By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Blow, cat, blow
Guitarists and keyboard players have all manner of tricky amps and special effects devices to diddle with, but if harmonica players use such stuff they--if you will--blow their whole deal. The harp-honker's ethos calls for instruments to be played with no more sonic alteration than the nominal distortion provided by blowing them through a microphone. Even then it's preferred that the mike be older than dirt. Nonetheless, harp blowers these days access a breathtaking--if you will--array of sounds and techniques, as will be manifest at the Second Annual Harmonica Happening, under the auspices of HOOT (Harmonica Organization of Texas).
At the happening, eight or so acts will take the stage and do 30- to 40-minute sets. The patriarch of the event is Sam Myers, who'll represent the postwar, amplified Delta/Chicago sound most of us hear in our heads when someone says "blues."
Another bluesman on the bill is Dempsey Crenshaw. At HOOT's first happening in '97, this oft-overlooked Texas harp resource (who's in the band Shame Shame) was unknown to most of the audience, but turned out to be something of a surprise hit. Normally associated with a harp sound that's surprisingly countrified despite Shame Shame's hardball repertoire, he tucked into some very citified tones in the style of the influential Little Walter. (Crenshaw is an Alabama native and once toured with Chuck Berry. He has lived in Dallas since the '60s.)
Black Top recording artist Gary Primich learned harp accompanying true-life Chicago bluesmen but moved to Austin and mutated. HOOT main man Tom Ellis says Primich is ace at the elusive "tongue-blocking" and is enriched by his wont to gobble sundry music forms.
"Harmonica players are typically cursed by the fact that they listen only to other harmonica players," Ellis says. "But Primich is a real steel-guitar nut--the instruments do have a similar resonance--and he also loves sax and organ jazz. He also listens to [blues harpmen] Jerry McCain and Sonny Boy No. 1, which is kind of unique."
Of the two Sonny Boys, No. 2 was far more influential than No. 1, and has a prime interpreter in John Moscione, who sings and blows remarkably like him and is also happening-bound. (Moscione blew harp and alto sax in a Houston band, Johnny Boy.)
Also on the bill is Paul Harrington, a C&W-jazz player who offers harp courses through FunEd, and is house harpdude at the Mesquite Opry. Also featured will be the Dallas Harmonica Trio, which includes Jeri Welch, who in addition to blowing normal Snickers-sized harps also plays rarely seen, dashboard-sized bass harmonicas.
But none of the above is as rare a treat to harmonica cognoscenti as a set from Joe Felisco. A Chicagoan, he makes harps for celebs (Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin, and Charlie Musselwhite among them) and is considered the prime proponent of the much-overlooked "country" harp style exemplified by Grand Ol' Opry legend DeFord Bailey.
The Second Annual Harmonica Happening will take place at Blue Cat Blues from 8 p.m. to midnight on March 5.