I can sometimes get the blues about the sad state of blues. But that’s why finding this particular record is such a boost. Seiji “Wabi” Yuguchi and the Wabi Down Home Blues Project, and others like them, help hold the Philistines temporarily at bay. Yuguchi was born in Osaka, Japan in 1966. At the age of 20 he discovered the blues when he bought a record he had never heard by a musician he had never heard of called Howling Wolf. The music on that album inspired Yuguchi to leave Japan behind in 1989 and head for Chicago, all to learn to play blues harmonica. He succeeded to my surprised delight.
The Wabi Down Home Blues Project is primarily an all-Asian blues band, made up of Seiji “Wabi” Yuguchi on vocals and harmonica, Hiroshi Egushi on double bass, with Yoshiyuki Mizuno, Minoru Maruyama, and Tadao Hosonuma trading turns on guitar, accompanied by drummer Steve Cushing.
Working up front, Yuguchi is an admirable leader. He doesn’t strike a bad bluesman pose and he doesn’t strike me as being cute or docile. He isn’t big on fancy trills. He owns cool. His playing technique is solid, and he can carry a song easily. Despite the language barrier (English not being Yuguchi’s primary language), an occasional word pronounced with a rather charming Japanese accent, still the message gets across loud and clear.
While the greatest criticism levied against Wabi is that his music is “derivative”, then at least his playing is shaped by a basic form of blues that happens to have had substance. Recorded and mixed by none other than Twist Turner, this recording is purposefully minimal and raw, overall sounding as if it could have been recorded in Chicago during the ‘50s. But the band’s approach to the blues is what makes it all work. Together, they reinterpret much of the spirit and feel of blues as they simmered out of 1950’s Chicago. This is not mere imitation, and not solely tribute, but talented players genuinely taking on the blues as their own expressive medium, while the guitar work can occasionally sound a bit more like ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll and not sound too false a note.
Wabi urges clear, crisp, beautiful tones from his harp and bullet-mic. His sound is chesty and full and he can ease into high-end vibrato without ever going shrill. He also sings subtle cool leads while the band hooks into solid grooves. They grind out the slow blues desperation of Walter Jacobs’ “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer”, their rendition staggering and kicking with a perfect mixture of rhythm and desperate emotion. Paying homage to James A. Lane, the band covers his “Act Like You Love Me” and then successfully interprets (and reinterprets) “That’s All Right”, shading the same song in two slightly bluer than the last emotional hues. Yuguchi’s sharp harp solos are definitely something to be experienced. Sometimes a little jazzy (“Pretty Baby”), and always sophisticated, Yuguchi is also surprisingly skilled at easy-going blues bounce. Yuguchi easily glides his own “Don’t I Know” into new sabi-wabi blues shuffle territory before teasing out an understated and thoroughly essential solo.
This is more than a decent outing. The record is a lot of fun, and Yuguchi shows a lot of promise. It’s also nice to know there are people who still care about really trying to play the blues. Blues are in trusted hands with Seiji Yuguchi and his Wabi Down Home Blues Project.