The harmonica is to blues what the guitar is to rock and roll, namely the essential instrument of the genre. Old photographs of Sonny Boy Williamson, James Cotton, John Lee Hooker, or Muddy Waters often have the small mouth organ in a hand or strapped around neck. So, as one of the blues’ leading labels pays tribute to the instrument, its presence takes center stage on this eclectic and stellar compilation album. The likes of James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Kenny Neal, and Junior Wells showcase their talents here with help from Snooky Prior and Fabulous Thunderbirds singer Kim Wilson. The result is often enjoyable.
Beginning with “Mighty Fine Boogie” from his Ronnie Earl and Friends album, Ronnie Earl along with Wilson and Cotton take this tune on a leisurely Texas blues walk. The addition of guitarist Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson and Levon Helm on drums certainly doesn’t hurt either. Wilson and Cotton take turns throughout the instrumental before engaging in a give-and-take duel. Like most of the songs here, the harmonica obviously takes the lead role, allowing the different playing styles to be showcased. “Knocking at Your Door” by John Primer is a bit slower in its tempo and more traditional along the lines of Eric Clapton’s From the Cradle. Primer’s vocals are prevalent here over Matthew Skoller’s harmonica playing. “T.D.‘s Boogie Woogie” is a team effort with four performers strutting their stuff on the mouth organ. The ragtime feeling to it courtesy of Anthony Geraci and David Maxwell on piano giving the song a lot of bounce.
A few songs have definite lulls in them, especially the downbeat and almost sleep-inducing track “Rock Me Baby” by Hubert Sumlin. With a sparse arrangement, the song prods along at an extremely uninspired pace, sounding like it’s a run-through at best. James Cotton’s “Lightning” picks things up quickly with a great amount of showmanship and ability. Picked from his Fire Down Under The Hill album, it’s one of the better songs presented. Charlie Musselwhite’s “In Your Darkest Hour” is another selling point, particularly in its beginning, a slow and brooding blues tune that has a lot in common with latter blues-influenced groups like Led Zeppelin circa “Dazed and Confused”. Willie Dixon’s “Bring It on Home”, sung by Kenny Neal, has that deep murky groove that is so vital to most of the genre.
A number of long tracks compose the majority of the second half, including two songs that run more than ten minutes. But not before the brief boogie blues of “Muddy’s Shuffle” gives the album a kick in the proverbial pants. While only two minutes, it is perhaps the most exciting and lively tune of the fourteen. “Starlight Diamond”, from the Superharps II album, begins with a waltz like guitar opening from Kim Bingham and features Raful Neal on lead vocals. Although Neal doesn’t shine often during the solos, his style of playing is meticulous methodical like most of the blues legends. “Fire down the Hill” is another solid song that is done by James Cotton quite well. Snooky Prior does an admirable cover of Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues”, making the subsequent song all the more alarming and surprising.
The album’s biggest disappointment though has to be the finale. Although it reads like a who’s who of blues harmonica maestros, “Harp to Harp” features little to none of its said title. Most of the song consists of bland guitar solos with the harmonica buried deep in the mix if at all. On the whole though, the album does what it sets out to do: bring this often under-valued instrument justly to the forefront.