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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Clyde "Lightning" George - Steel Pan Monster

Jam sessions can always be a surprise. I went to Mike Finnerty's jazz jam at Bill's Blues Bar in Evanston IL last night. A very fit fellow showed up and started to unpack his instrument - he wheeled in a bass drum case. I was puzzled for a while as he assembled his kit, then realized that he was setting up a set of two steel pans - the tenor set, to be precise. In no time, this fine musician (Clyde "Lightning" George) was tapping out bebop and blues on steel drums! The sounds of the steel pans are associated with the islands of the Caribbean and calypso music. Lightning jumps genres like a rabbit - yes, he can play the lilting themes of the islands, but he can also bang out "A Night in Tunisia" at breakneck speed. Lightning was born and raised in Trinidad (the birthplace of the steel drum and steel bands), but now spends quite a bit of time in Chicago's western suburb, Oak Park (the famous birthplace of Ernest Hemingway). Clyde George and Mike Finnerty (the locally-famous tenor sax man) have great musical rapport. It was a special night at Finnerty's jam.

I went to a college with a fellow named Andy Narell - Andy was a New York kid that took up the steel drums and moved to California to attend UC Berkeley. You can hear Andy from time to time on the "smooth jazz" radio stations that Clear Channel has established in most major metropolitan areas of the U.S.; he is probably the best-known steel pan player in the world. Clyde George can definitely hang in there with Andy. The sound of this instrument is part of America's musical stew now, and that is a good thing.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Society for the Advancement and Preservation of the Harmonica

Yes, there is actually a national organization dedicated to harmonicas, once again proving that the United States is home to an infinite number of odd sub-cultures that lurk below the radar. And I attended the national convention of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (aka "SPAH") from Tuesday through Saturday. A couple hundred harmonica nuts assembled in a Sheraton in suburban Milwaukee to ponder the mysteries of the instrument - rapid tongue switching, over-blows, pros/cons of alternative tunings and dozens of other obscure topics. It was a true geek-fest, and I fit right in.

There were very many awesome harmonica players at the conference, ranging from the great jazz musician Howard Levy (he just stopped in to play at the jazz jam) to Charlie Musslewhite, the legendary bluesman (headliner for the Friday night concert). In the crowd were fantastic players like my teacher, Joe Filisko, Irish harmonica God James Conway, New York Bluesman/college professor Adam Gussow, jam band rock star Jason Ricci, elderly ass-kicking classical chromatic players like Stan Harper, the legendary Milwaukee blues harp stars Steve Cohen and Jim Liban, 13-year old harmonica phenom L.D. Miller and the larger-than-life Superman of the Blues, Buzz Krantz. I connected with one terrific player that I have heard about for years, Rosco Selley, who plays harmonica for a fabulous alternative rock band called Maybe August. Here is a picture of Rosco, rocking out:

Rosco combines blazing technique with a high level of musicianship - a combination rarely seen in a harmonica player. He lives in Bay City MI and he operates a small business to pay the bills (harmonica honking is generally not a high-paying profession). Pick up a copy of the Maybe August CD - it is great stuff.

The one really strange aspect of the SPAH convention was the lack of African American harmonica players. Some of the best players around are black, particularly blues players like James Cotton, Billy Branch, Sugar Blue and the rest of the "real deal" guys. It would be great if they would join the geeky world of SPAH - we need them.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Mystery Band Pictures from the Harlem Avenue Lounge Gig

One of the finest blues photographers in the Chicago area, Lordy, was in attendance at the Mystery Band show at the Harlem Avenue Lounge on August 11 - he took some wonderful shots, which he has posted on his website. Here is the link. Thanks. Lordy, for your talent and genrosity.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Harlem Avenue Lounge

The Mystery Band played its first gig at the Harlem Avenue Lounge in Berwyn IL on Saturday, August 11. This is a great club owned and operated by a true blues afficianado, Mr. Ken Zimmerman. Ken is the captain of the HAL and he runs a tight ship - he knows what works in his club, and he helps the bands to understand the formula. He is a solid businessman and also manages a small number of Chicago area blues artists.

For this gig, the Mystery Band was a collection of great musicians that knew each other, but had never played together in this configuration before. The great Sammy Fender joined the Mystery Band for the night and added his unique and highly entertaining brand of blues to the proceedings. OSee Anderson, who played in Sammy Fender's band many years ago, held down the other guitar slot. Harland Terson, who has also played with Sammy before, was belting out the bass. And Twist Turner, who has played with Sammy occassionally for many years, was banging out the beat.

Karen Hanson, author of the recently published guide book, "Today's Chicago Blues," was in the house. I have corresponded with Karen for the past year or so, but had not met her until she showed up at the Harlem Avenue Lounge to hear the Mystery Band. Karen was kind enough to write about the show on her blog. If you are interested in the current state of the blues in the Chicago area, buy Karen's book - it is complete and full of insider tidbits on the scene.