Joe Filisko came up with the concept - a Chicago blues harmonica confab with a superstar of the blues topping the bill and a collection of enthuisastic local harp blowers providing support. The show hit Bill's Blues Bar in Evanston IL last night - the first official Chicago Blues Harp Bash, featuring the legendary Billy Boy Arnold as the honored guest star. The enthusiastic locals included Shoji Naito (from the Eddy Clearwater Band), Morry Sochat (front man for the Special 20's), Corporate Kirk (from the Shakes), Highway RickEY and yours truly, Mr. G. Joe Filisko is one of the top harmonica players in the world, but he didn't play a note - he served as MC and impressario. Grant Kessler, also from the Shakes, sat in during Corporate Kirk's set. So we had seven different harmonica players in one night. It is not the type of show you see every night in Evanston.....
Shoji Naito is one of those disgustingly talented guys that make lesser musicians (like me) more than a little jealous. He is an excellent bass player, a fine guitarist and an extremely talented harmonica player. I think harmonica was his first instrument, and he plays it with great joy and skill. His phrasing and tone evoke emotionally-charged Chicago blues harp circa 1958. He delighted the audience with several instrumentals, covering Little Walter and Slim Harpo. Then he trotted out his surprise - he sang! Well, Shoji is a fine vocalist, too. He delivered Jimmy Rogers' "Money Marbles and Chalk" with panache, and his slightly Japanese-flavored English added to song's appeal.
Highway RickEY channelled Sonny Boy Williamson II. He also did a "crowd walk" through the club blowing through his wireless harmonica mic rig. We did not get to see HR's famous "tone cup" in action - this is a contraption that he rigged up so he could play harmonica and drums at the same time. The tone cup device holds the harmonica in a mic stand attached to a bullet mic so a drummer can use both hands to drum while playing the harp. HR's invention takes musical multi-tasking to a new level...
Morry Sochat has a 50's greaser thing going on - he looks like an extra from "West Side Story." His set had a heavy dose of West Coast Swing and old time rock & roll. He closed with a killer version of "Rocket 88." His steady gigging with the Special 20's has turned him into a confident and crowd-pleasing front man.
Corporate Kirk and Grant Kessler pulled off a wonderful "dueling harmonica" thing, with Grant on the 16-hole chromatic and Kirk on the trusty "G" diatonic. Grant's work on the chromatic was fabulous! I haven't heard him play the bigger harmonica and his tone and "low end" work was perfect. Kirk's set had high energy and high skill. His harmonica chops have progressed from good to awesome in the past year or two. Sheesh! My pal, Darryl, commented that Kirk looks like Charlie Sheen from "Two and a Half Men," and he has a point there.
Billy Boy Arnold strapped on his guitar and craded the harmonica in his hands and proved to the crowd that he is still a stone killa bluesman at the age of 73. He played his most famous original ("I Wish You Would," which has been covered by scads of artists, including David Bowie). He was fighting a cold but still laid out a 45 minute set that was meat and potatoes for a hungry crowd of blues harmonica fans.
And the crowd was huge! SRO in Bill's Blues Bar, and half of the audience consisted of harmonica players (including Chris Harper, the Swiss harmonica dude that has been hanging around Chicago for the past few years). Bob Stroger, Chicago's elder statesman of the blues bass, sat at the bar sipping a beer and smiling all night. Another stellar bass pl;ayer, Harlan Terson, was also in the house. This was a geeky crowd that cheered famous harmonica licks copped by the guys on stage.
All of these harp blowers were backed by the Billy Flynn Band (Billy on guitar, his brother Mike on bass, and the great Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums). Both Billy and Big Eyes are solid harmonica players, which explains how they can put up with seven harp guys on stage with them in one night.
I played a set of my Mystery Band originals and had a lot of fun. It was an honor to be included on this gig. It made me want to hit the woodshed - I really need to improve my harp chops given the strength of the players in the Chicago harmonica community.
I am sure this will become an annual event - it was a major feat to fill a club at a $15 cover charge for a blues harmonica showcase in these difficult economic times. Way to go, Filisko.