Toronto-based Mark 'Bird' Stafford is a harmonica player's player, seemingly capable of just about anything on that smallest of instruments. Here he leads a furiously swinging foursome through a set of standards recorded on a hot July night in Toronto.
A traditionalist at heart, Stafford has the uncanny ability to sound like any of the masters who originated the sound, giants of the harmonica like Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Junior Parker, and Slim Harpo. His tone is rich and full, whether he's playing raw and distorted or piercing and clean. (He uses famed Sonny Jr. Amplifiers, legendary for their crunchy sound, along with vintage microphones). And he's endlessly inventive, able to stretch well-worn tunes out with dazzling creativity and obvious showmanship.
There aren't any surprises on the all-covers playlist - the artists above, along with the ubiquitous Willie Dixon, account for the disc's eleven songs, and none are obscure. Include are Parker's "Pretty Baby," Dixon's "Can't Hold Out" and "Too Late Brother," Sonny Boy's "Sloppy Drunk Blues," and Little Walter's "Mellow Down Easy" - all pretty familiar fare. (Although credited to Little Walter, Stafford calls his version of "Juke" "Juke-ish," only fair given how much he elaborates on the famous recorded version).
In the end, though, blues is all about that intangible 'feel,' and the requisite qualities are all here - craft combined with sheer exuberance, swagger and strut. It's bar band music, righteously raucous, dirty and dangerous, played by what's essentially a pick-up band comprised of veterans who've lived and breathed this stuff for years and know it in and out. Drummer Tyler Burgess has spent time with not one but two genuine Canadian institutions, Downchild and Stompin' Tom Connors, and can swing and shuffle with the best. Bassist Dennis Pinhorn worked with Downchild in the early years as well, and as one of Canada's 'go-to' guys, with a veritable who's who in the years since. Guitarists Aaron Griggs and Fabio Parovel are both thoroughly schooled in the art of accompaniment, providing solid but unobtrusive support that highlights Stafford's harp work, and stepping up as required to deliver tightly economical solos.
And then there's 'Bird' himself. An educator as well as an entertainer, Stafford doesn't have a big voice, relying on sly and cagey delivery rather than raw power, but he's in absolute control here. His harp work is dexterous and nimble but always in the groove - he plays to make the song sound better, not to showcase his skills. He also understands that sometimes it's simply the sound of the amplified harmonica that slays, and he's a master at coaxing subtle shades and tonal variations from the harp.
The songs may be standards, and the overall approach respectful, but the energy and enthusiasm of all concerned, combined with road-tested chops and an innate feel for twelve-bar blues, ensures that the results here are genuinely special.
A magical night indeed!