Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fish Ain't Bitin' For Corey Harris

Corey Harris’ recent performances at the Pennsylvania Blues Festival reinforced this writer’s view that he is amongst the foremost acoustic blues performers presently playing. While recent musical explorations blend blues with Jamaican and African musical traditions, he remains is a singular compelling performer of classic country blues. The following review of Fish Ain’t Bitin’ originally appeared in the May 1997 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 221) and likely also appeared in the DC Blues Calendar, the DC Blues Society newsletters which I edited at the time. I have previously posted reviews of Between Midnight and Day and Mississippi To Mali on this blog, and in a few more days I will be posting at least one more older Corey Harris review. Like most Alligator releases this should be readily available ( and certainly a release any fan of acoustic blues should have.

Corey Harris at 2012 Pennsylvania Blues Festival. Photo © Ron Weinstock
Corey Harris’ new Alligator album, Fish Ain’t Bitin’, should prove to doubters that his debut, Between Midnight and Day, was no fluke. Of the other African-American acoustic blues performers to emerge over the past couple of years, perhaps only Alvin Hart has been able to assimilate the styles of the early downhome blues greats to create a personal style. What’s refreshing is that both show a familiarity with other blues pioneers besides Robert Johnson, and both have contributed new songs that are faithful to the earlier traditions. Harris in particular has absorbed plenty from the delta blues generation that preceded Robert Johnson, and one can hear echoes of Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House and some of the early Memphis based blues performers like Furry Lewis, Memphis Minnie and Robert Wilkins. His hoarse shouting vocal style does an uncanny job of suggesting Patton, as does the guitar slapping and string snapping effects he employs along with spoken asides, moaning, humming, his emphatic use of his guitar as another voice, and strongly played bass lines.

Corey Harris at 2012 Pennsylvania Blues
Festival. Photo © Ron Weinstock
He’s joined by several New Orleans brass band musicians on several songs, including the opening High Fever Blues, an original based on suffering chicken pox that is musically suggestive of Charlie Patton’s favorite melodic theme. He also performs this solo, with his boots keeping the rhythm. In addition to strong originals like this and the title track, Harris covers a number of classic blues recordings, leaving his own imprint on Frankie and Johnnie, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Take Me, Blind Willie Johnson’s God Don’t Ever Change and Memphis Minnie’s Bumble Bee Blues. Preaching Blues is derived from Son House’s Paramount recording, and while there are some traces of Robert Johnson, Harris’ Pattonesque approach and powerful vocals mark his version as perhaps the most compelling rendition in the sixty years since Robert Johnson adapted the theme.

Larry Hoffman worked with Harris in producing this album and contributed three of the four brass arrangements, while Harris and the band arranged them for the closing Clean Rag. While if an impressive performer in what some might view as an archaic style, Harris’ own lyrics are right up to date and effectively deal with a rage of subject matter. His topical lyrics, such as the title song, are even more effective because he does not come across as preaching a message, but simply letting the import of his words make his message. Corey Harris most definitely impresses here on one of the best new recordings of downhome blues in years.

I most likely received a review copy of this recording from Alligator Records. Corey performed Skip James Devil Got My Woman at the Pennsylvania Blues Festival, so I have included a video of him performing this although from another event.

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