Monday, August 1, 2011

Texas Harmonica Festival Whomped 'Em!

Blues harp nirvana. The Texas Harmonica Festival held this past Saturday at Houston's Dan Electro's Guitar Bar granted every wish that blues harp fans could possibly dream up; including excellent instruction on getting to the next playing level, how to get that amplified tone happening, an opportunity to jam with the pros, and witnessing one whale of show by incredibly talented blues musicians. And I mean incredible talent.

Sonny Boy Terry has produced excellent blues harp shows for almost as long as I've known him. He's put together harp rumbles and blues blasts sporadically over the past couple of decades and has always pulled in the best danged blues harp talent in the state, and plenty from elsewhere too. Last year he ramrodded his first harmonica festival, that included an instructional clinic, so successfully that the second annual event became a must-do. He tweaked and fine-tuned his model from last year to produce a stupendous show that topped last year's, which I thought would be pretty danged difficult to achieve. Keep in mind that what is posted here is from memory, I found it difficult to sit and write anything while my jaw dropped all night. True. I'm going to run out of superlatives quickly, so if I repeat a few, forgive me.

The afternoon kicked off with the master demonstrating and instructing how to get a harmonica to play the blues for the beginner to the instrument. He covered things such as the difference in playing straight melody in first position on such tunes as Ol' Suzanna and coaxing the wailing blue notes from the harp in cross harp or second position. He stressed the importance of getting that single note and getting it to bend down or up in order to get the blues going on. In his laid back personable style he demonstrated the blues scale on the harmonica the importance of working it into the grooves and keeping a groove witht he music. He had the entire assemblage of sixty or so blowing Muddy Waters "I'm A Man" by the end.

Sonny Boy listens close to an attendee.
I can't say enough about Ronnie Shellist, so I'll just stop here. No, just joking. Shellist was one of the first blues harp instructors to tap into Youtube and offer to share his knowledge with a hungry audience wanting a bigger menu of harmonica playing tips. Today he offers his blues focused harmonica lessons on his website with an array of instruction aimed at everyone from beginners through the advanced student. Shellist followed Sonny Boy's clinic with exhuberance and enthusiasm as he took the lessons to the intermediate level players in the crowd, starting on how to hold the harp and cup it to make it wah-wah properly. His discussion covered first, second and third position playing, tongue blocking slaps and pulls, flutter tongue technique, hitting bends, the importance of rhythm, and other advanced tricks of the trade--including overblows. Attendees were running up and down the blues scale and playing a Kim Wilson rhythmic whomp before he was finished with them. It was plain to see that he wants you to know everything that he knows about the playing the blues and nothing but the blues.
Ronnie Shellist does some one on one.
Stephen "The Professor" Schneider stepped up with a trio of amplifiers and a bagful of microphones and pedals for his demo instructional on how to amplify the little instrument and get huge, fat tone from it. He began by illustrating the importance of obtaining a good cup around the mic and harmonica, so that the amplifier receives the best representation of the note being presented to it. From there he demo'd how to dial in the Fender Reissue Bassman for stage use and explained how he'd modified it to be more conducive for harp playing. He fielded questions relating to the choices for microphones and the pros and cons of each one, and then blew a few tonal differences. He broke out a few Lone Wolf harmonica pedals, such as their harp octave, to show how they could improve the tone of amplifiers that don't quite cut it for harp. Few can explain what goes on inside an amplifier to get that nasty ol' blues harp tone as well as The Professor. From input tubes, to rectifier tubes, to power tubes, to speaker area; Schneider knows the score and shared all on that score.
Stephen Schneider demos a mic.

After a short break after watching the Pocket Full of Soul harmonica documentary, Sonny Boy Terry rounded up his rhythm section of Brian Scardino (drums), Lenny Fatigati (bass), and Holland K. Smith (guitar) for the jam session. These three guys were amazing all night. Except for a break during Texas Johnny Boy's set, these guys backed everyone up all afternoon long and night until the 1 am quitting time. They never missed a beat, regardless of who was calling out what number, and things kicked off with the jam intended to get the clinic participants off their butts and onto the stage to blow the blues. Attendees were given a preview of the kick butt blues harmonica that would follow for the evening with Sonny Boy setting the tone by blasting out his signature sound with the band. From there, the jammers lined up to form what he called a "conga line" and two players at a time stepped on stage, grabbed a harp mic, and joined band's groove with whatever notes they could conjour. Shellist and Sonny Boy highly encouraged participation from everyone, regardless the level of their expertise and play with a real blues band. All levels of expertise did hit the stage and all received a warm welcome and a warm round of applause, whether they squawked out the notes or hit the tone right. Plenty of smiles lit up Dan Electro's room and a big fun vibe permeated the premises.

The jammers did some jamming.
Heather Korb presented her award winning documentary "Third Ward Blues", which portrays the slice of blues life of Houston's Third Ward. Invaluable interviews with Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Gatemouth Brown, and Albert Collins highlight the film with snippets of the music that they were known for, along with a history lesson about the era and the area.

