Nov. 11, 2012. by Frank Matheis with photographs by Bibiana Huang Matheis – copyright 2012 all rights reserved
The contrast could not have been greater. In one of the world’s most spectacular venues, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s famed Allen Room in the Time-Life building on Columbus Circle on the Southwest corner of Central Park of Manhattan, the ultra-urban was juxtaposed against a quintessential rural musical form. The city opened up to the folk blues, the roots blues of the plantations and juke joints of the American South from more than 80 years ago. The old blues has reached the highest echelon of culture. If only the blues musicians of the golden era could see how far their music has come, to be represented in a prestigious venue on equal status as the greatest musicians of jazz, respected and venerated. Here they were represented by a lineup of amazing musicians who carry on their music to new generations. They would never believe it if they could see their music in this concert hall.
A few hundred people gathered in the intimate, upscale venue to face an unusual summit of some of today’s most significant practitioners of the traditional acoustic blues, all in one place. Set against the breathtaking panoramic vista of Manhattan at night, the audience faced a giant glass window, at least 15 meters high, to look out from their 5th floor vantage point to the lights of the city and the skyscrapers of Columbus Circle. Undoubtedly one of the most dramatic settings for a concert hall. The lyrics of Jimmy Reed’s famed “Bright Lights, Big City” surely came to mind.
Alvin Youngblood Hart was billed as the headliner, but instead of the usual one-man show with maybe an opener, he lined up a summit of some of today’s most relevant acoustic blues guard – the guitar/harmonica duo Phil Wiggins & Corey Harris, with special guest Guy Davis. Jazz at Lincoln Center has advertised the event as “a soul-stirring program of acoustic blues” and indeed, it was. Jazz at Lincoln Center is one of New York’s most important jazz institutions, and their inclusion of the country blues is a wonderful and exciting thing on its own. For Mr. Hart to share the stage with his esteemed friends created a marvelous opportunity to see a group of the very best musicians today in a grouping that is hardly replicated even in the best blues festivals.
Grammy award winner, musicologist, and “musicianer” Alvin Youngblood Hart played two shows each night on Friday, Nov. 9 and Sat.10. This reviewer witnessed the opening night as Alvin Youngblood Hart took the stage with a small Stella parlour guitar played through a Fender amp, and engaged the audience in a short set, showcasing his mastery of county blues picking. The audience was unusually quiet and well behaved, almost subdued, seemingly too polite to stomp as Mr. Hart let loose on some raucous fingerpicking, with a droning walking bass line and distinct North-Mississippi phrasing with a repetitive, trance inducing beat. He achieved a deep roots sound – enthralling and riveting, as he evoked the memories of the country blues musicians of the golden era, such as Henry Townsend. Mr. Hart’s stage presence is notably powerful. He carries a sense of confidence and projects inner strength. You sense that he is an artist who is at his creative peak, very comfortable with himself, doing what he wants to do.
Headliner Alvin Youngblood Hart was entirely unselfish and after a few solo tunes invited New York native Guy Davis to the stage. He performed a fiery version of Rev. Robert Wilkin’s “That’s No Way to Get along” on a Gibson 12-string guitar and his signature foot stomping hog-calling solo harmonica shuffle which he attributed to Sonny Terry. Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris joined Guy Davis for a Willie Dixon’s blues standard “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Then it was time for Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris to perform as a duo.
Since the passing of Virginia bluesman John Cephas, harmonica ace Phil Wiggins, one of the world’s greatest traditional blues harmonica players, has played frequently with Corey Harris, although they are not permanently connected and both often perform with other players. It became immediately clear that these guys are a perfect alignment of elegance, finesse and absolute mastery of blues roots. Surely, when together, they are the best harmonica/guitar duo on the scene today, directly carrying on the traditions of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Cephas & Wiggins. There is hardly an acoustic harmonica player on the planet that can keep up with Phil Wiggins. Corey Harris plays such exquisite blues with prowess and sings in a rich tenor that the pair is simply astounding.
The finale brought Alvin Youngblood Hart, Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris together for a few numbers. The feeling of fraternity was evident as these three guys created a down-home feeling, with thunderous acoustic blues played about as fine as it gets. The evening seemed short as a second set followed soon after. Phil Wiggins indicated that on the next day, Saturday, blues singer Shemika Copeland joined the trio.
Charlie Musselwhite will continue the series on March 15 and 16, 2013. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.