Self-Deprecating Canadian Harmonica Blues, If You Don't Mind
Carlos del Junco is the best blues harmonica player in Canada. This is not damning with faint praise; it’s just stating a fact, as he’s won the award for this on several occasions. Like many Canadians, he is self-deprecating about his talent; the album’s subtitle, proclaimed on the back cover, is “Some Recycled Blues and Other Somewhat Related Stuff (Part 2)”. But he really needn’t be shy about his talent. He’s good, and he’s interesting, and Blues Mongrel proves this very nicely.
He’s got some ambition, does young del Junco. The first song, “Blues With a Feeling”, is about as weird and gutty as he gets, with its strange stop-start beat, del Junco’s country-ish vocal and long blues-harp notes, and big crunchy guitar work from Kevin Breit. The title song begins like this as well, wrenched into being from some underground chamber, and turning into a weird hybrid of three different types of blues songs. Breit, who is Norah Jones’ guitarist and bandleader, does the same here, and writes five of the twelve songs on the album. You can tell he’s happy to get into another style of music, although “Don’t Worry Your Pretty Little Head” could be an instrumental outtake from Feels Like Home. But I don’t hate on Norah Jones, so it sounds good to me, even if it IS kind of a boring way to end an album.
The album’s theme, if there is any, is that blues is a mongrel art form, and should know no boundaries. I like this, because no one is quite as boring as a blues purist who has to have things in one certain way. Del Junco, who was born in Cuba, proves his theory by throwing in a whole lot of things calculated to cause high blood pressure in these supposed purists. Out of nowhere, he covers “Let’s Mambo”, and, ambitiously, makes a Latin jam out of the theme to “Our Man Flint”. Probably his biggest expression of oddity is when he comes up with an adorable bluebeat reggae thing in “Skatoon”.
What I like about del Junco is this sense of adventurousness. He isn’t some wild avant-gardiste, as he proves in straight-ahead Sonny Boy Williamson and John Willy Henry songs. But he wants to play around with form, and that’s fine. That he does so in a self-deprecatingly (and particularly Canadian?) way is to his credit… but I actually wish there was more of a swagger to him. There is no killer instinct in del Junco the way there is in, say, Curtis Salgado. Without a sense of danger, an edge that sticks in people’s craws, there is no way that del Junco’s gently-posed challenges to the existing perception of what the blues can be will be taken seriously by the masses.
But this record shows that he has all the talent to do so, if he wants to. As good as Blues Mongrel is, here’s hoping it’s a launching pad to even greater things.