I first heard of Mike Stevens when his most recent CD, “Normally Anamoly,” was discussed on Harp-L. I contacted Mike to get a copy, and it’s an unusually fresh and powerful harmonica recording. The pieces on the CD break down into two basic categories: rockers, where Mike plays amplified diatonic harmonica over a rock rhythm section of guitar, bass, and drums, and experimental pieces in which Mike uses a Lexicon JamMan effects processor to sample and hold multiple harmonica lines, which build up into fairly complex textures.

For my money, the rockers are the pieces to hear. Mike’s speed is impressive, and his sound is everything amplified harmonica should be: loud, hard-edged, with lots of body and plenty of subtlety in his articulation. He is capable of tearing off licks that make your head snap, and equally capable of long notes that speak right to the heart. The experimental pieces are interesting, but the harmonic limitations imposed by the basic construction technique (i.e. layering and repetition of sampled phrases) tend to make them sound static over time, and the textures by themselves aren’t interesting enough to make the pieces thoroughly satisfying.

I met Mike for the first time at a late night blues jam at the 1997 SPAH Convention. I was sitting next to Rob Paparozzi, and we were taking turns with a lot of other players on 12-bar choruses. The guy behind me took a blues solo that absolutely blew my mind; it was wild, free, and blue, and I was very glad that I didn’t have to play right behind it. The player turned out to be Mike.

In addition to his rock and experimental music, Mike is one of the best bluegrass harmonica players in the world, with a string of credits that includes multiple appearences at the Grand Ole Opry and performances with Roy Acuff, Jim and Jesse, Bill Monroe, and other bluegrass legends. I’ve recently acquired a copy of Mike’s book “Bluegrass Harmonica,” which appears to be aimed at beginners and intermediate level players. It contains lots of solid information aimed at helping the growing musician to play the instrument and play with other musicians. The transciptions are useful and short, and the CD that comes with the book is well worth listening to. It begins with Mike doing one of his amazing, I-can’t-believe-he-did-that runs on an unamplified harmonica, followed by a discussion of how to play all 12 chromatic notes throughout the range of the diatonic harmonica. This discussion is interesting in perhaps unintended ways; the description of the techniques used is clear, but it is also clear that the timbres and intonation of many chromatic notes are distinctly different from unaltered notes on the instrument. In other words, many of these chromatic tones, if used in an exposed position in a line, would sound very different from the notes around them. This is an issue which is the source of much current controversy in the harmonica world.

Mike is already beginning to influence other players. Ryan Tackett, the winner of the Ohio State Harmonica contest in 1997, cites Mike as a major influence. There are sure to be others. Mike’s work is among the best of any of the current generation of diatonic harmonica players. If you haven’t heard him, it’s worth the effort. Kevin’s Harps is a sure bet to have Mike’s book and recordings.)