There is some good news from Holland, and it comes in the package of Keith Dunn.
I was given the wonderful opportunity to get to know Mr.Dunn (via internet) and review some of his recordings. I had never heard of him, and literally stumbled across his most excellent release on Deetone Records at CD Baby, Internet music retailer. Keith is a fantastic harmonica player with an interesting sense of melody and musicality. His playing and singing has allowed him the honor of performing with many Blues greats like Jimmy Rogers, Roomful of Blues, Big Joe Williams and too many others to mention. Mr. Dunn has a long and varied history as both cover artist and innovator. He played with Dave Alvin and other members of Roots music icons "The Blasters" and "X", two of So. Cal's most notorious and creative outfits. He also performed with The Paladins and several other W. Coast groups during the late 70's and early to mid 80's.
I can't understand why I have never read anything regarding Keith Dunn in harmonica and Blues publications. I do admit to being "new" to the music (since 1994, so probably did miss some articles) but I think I have done some serious homework on the harmonica and many of its greatest advocates. This guy is truly gifted, and has earned the right to be included in any publication-documentation regarding harmonica and Blues Artists. In fact, (for those of you who know me) I say it's an outrage that I have never read anything of him, and have only recently become aware of his CD's. Luckily, for you, I am here to give you the good news!
Keith Dunn began playing harmonica at the age of 11 using Hohner Marine Bands. He switched over to the Golden Melody body style for a brief while during his career, and has since settled on Hohner's Big River model, based on playability and reed plate availability. Keith used Big Rivers for his CD "Alone With The Blues" (with great results in both tone and performance). Keith uses a standard Astatic JT-70 microphone, which was a present from Kim Wilson, (no special elements or rigging) and uses a variety of amps including a '65 Black-Face Princeton (same as Paul deLay) or a Tweed Bassman (mid-50's, same as U-NO-WHO) and has also used a variety of Magnatone and Silvertone amps issued in the late 50's-mid 60's during the course of his long and impressive playing career.
Dunn actually gave up performing harp for a period of time. He was getting work as a singing front man, and that was paying the bills. It is a wonderful tribute to Keith's innate musical gift that Hubert Sumlin personally requested that Keith play harmonica during a short tour. Keith had been the featured vocalist for the tour, and had not even played harp on stage for several years, but Sumlin forced the issue. That tour could be considered Dunn's "re-birth" as a pro-player, and caused him to redirect his focus to developing his own unique harmonica sound. He has many original compositions and he performs and tours extensively in Europe.
Mr. Dunn has relocated to Holland, and has a fine recording available on Deetone Records (e mail: email@example.com ) Alone With The Blues, (Deetone Records DCD-5501) is also available at www.cdbaby.com/keithdunn for a very reasonable price with guaranteed shipping!
Below is the interview:
LAH: Your CD "Alone With The Blues" features only harmonica and voice. You are not the first guy to do that, but certainly the ONLY guy to get such great results (my opinion). Can you comment on your reasons for producing that particular CD?
KD: Thank you. I am glad that you like the record. "Alone With The Blues" has gotten great reviews and continues to sell well. It is a classic album. What I mean to say is the fact that I perform alone makes the album special. The uniqueness of the album will insure that it will always be something fans will want to have as part of their collection. Now, I was under the impression that I was the first person to record a group of songs with voice and harmonica, completely alone without any other musicians or instruments, specifically to for release on one album. I have looked am sorry if I missed someone. If someone did this either before or after me, I would love to hear the record.
I started Deetone Records to have an outlet for my songwriting and political ideas. I also wanted the freedom to produce records for other artists the way I saw fit and to be able to release these recordings myself. The story of how "Alone With The Blues" came to be made is a long one. The short version is that I wanted to do something completely different but traditional at the same time. I wanted to make an album that would always be remembered and desired for years to come; an album where I produced, performed, did all of the songwriting, got it pressed and released myself, on my own label. I wanted the look and the sound quality to be as good as anything available on the market. The songs had to be interesting and varied enough to hold the attention, for 45 minutes, of some one who was not a harmonica freak. The word is that I succeeded.
LAH: You have performed with many "legends" of Blues. Do you recall a particular moment when you realized you were creating part of the "legend"? How did it feel to perform and tour with some of these guys?
KD: Before I actually moved to Austin, I visited there in the late '70s and substituted for Paul Ray with the Cobras for a weekend in San Antonio. The band included Stevie Vaughan, who was not yet singing, as one of the guitarist. When we returned to Austin, the Thunderbirds were doing a week with Jimmy Rogers at Antone's. Seeing this legend was a tremendous thrill. He had long been my favorite of the Chicago based artists. I never thought that I would ever see him perform. During the break, I was introduced me to Jimmy. I asked him if he would be interested in playing around Boston. He said yes. I went back and arranged the first gigs for Jimmy Rogers, in the area, in more than fifteen years. When I walked out to open the show on opening night and the Muddy Waters Band was sitting in the front row, I realized that this was something special.
