It’s no secret that the Professor loves the harp. If you get a chance, next time you stop into the Juke Joint be sure to check out my collection of played harmonicas in the glass cases that are near the pool tables. You’ll find lots of history on those shelves.
Now for a while it seemed like anybody who thought it would be cool to be in a blues band would grab a harp and jump up and down and do a quick blow-draw riff. The harp may be simple to pick up, but it takes a lifetime to learn how to really play that sucker.
Sugar Blue plays so well he might have been born with a harp in his hand. His latest release RAW SUGAR BLUE LIVE on Beeble Music is an exciting musical journey by the guy who reinvents harp playing. It’s a 2-disc set backed by a smoking band that includes Rico McFarland on guitar, Damiano Della Torre on keys, Ilaria Lantieri Blue on bass, and James Knowles on drums. McFarland is particularly amazing as his pyrotechnics on guitar match and compliment Sugar Blue’s harp runs.Sugar Blue comes out blazing on the first disc; ripping through “Red Hot Mama” and “One More Mile” at a blistering pace. He then slows it down with Muddy’s signature” Hoochie Coochie Man” and uses the 13-minute opportunity to jam. With just a slight pause, he segues into “Cotton Tree” written to honor the legendary James Cotton. “Bluesman” follows with some great licks and lyrics – “I’m a bluesman/That’s what I am/And if you don’t like it/I don’t give a damn.” Preach it brother. Originally that one was released on his album Code Blue, but here he gets to stretch it out. “Walking Alone” is a sentimental number and along with its follow up “Swing Chicken” gives the band a chance to show off some jazzy blues chops.
This is no simple bar band that can follow a four-four beat and encourage the patrons to drink heavily; this is a group at the top of its form.
Disc Two starts off with some low note blues, “Another Man Done Gone” played on his “Big 365” harp. Blue reaches deep into his soul for this one. Next, Blue and the band rock it up with the original number “Krystalline” about the seduction of cocaine. Torre’s keys get a workout bringing a little barroom gospel to the mix. Blue then steps back in time with a nod to his time as a session man with the Rolling Stones with a flat out run on the song “Miss You.” That’s Blue blowing the harp on the original and here he gives us the Stones version, then goes into an extended jam that will leave you breathless. Blue and the band encores with the Junior Wells classic “Messin’ With The Kid.” A couple of bonus tracks round out the collection, “Bad Boys Heaven,” and “Lip Service and Lies.”
One of the issues I’ve often had with live recordings is sound quality. Sometimes you get that pristine, almost studio like sound and other times it sounds like you are sitting is somebody’s garage listening through tinny speakers that got shorted out when they were left in the rain.
This CD has very good sound quality – nothing is lost on his riffs and the energy of the crown adds a great deal to the excitement of the album.
If you are unfamiliar with Sugar Blue’s output, he took home a Grammy in 1986 for his work on the Atlantic album “Blues Explosion” recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Aside from the Rolling Stones, Blue also worked with and recorded with a number of musical giants, including Willie Dixon, Stan Getz, Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan. You can check out all the latest news including tour dates at his website http://www.sugar-blue.com.
Be forewarned, Sugar Blue does not play the harmonica. Sugar Blue redefines the way a harmonica is played. He pushes boundaries and establishes new territory the way great artists transcend their medium and make it new.
In other words this cat can play. RAW SUGAR BLUE LIVE is a mighty fine album to have in your collection and if you get a chance to see him live, grab it. If this album is any indication, you’re in for a great night. And Sugar, anytime you want to add a harmonica to my trophy case, I would be honored.
(Photo of Sugar Blue gleefully ripped off from his website. Photo was done by Riccardo Abbondanza. If you are the owner of the picture and want me to remove it, please contact me and it will be reluctantly done.)