Carib-Afro-blues meets ethics on the latest from a... traditionalist?"
Corey Harris comes as close to being a musical sponge as anyone around right now. Forget the term "eclectic" that gets thrown around too often, because Harris has a very specific project that results in a unified (if constantly changing) sound. He could have been a Denver, Colorado bluesman, but he took a path through New Orleans and central Virginia, all by way of Africa, and bolstered by the Caribbean. On every stop on his journey, Harris has studiously learned new musical grooves, feels, and structures, all while tying them into his bluesy roots sound.
Harris has traveled to Africa several times (captured in part for Martin Scorsese's The Blues) and has developed relationships with musicians on that continent. His sound has taken on aspects of Afropop and African folk. Catch him in concert and you might get to see him up for traditional Chicago blues moments on electric guitar, but as Harris has synthesized his influences, his music has taken on more of a general folk feel. "Folk" meaning not the Guthrie-Dylan school, but the original people's music sense. While his proficiency on guitar never falters, Harris focuses on rhythm and songcraft.
On Daily Bread, his latest release, you'll find more connection to the islands and reggae than to any other style. The American roots feel pops through on occasion, but this is a record the Wailers could dig. The album's central moment, "Lamb's Bread", relies on reggae guitar work to set the mood, while Harris sings in slang references to Kingston music and entertainment.
Given his worldwide travels and music path, Harris unsurprisingly expresses his political side quite freely. The syncopated jam of "Lamb's Bread" leads into "Just in Time", a tasteful commentary on war that features the line "Peace is the right sacrifice". Harris has been outspoken about the US campaign in Iraq, and while this song could apply to any time (it oddly makes me think of the US Civil War), it rings its deepest bells right now.
Harris returns explicitly to his politics on the album's last official track, "The Bush Is Burning". Starting with that title, the song contains religious imagery, talk of "blood and fire", the devil, and Babylon, yet it's clear that the song is directed at the US's current administration. Harris turns President Bush's religious rhetoric around, comparing this country to Babylon. Funneling a Toots-through-the-Clash aggression and pressure, Harris asserts the current condition, repeating the title phrase several times for the chorus. Then he reminds us of 9/11: "Towers coming down / Now you know terror, too". For the closing verse, Harris first addresses US leadership with a religious admonishment -- "All blood is precious / In his sight" -- before giving his audience the instruction that "[e]very time you sing / You got to chant the system down". All the while he works his electric guitar with staccato anger and a-harmonic yelps.
Of course, all the politics and the ethical center wouldn't matter if the songs and the playing didn't hold together. But they do. Much of the music has the reggae sound that too many frat boys have used to explain their multiculturalism, but Harris always manages to inject it with his personal juice. He's oddly helped in that endeavor by strong guests. On several tracks he adds Morwenna Lasko's violin, and organist Henry Butler and folk/blues singer/trumpeter Olu Dara make regular and noteworthy appearances. Harris turns one man's vision into a collaborative effort, and he succeeds.
On "A Nickel and a Nail", Harris gets right into the heart of the blues, bringing the spirit of O.V. Wright and B.B. King. One of the lyrics admits "that the thrill is gone", and Harris's playing is reminiscent of that King track, but that attitude nods toward Wright's original vocal performance (without the melodramatic). The guitar work here connects to old white Brits more than to Mali residents, but the inclusion of a track like this one shows the connections between the styles of music that Harris seeks to merge (or, more accurately, to the connections he seeks to reveal).
It's an unusual result, then, one man working in a group setting with several cultures and many musical traditions for a cohesive result. Drawing from blues and reggae, Harris merges a new sound with a focused ethical vision. It could be a profoundly academic exercise; instead it's a heart-seekingly profound performance.