I had the opportunity Wednesday night (10/25/2017) to hear Phil Wiggins, the great country blues harmonica player/ singer/composer, with George Kirby Jr. on guitar and Jackson local Andy Calder on standup bass at the Pink Garter in Jackson, WY. It was a great show, with Wiggins’ harmonica playing a standout.
This is the first time I’ve heard Wiggins live, and I was thoroughly impressed. His tone was wonderful, especially when he explored the lower dynamic range of the instrument; when he played his long, flowing triplet lines it was like a beautiful, intimate whisper. When he barked and roared, the sound filled the room. He used a lot of different articulations, ranging from staccato to flowing legato, and he worked the mic brilliantly, leaning over it to emphasize, backing away to draw the audience in deeper. In short, it was a masterful exposition of acoustic blues harmonica.
I had the chance to look into Wiggins’s harp case before the show, and what I saw in there was a lot of Marine Band harmonicas and a few Rockets, i.e. all Hohners. He told me in our conversation before the show that he uses a few harps retuned to Melody Maker and Natural Minor setups, but I only heard him use standard tunings during the show. I had spent part of the day checking out videos of Wiggins on Youtube, and he told me that he’d done the same with mine. (Cool! Virtual introductions.) He complimented me on my piece “New Country Stomp”, and was gratified to confirm that it was done on a Melody Maker.
Here’s one of the videos of Phil that I watched that afternoon. You can understand why I looked forward to hearing him live.
The audience rightly loved what Wiggins did, and just about every solo he took was followed with immediate applause. His singing was fine too, including a great a capella performance of the field holler “Linin’ Track” that I first heard performed by Taj Mahal on his record “The Old Folks at Home” almost 50 years ago. I especially loved a thoughtful blues by Phil called “Forgiveness,” which was about racial injustice and healing (one of the big themes of the night). He told some hair-raising stories about the racial oppression and violence that his parents endured in the South before they moved the family to Washington DC. It was a sober reminder for me that events like these took place in my country in my lifetime (and his).
I’ve played with bassist Andy Calder, on several occasions with the band One Ton Pig, and with both Andy and blues guitarist/singer/songwriter George Kirby Jr. on another occasion. When I showed up at the Pink Garter before this show, George said to me “I hear that you’re a pretty good harp player,” to which I replied “So they say;” I didn’t realize until later that he hadn’t recognized me. We both had a good laugh about it. (I don’t remember every sideman I ever worked with either; apologies to anyone who’s offended thereby.) George’s singing and acoustic guitar playing were both topnotch on this night. Like Phil, he got a lot of great sounds out of the instrument, from whisper-quiet picking to big notes that jumped out of the guitar. (Lots of people seem to think blues is easy. Well, it ain’t easy the way these guys do it.)
I brought a collection of instruments to this show, but I was having so much fun listening to Phil that I didn’t bother asking to sit in. A local harmonica “owner” (as George likes to call people who own harmonicas and have never learned to play them) did so, and it was an object lesson in how not to sit in with anyone, let alone one of the greats. He played the same simple three-note lick over and over with a weak, hesitant tone. After a couple of minutes I wondered if it was the only lick he knew, which is not something you should wonder about a guy who’d earlier said that he’s been playing for decades. For a couple of choruses Phil tried to engage him in trading fours, and the guy simply did not respond to Phil’s clear signals. It was a wasted opportunity for all involved, but it didn’t last long, and the rest of the show was killer, so it was literally not a show-stopper.
One of the pleasures of Jackson and the Teton Valley is that you have the opportunity a few times every season to hear artists of this caliber in intimate settings that are all but gone from the big cities. This was one of those occasions, and I’m glad I was there. After the show Phil and I traded CDs. He gave a copy of a recent live recording with a band, and I gave him a copy of my latest release “The Lucky One.” I’m looking forward to hearing more of Phil’s music. If he comes to your town, you should too.