The structure and delivery may be as basic as it gets, but the blues is essentially storytelling music. Whether it's hard times and bad luck or an exuberant expression of joy, there has to be a narrative, and a reason. Posing and posturing just won't cut it.
Harpdog Brown is a bluesman in the classic style. He understands that the music is about communication, about connecting. He wrote the bulk of the material on What It Is..., most with assistance from drummer and long-time cohort John Hunter. They're solid, well-crafted tunes that sound right at home next to the handful of standards included. And Brown delivers every one with sly wit and sheer charm, spinning his yarns and telling his tales with a nod and a wink and a true raconteur's easy aplomb.
Brown is also an absolute monster on the harmonica. In his hands it becomes the most expressive and versatile of instruments, moaning, crying, wailing and squalling, full of dazzling flutters and piercing grace notes. And he's not simply repeating what's been done so well before. The song structures might be familiar, but Brown's endlessly inventive harmonica work expands upon rather than recycling the twelve-bar palette.
He's working here with his road band - Hunter on drums (the two go all the way back to 1983), bassist George Fenn, and relative youngster Jordan Edmonds on guitar. They take a basic, no-frills approach to tunes, the rhythms rock solid, punctuated by Edmonds' churning, spiky guitar. Covers include Little Walter's "Blue Lights" and Sonny Boy Williamson's "In My Younger Days," both allowing Brown to stretch out with some exquisite work on both amplified and acoustic harmonica. There's also one from the Wolf ("All Night Boogie") and a furiously swinging "Git Ta Gittin' Baby" to go with the uniformly sturdy originals.
In truth the blues, by definition is a limited form. What matters is the presentation, the delivery - not artifice, but honesty. Above all else, it has to have feel, that indefinable something that renders it absolutely essential. Harpdog Brown virtually personifies that feel, that exuberance and swing, that inextinguishable life force that ensures the blues remain vital and relevant.
This is great stuff ... highly recommended to any blues lover, and essential if you're any fan at all of the Mississippi saxophone!