There was my double-opening night as a live performer, in '73 when I played downstairs with Duke Robillard and the original Roomful of Blues and upstairs with the Hamilton-Bates Blue Flames, a jazz band that featured Scott Hamilton on tenor sax and Preston Hubbard on bass. Ten years later Preston and I worked together in Roomful. One night we were on stage at Lupo's in Providence. Through the window, you could see a tour bus and a big commotion going on outside. You could feel the buzz of the crowd. I thought it was B.B. King, who was in town, and loved the band. When I saw his hat, I realized that it was Stevie Vaughan and he was no longer simply that nice guy who lived across the street from me in Austin.
I was opening the show for Big Mama Thorton at the Speakeasy in 1976, I guess, with a band called the Houndogs. We were doing a Magic Sam song. I was watching Ronnie Earl take a solo. It was apparent that he would not be working as a schoolteacher for long.
I had a band in '79-'80, in Austin, Texas, with Mike Buck called the Headhunters. People say that it was, along with the Blasters, about the first of the so-called roots bands in America. In any event, it was a wonderful band. We moved to Fort Worth, Texas to put the band together. It was the hottest summer on record in Fort Worth. I lived on frozen pizza and green apples from a tree in front of the house. When we debuted in Austin with Buck's old band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds at Antone's, we were truly hungry! We played first of course. The Thunderbirds did not seem to be in a big hurry to get on stage after we finished.
Working and traveling with the legends was always wonderful because it was really THE blues school. You learned so much everyday! These people had so much knowledge, but you did have to keep your eyes, and ears open to get it.
LAH: What was it like to play harmonica with Hubert Sumlin, particularly since you had not been playing harp in performance situations for several years at that time?
KD: It was a definite turning point for me. I had stopped playing harmonica to concentrate on my singing. As I look at it now, this seems like a stupid thing to have done but I was a lot more dogmatic in my youth. In addition, there was a great harmonica player in my first band, Bob Soit. There was a great saxophone player in my second band, Gregg Mazel and two good harmonica players in the Houndogs one of them being Barbeque Bob. I always loved harmonica but was never really a freak if you know what I mean. I loved all the instruments, including the voice, though I never loved to sing and still do not.
Anyway, during the summer of '79, I was still living in Austin. The Fabulous Thunderbirds were the house band at Antone's but with the release of 'Girls Go Wild' they were often out of town. Clifford Antone had Hubert Sumlin at the club and asked if I would like to back Hubert up for a weekend with my band. You know what the answer was. During the first break, Hubert heard me backstage fooling around with a harmonica. 'Hey man, what are you doing? You've been holding out on me! You sound like the Wolf!' I really did not want to play as it has been years since I played in public. Hubert would not stop so Antone gave me one of the Super Reverbs that was backstage and I played harmonica for the rest of the night. It went very well and I have to say that I was hooked.
I did the next three weekends with Hubert at Antone's. Hubert Sumlin had always been one of my biggest influences as far as the way to approach a solo is concerned. This is something that you must learn in order to become a good soloist and Hubert Sumlin is an absolute master. It was thrilling to be able to stand next to him for a month. It was great of him to give me so much positive support. I will always be indebted to him for getting me to play the harmonica again.
LAH: You have an acoustic sound that transfers well to electric playing. Can you give us some information about the various techniques you employ to develop such a powerful, yet melodic sound?
KD: Great question! I played harmonica for years before I ever owned an amplifier. I learned how to use my hands, mouth, throat and chest to make certain sounds. That is your personal sound, what Big Walter used to call 'your tone.' Develop that first, then, use an amplifier to make it louder as and when necessary.
You know, I never thought about it before, but I do not think that I have ever asked a harmonica player how he or she plays, hhm, funny. However, I have been told that a unique aspect of my playing is that I use tongue-blocking and lip-piercing single notes equally as much. I had never thought about that either to be honest. Maybe it is true… Learn how to tongue-block. It will give you a bigger sound and deeper tone than playing single notes. It will also make it less likely that you will blow too hard, which is something that many players do. It also will be easier for you to fill the harmonica with air. Then you will not have to blow as hard to get the same sound. I heard a tape of Little Walter talking about this. It is a very important point. You can then use lip-piercing single notes to accent certain things that you do, to give you a different color. Another important thing is to start the sound from your stomach, not your throat.
As far as melodic playing goes, simply start by paying close attention to the melody of the song that you are playing. You should also learn the words. Listen to all of the instruments. Try to come up with a sound to answer and or compliment every sound that you hear. The bebop players would hear a line and then play it backwards. Practice that sort of thing. It is fairly simply actually; listen to players who play melodically. We do not have to mention Little Walter, but don't stop there, he didn't! Listen to Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Otis Spann, Charlie Parker, Arnett Cobb, Clifford Brown, Bud Powell, Big Walter Horton, Thelonious Monk, Hubert Sumlin, Wardell Gray, Big Jack Johnson, Clifton Chenier, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) all of Louis Armstrong's solos and vocals from 1925-1935, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and any B.B. King vocal or solo before 1969. There are a lot more but I'll stop there.
