cool supporting harmonica work. So when you get your CD, make sure to crank the volume to the point where you’re not struggling to hear it. (Jeez, man, it’s f—in’ rock and roll, turn it UP!)

In short, fans of rock-oriented Americana want this record on their shelves, right now. A few song-by-song comments follow.

Sweet Maybelline starts the record, genial and hard-rocking at the same time. The slide guitar work is heavily reminiscent of Ry Cooder, with echoes of Little Feat in the bassline. Harp is woven into the arrangement as a contrast to the guitars, with lots of rural-style hand work and a nice spotlight harp solo.

Leavin’ On My Mind is uptempo and driving in a rural acoustic style, with a moving vocal and lyric. It also introduces the real theme of this CD, which is leaving, forced or otherwise, and the pain that follows. The harp on this song is at its best when Baker plays his tightly articulated rhythmic licks; his patented quacking attack is used to good effect on both rhythm and lead parts.

Headin’ For A Fall is a full on Little Feat groove with great lyrics and cool acoustic slide guitar, reminiscent of Feat’s “On Your Way Down” in feel, tone, and lyrical messages. The harp is amped and honking when it’s out front. Baker offers lots of nice touches in the accompaniments too, which are mixed way down and do the job very well.

And She Said, sad and beautiful, is the next exploration of leaving, this time with the hope that leaving is not forever. Baker holds back for almost all of this song. When he makes a statement it has the sense of gravitas that comes from waiting to speak, as when the harp delivers a message of hope (“better days ahead”) on the chorus with one bright, yearning lick. This is a good song to play when hope is what you need.

In The Shack, what’s left behind (or not) is an abusive, drunken father. Lyrically, the song is hard-eyed and unsentimental, with a powerful emotional impact that’s reinforced by a rhythm section driven by acoustic and electric slide guitars. There’s no harmonica on this piece, but there’s a lot of harp on the powerful “slight return” instrumental version that’s second-to-last on the CD.

The Letter is a cover of the 1960s hit, and it’s my least favorite piece on the CD. The harp work is of course very good–’60s R&B is just one more variety of red meat for Steve Baker, and you damn well expect him to tear it up–but the arrangement, starting with a much slower tempo than the original, doesn’t excite me much. That said, the players give it their all.

Friends Departed is a slow minor blues with jazz chord changes, presented starkly with mostly acoustic instruments. It is absolutely, brilliantly moving from first note to last, with extended harp work that dares you to cry. This piece alone is worth the price of the CD. The emphasis in the lyric, of course, is on leaving–what else?

Leave It All Behind: Did I mention that leaving is a big theme on this record? The song is uptempo country swing with a touch of gypsy jazz. The rhythm section is light on percussion and heavy on strings, lightweight and propulsive. The harp is deft and witty, with lots of sly smiles in those fast lines.

The Mill of the Stranger plays like an extended intro to the next piece, Hard Time Killing Floor, especially since there’s no gap between the end of the first and the start of the second. Stranger’s electro-guitar opening and Killing Floor‘s descending hook line leave no doubt that this is about something dire, and as soon as Goodman starts singing the subject turns out to be hard times. The emotional content of the lyrics and the music are in total harmony, and the song makes a terrific impact. Baker’s amped up harp is utterly menacing and authentic, the way Ralph Stanley singing “Oh Death” a capella is authentic, meaning that the chilling emotions are directly, concisely expressed and totally convincing. Baker doesn’t play Little Walter licks; he plays like he’s inside Walter’s head. A chorus of low male oohs at least doubles the spooky factor. Great electric slide and harp lead work round out the package.

Maybe She’s Afraid starts with a killer Little Feat/Bonnie Raitt groove, with a bassline that’s as punchy as it is economical, and big, confident guitars on top. The lyrics seem a little overheated, but the music does the job and then some. More amped harp from Baker, and it’s solid stuff, but it’s the smoking lead guitar work that really takes this one home.

On The Shack Slight Return, Baker’s gorgeously heartbreaking acoustic natural minor harp, surrounded with a nice sheen of reverb, takes the lead from the start. Along with Friends Departed, this brilliantly emotional instrumental piece is one of the big reasons to buy this record.

Tiger By The Tail is a Ry Cooder-style acoustic romp for pickers, with a relaxed half-time feel. Baker takes a nice long acoustic harp solo using traditional timbres while showing far more awareness of the chord changes than any traditional harp solo would. When he gets to the end of the piece he abandons all pretense of tradition to throw down a maniac upper register lick that’s easily the most intense thing on this record, utterly modern in its disregard for limits. Now THAT’s Rock and Roll!

Summary: there are at least two masterpieces on this record. There isn’t one piece here that’s not worth hearing more than once, and I listen to some of these pieces almost every day. This is great stuff. Buy it.

Blog, Meet the Pros, Recommended Artists & Recordings

Help Scott Albert Johnson make his second record!

Scott Albert Johnson is a fine singer, songwriter, and harmonica player from Jackson, Mississippi. His harmonica work is unique and original, often dazzling, and always evolving to new places. His first CD, “Umbrella Man,” got plenty of rave reviews, including one from me–in fact, I bought the very first copy of that CD that was ever sold.

Scott’s getting ready to make his second CD, and he needs money to do it. He’s put the project up on Kickstarter, which is a cool site that’s all about funding independent projects. Here’s what Scott’s latest bulletin says:

I have 11 days to go… so far I have raised $5,587, with a target of $27,990. So I am about 20% of the way there, with a long way to go and a short time to get there (apologies to Jerry Reed).

If you have time to share the project link with others, either by Facebook, Twitter, or some other way, I will be very grateful. Here’s the link:

Folks, this is a musician worth hearing and supporting. If you’ve got a little bit of pocket change that you’d like to contribute to Scott’s project, go for it.

Blog, Meet the Pros, Recommended Artists & Recordings

Mike Stevens is Still Burning

I dropped by Mike Stevens’s website today, and heard a cut from his new duet album with Matt Andersen, “Piggyback.” The cut is called “Devil’s Bride,” and to say that Stevens burns a hole through the CD on this cut is putting it mildly.

He’s apparently playing a Powerbender tuning (in second position on this cut, I think), and the sounds he gets out of the instrument, including huge bends with earth-shaking vibratos on single notes and chords all over the harp, are freaking killer. The video of Mike playing his looped piece “A Walk In My Dream” shows a very different side of him, the side that’s about extending the harmonica repertoire to include electronic textures and trance-y structures.

Mike Stevens

Mike Stevens

I last heard Mike play live at SPAH in 1997. I was sitting next to Rob Paparozzi one night at the blues jam. Mike played just before the circle came around to me and Rob, and both of us were not at all eager to follow him. Two days after SPAH, Peter Ruth sent me an email to say that he’d rarely heard anything so wild and free as Stevens.

Stevens is still one of the most powerfully emotional and virtuosic diatonic players on planet Earth, and I urge everybody to go to his site and check it out for themselves. You can thank me later.

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