Heather Korb introduces "Third Ward Blues".
 Texas Johnny Boy brought his band to the stage to set the bar high for the rest of the blues harpist to follow. He kicked off with a tough, deep toned, Chi-town style instrumental and proved just how well he has that stuff down. His forte, though, is stylistic shiffs and he has the perfect voice to jump into Louis Jordan jump territory and cover Ray Charles on a tune like the "Messaround". He moved from full blast amped up diatonic to jazzy chromatic and a touch of unamplified acoustic harp and it illustrated his tonal pallete very well. Johnny Boy brought a skin tight band with him in the form of Richard Cholokian (drums), Parker Murphy (bass) and Dave Haley (guitar). They really had a feel for the variety of grooves demanded from Johnny Boy's set. Haley really had a nice touch for the R&B type stuff and could really lay down some jazzy riffs. Johnny Boy will be headlining this year's Navosota Blues Fest on August 13. If you've never caught his show, the fest would be an excellent venue to do so.
Texas Johnny Boy kicks the showcase in gear.

Holland K. Smith kicked butt with a scorching set of blues standards. Sonny Boy had roped him into coming down from his Dallas homebase and the man played impressive blues guitar all night long, but really rocked the joint on his own set, where he was allowed to share his vocal chops with us also. He absolutely scorched "Black Cat Bone", both vocally and with his strings, and how appropriate to thrown down a tune from one of Houston's lengendary bluesmen, Hop Wilson. Smith plays stone cold, solid Texas blues guitar, not blues rock, BLUES guitar. The stuff Johnny Copeland, Albert Collins, Joe Hughes, T-Bone, and Freddy King threw around. Loved his energetic set. He also allowed Lenny to sing one. The bassman surprised me with vocal prowess on a jump number. I can see frontman in his future at some point.

Holland K. Smith lights up the crowd.

Lenny Fatigati sings the blues.

Don't know what can be said about Tommy DarDar that hasn't been said, but since some of y'all ain't heard it said--the man is a Texas treasure. Best known around his Houston stomping grounds, he's one of those talents that should be better known way beyond the Texas Gulf Coast. DarDar does the blues that inner bred with the Louisiana swamp and comes out jumping and jiving with its own viberation. He's got a ruff tuff voice that fits the music like a welder's glove and swings it hard. When he hits the stage, its party time from "Big Mamou" to "Let The Good Times Roll", and buddy, they did roll while he held court. His harp playing doesn't evoke Chicago as much as it does the Gulf Coast and it's there to support his songs, not eclipse them. He'd swing up some rapid runs up toward the higher end of the harp and finish them off with some deeply drawn low notes, reverberating the ceiling fan above him. Don't know if they call him Big Daddy Gumbo any longer, but it fits his style. I do know that we were calling him "Good Time Tommy" Saturday night.

Tommy DarDar loves that "Big Mamou".
Even though Ronnie Shellist demonstrated some of his harmonica licks during his instructional time, I wasn't prepared for the Chi-town toned set he blew through during his showcase set. I thought that Kim Wilson had taken the stage. He had me hooked from his opening instrumental and as he blasted through Junior Parker's "Mother-in-Law Blues", I knew that he was one of the "Real Deal" blues harp guys now, and his vocals are polished and expressive. As he bounced call and response notes back and forth off of Holland's guitar, there was no doubt left that Shellist had a deep feeling for the music inside of him and he enjoy the hell out of sharing it. A highlight of the set was when he called up Greg Izor for a little friendly head cutting session. Seems that those two hung together in New Orleans and the gig provided a bit of a reunion for them. They smoked the stage, pinging fat notes to each other and back again. Izor returned the favor during his set, with much the same results.

Ronnie Shellist has his rooster crowing.
I really don't think that a straight jacket could keep Greg Izor's energy level in check. He hit the stage full steam ahead and never once let up. Once he placed a harmonica mic to his lips, the music moved him and put him in constant motion. Having reviewed his CD on the blog here recently, I knew darned well that his harp playing had "it"--all the fat and no filler, just killer stuff. He blew like his life depended on it and sang as well as anyone out there doing the blues today. Then he broke out his chromatic harmonica. Wow! I can't remember the last time I heard anyone play the blues on chromatic as well as Greg Izor. He was all over the big harp, button. He swoop from the high octaves and then bottom out and boom heavy, heavy stuff from the low octave. His telling me that he grabbed hold of Johnny Sansone when he was in New Orleans and never let him go until he learned all that he could proved invaluable. Then, of course, the returned the head cutting favor by getting Shellist back up and they went into blues harp frenzy.
A little friendly head cutting going down.

Greg Izor's blowing it fat and nasty.

Sonny Boy returned to join the band and show why he's such a legend in Houston. As many harp players as I've listened to over the years, no one does it quite like Sonny Boy Terry. He's just got a style and deep tone that he can call his own. Plenty of Chi-town fat, but there's something about that humid Gulf Coast vibe that permeates what comes out and it drips blues like sweat. He coaxes nuances from his harp, mic, and amp that just sets him apart from others. Sonny Boy got up and did his thang and took no prisoners and then orchestrated the "Grand Finale", which, of course, blew the roof on Dan Electro's.

Sonny Boy wraps up the showcase.
By the end of the evening, blues music had seeped through the crowd like molasses that'll take days to wash away. 'Nuff said.


Giuliano said...


Ricky Bush said...

Great is right. Great clinic, great musicians, great comraderie all day and night long.