The young bard Andrew Alli from Richmond, Virginia, showed up to teach harmonica classes at the Augusta Heritage Blues Week at Elkins, West Virginia, this year by invitation of elder master Phil Wiggins. The most prevalent question was “Who is he?” Nobody asked that at the end of the program. Andrew Alli aptly showed that he is one of the rising stars of the new blues players destined to chart the new blues, which, in his case is the old blues. When the man sings in a deep rich tenor and plays his fierce harp that cuts straight back to the golden era, everybody looks up in amazement. It was clear that great things are forthcoming from this immensely talented singer and harmonica player.
Alli is quiet by nature. As he gets going in his songs, his eyes sparkle and he breathes with an intensive, focused energy. The modest and gentle tempered player reaches into a deep well, and an ancient feeling rises as he transmutes into a ball of fire. You are transported back to where Big Walter, Little Walter, Junior Wells, and Sonny Boy Williamson dwelled. The audience is mesmerized – stunned. By the virtue of his youth, and relative obscurity among the older blues audience, he attracts a younger audience to the blues– and they love it. Even though he has been playing for a relatively short time, he is superb on both 10-hole diatonic and chromatic harp styles. His regular acoustic partner is the equally talented and superlative singer /songwriter and guitarist Josh Small, and the two continue the long tradition of Piedmont and Tidewater acoustic blues guitar/harmonica duos.
Living Blues caught up with the ascending musician. Alli: “I focus on getting a younger crowd excited about the blues and to get more African American people interested in the music that we developed and created. There aren’t too many young African American harmonica players out there. I just love this music and I’d like to let the community know that. There’s a really great music scene here in Richmond, driven by the younger crowd. We’re getting people that normally wouldn’t listen to the blues out to our shows. It’s a great thing. People will sometimes not really respect the blues, and then they hear it and they’re just blown away.”
“I play in two primary ensembles, in an acoustic harmonica-guitar duo with a gentleman named Josh Small; and I lead a full band – Andrew Alli and the Mainline. In the duo we play mostly acoustic folk and roots blues, the older blues, although we do a little bit of everything with a grass roots sound. Josh Small is an amazing musician. He plays slide guitar as well as finger picks. He’s a songwriter himself, and we met by chance in Richmond where he was playing a very small show with another musician named Tim Barry from Richmond. I had been playing harmonica for two years at that point. Right now we’re playing maybe one show a week – sometimes two a week.
The electric band, Andrew Alli and the Mainline, has also been around seven years now. I met a local jazz drummer Chaz Hibbler and expressed my interest in the blues and that I really wanted to start a band. It has sort of grown and developed through the years. We play Chicago style influenced blues. I do a lot of originals in that style of music – plus Swing, with a little bit of Southern influence, the Delta style, but mostly the Northern style Chicago blues. It’s a four piece band – me on harmonica and Chaz on drums. Ken Kellner is on bass and on guitar Ivan Applerouth, a very well-known, well-seasoned blues guitarist. He’s been around for years and years and a really great player. So we’ve been going at it for a while and have a great sound, and I’m just really enjoying playing this very particular style of blues. It’s been a lot of fun.
I’ve been playing harmonica since 2008 when I was 21 years old, almost eight years ago. I picked up the harmonica before I found the blues. It’s my first instrument. I was inspired after seeing someone playing on the street one day, and it just clicked. Something felt right. That day I went to the music store and bought a cheap harp and started blowing on it. Of course I didn’t know what I was doing, but I really enjoyed it. I didn’t know what it was, but it just felt right from day one. So as I got into the harmonica I made a commitment to learn this right. So the first thing was to look at the history and to understand where it comes from and how to play and feel it. I went back to the roots, where it started. That’s where I found the blues. It was like “Where has it been all my life?” It felt so natural and I just got engulfed. I started listening to all the greats –Big Walter, Little Walter, Junior Wells, and even the older guys like Sonny Boy Williamson, number one, Daddy Stovepipe, and the real old players. I was just so enthralled and mesmerized by what sounds they were making from these harmonicas.
Actually, the first song I learned wasn’t a blues – it was Moon River and I can remember just as I learned it, I was in the car with my parents and they didn’t know I played harmonica and I started playing it and they thought it was a recording when they first heard it, and they looked back and they saw me playing – I told them I’m picking up this instrument and I’m in love with it, and they were – they’ve been very supportive – they’ve been my biggest fans throughout the whole journey. It’s been great, you know, having a chance to tour – been touring with Josh Small and Tim Barry – we went to Europe and Australia, and the East Coast tour with Tim. I’m also going down to Memphis for the Blues Challenge. My band had won years back at Richmond Blues Challenge and we went to Memphis and were very well received there. So it’s just been one thing after another and no stopping. If anything, I feel as motivated as I’ve ever been to just learn new things and getting out there…”
“I’d say early on I instantly fell in love with Big Walter Horton. I think for many reasons, but what I really got from his playing was his subtlety and many nuances. When you hear a harmonica player talk about their favorite players or songs, it tends to be more of amplified stuff. I was drawn more to what these guys were doing with their hands and how you can roll the sound with cupping. Big Walter was absolutely the master. His playing was definitely has one of the biggest influences on me. Of course I took a lot from all the other greats – Little Walter, Junior Wells, Frank Floyd (I and II), George Marcus Smith. I’ve been playing a lot more chromatic harmonica, and that’s a complete different world. Relatively speaking, there aren’t too many chromatic players out there doing the real blues. There’s a ton of people playing the diatonic but there’s only a handful playing the real good chromatic blues. I’ve had the fortune to meet a lot of guys that actually had played with Big Walter and met him. Everyone says he was the best. He could play so softly and so innocently – but he could also be very aggressive and angry when he wanted to. He didn’t overplay. That’s the one thing I’ve taken from his playing is leaving space for all those notes to sink in. Anyone can play any note, and it’s the least amount of notes you can play and still get a strong message across – is what I took from that and relay try to focus on when I play…
“I just recently recorded on a Big Walter tribute album, Blues for Big Walter. They got some of the best harmonica players around the country, especially students of Big Walter, to record songs: Kim Wilson, Steve Guyger, Mark Hummel, the list goes on. I recorded two songs on this album that was released earlier this year in March on EllerSoul Records. I’m currently working on getting my first full length album out of my own material, and we’re looking at having it out probably early next year, as we are recording by the end of this year.”