Do you ever get the feeling some kind of weird commandment went out recently to blues artists to really start pushing the creative envelope? I can’t imagine how such a thing might have been worded, much less transmitted, but the result has been that more than a few young blues players have really started branching out. Thankfully, some of their experiments work well and Corey Harris’s Downhome Sophisticate certainly qualifies.
The opening sounds “Giddyup” are eighteen seconds of a snippet of conversation, reminding me of those earlier more innocent days of FM radio when broadcast frequencies were not so rigorously modulated. At times, inexplicably though probably dependent on some natural phenomenon like cloud formation, a scratchy-sounding two-way radio conversation would be picked up by my mother’s radio in the kitchen. The unshielded transmission suddenly would bleed through the round grill cloth of the table model, sometimes interrupting the music, sometimes blending around it. Always a bit startling, local cops in conversation not knowing they were being listened to by any but each other.
Between the songs on Downhome Sophisticate, other strange bits latently wait until the CD laser runs across them. One reveals people goofing, practicing different ways how to say “downhome” Southern-style, a prelude to the kicking title track. Layered thickly with some of the influences a rich cultural stew might ladle out, a lapslide guitar leads in played “scratch” style, followed underneath by muffled bass drums, people humming plantation-style, soulful ‘70s-style lyric lines soon include gettin’ a freak on and then the song is consumed by a fast rap treatment, before stylistically reversing and moving backwards towards the beginning elements.
Harris pounds out some blues here—fuzzy electric blues, including the bouncing “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” which has a strong lead-in beat that might make people start dancing in spite of themselves in a 7-11, a fast sophisticated blues clip on “B.B.”, plus a more traditional-sounding national steel-mandolin duet on “Where the Yellow Cross the Dog”.
While Harris travels the world musically, using a cycling guitar riff he heard in a restaurant in Mali for “Santoro”, celebrating a fish he saw swimming in circles in the Niger River on “Capitaine”, or dipping into the makossa he learned in Cameroon for “Sister Rose”, he says he does this not as appropriation, but for communication. “I want to reach people in other countries. I want to say something that is about my experience as a black person who has been in other places where black people live and observed how they do their thing. But I want to make it so that other people can feel it and understand it and say, ‘Oh, this relates to me, too.’”
Another static-riddled conversation (probably sheriffs, this time) talk about “Fire on the Radio”. The final caller of the 27 seconds insists, “You know, it was pretty strange back there. The fire department was sittin’ there watchin’ that place burn. Didn’t look to me like they were trying to put it out.” Soon another “Fire” erupts with the lurching fuzzed steps of an electric guitar, and the military tattoo of a snare drum. A bottle hit by a church key is the rhythm accent while a low talking drum mutters. Soulful words shouted warn about the coming conflagration and “rumors of war”.
The rapid tap of metal chattering against metal, a deep-pulsed throb from steel, then a slow motion suspension in space, swaying like palm fronds hit by a constant rush of wind, hovering sweeping steel, cymbals and lapslide atmospherically combine to hold “Chinook” aloft. Corey Harris painted those vivid tone pictures; I just happened to see them.
As eclectic as it is, Downhome Sophisticate might take a little getting used to, so be prepared to chart through unfamiliar territory. Those who yearn for straight blues all the way through, blues played in a way that makes throngs of people willing to stand in a downpour just to listen, should probably find his Fish Ain’t Bitin’. For those who can sometimes tolerate their blues mixed with new seasonings and want a good time, grab Greens from the Garden. The really adventurous listeners will seek out all three above and be glad they did.