LAH: Are there any recordings (or live performances) you would like to credit as inspirational / educational regarding your own development as player and front man?
KD: I try to keep my mind open. I would like to believe that everything that I have seen and heard has been important to my development. Of course, you can sometimes learn just as much from performers that you do not like, a fact that we should not overlook. The list is really too long but let's name a few. Sonny Boy Williamson's (Rice Miller) Trumpet recordings, I had them on an Arhoolie album. Still some of the greatest recordings ever made. This was back when having a blues album was really something special. You could go into a record store and there MIGHT be two or three blues albums in the entire store! Sonny Boy Williamson's (John Lee Williamson) Bluebird recordings were very educational, the godfather of 'modern' harmonica. Otis Rush's Cobra recordings for power, raw emotion and the fantastic interplay between Big Walter Horton and Duke Ellington's tenor sax player, Harold Ashby.
Seeing Otis Rush play for five consecutive nights in'72 was a great demonstration about giving your all every night. I have no words to describe the high level of those performances. I had a Little Walter album but did not listen to it for several years. What I heard was so heavy, so intense, so emotional and possessed such a high level of technique that it actually scared me; "Blue and Lonesome," "Roller Coaster," the intro to "Can't Hold Out Much Longer;" I was 13 years old! To me, this sort of playing was unimaginable. So as a youngster, I never sat down and tried to learn Little Walter songs. This would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
The Vanguard recordings of James Cotton, particularly Rocket 88 and the Verve recordings of Cotton with "Blues In My Sleep" and "The Creeper," were the first electric harmonica recordings that I really studied. Then I saw the band! It was Cotton, Luther Tucker on guitar, Bob Anderson on bass, S.P. Leary on drums and Anthony Gianquinto on piano. Cotton walked into the club with a Super Reverb in each hand, I was already impressed and he hadn't played anything yet. The stage was not high off the floor. The band played a couple of songs and introduced Cotton. He did back flips onto the stage and broke right into "The Creeper!" It was one of the greatest things I have ever seen. Best three-piece band I saw live, Houndog Taylor, Brewer Phillips and Ted Harvey. Best "Oh really", watching Muhammad Ali vs. George Forman (The Rumble In The Jungle) with the Count Basie Band who would not play until the fight was over. Best sound The "Hoodoo Man Blues' album that featured Junior Wells and Buddy Guy is on many lists. Released on Delmark Records in 1965, it was about the first time that an entire album was recorded that featured a working Chicago blues band. Junior Wells was young, hip and street. The importance of this album as far as getting young musicians and fans into the music cannot be overstated. Every song is great and as a kid, I covered all of them.
Now for the harmonica, very important to me for timing, phrasing, rhythm, soloing and overall attack would be, as mentioned before, the recordings of Louis Armstrong from 1925-35, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson I and II, Coleman Hawkins and Hubert Sumlin.
Then we would have to go the Chess Vintage series, I believe they called it. I could, but won't bother to list the titles. All of this stuff has been re-released in CD format and I would image under different names, though I have to admit that I don't know. There was an album buy Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Lowell Fulson, Howlin' Wolf, Robert Nighthawk and so forth.
I would imagine that your readers are very familiar with these recordings. They were very important records for my Development. The most important of this series was the Jimmy Rogers album released in 1976, "Chicago Bound." Everything and everyone on the album is outstanding and it includes Walter Horton's solo on "Walking By Myself" one of the greatest of all harmonica solos. If I only had one album, it would be this one.
LAH: Would you tell us about meeting Jerry McCain? He is a huge inspiration to me, and you mentioned meeting him.
KD: I met Jerry McCain a number of years ago at a festival in Holland. We had the same agent in Europe at the time. I was already familiar with his work of course. In the mid 70's there was the Arhoolie EP with "Steady" and "She's Tough;" great tone, attack and attitude. I was amazed, once again, to find someone who played so well but who remained relatively unknown. I started doing "She's Tough" though I never thought about recording it. Guess that was a mistake. Before I moved to Austin, a record collector played a demo tape of some of Jerry McCain's songs for me. I don't know how these people get this stuff. The songs are on the market now and I hope that he has gotten some money for it. The playing and writing was so wild! The anarchy would not be out of place in the punk scene some 25 years later. The blues scene could use more of that energy now. I mentioned them to him but at that time I don't believe that he had been paid so I dropped the subject.
LAH: You can be credited as true innovator of harmonica (playing with bands like "X" and "The Paladins") yet you continue to play in a very traditional style, recalling some of the greats from the Chicago Blues Era (1945-1967). How hard was it for you to stay true to your musical roots and values, when you could have obviously blazed a more rocked-up musical trail that could have brought you mainstream recognition?
KD: We did a couple of gigs with X in '84 in San Francisco. Dave Alvin and John Doe approached me about doing an acoustic thing. I had done some singing with Dave while he was with the Blasters and Fats Domino's sax player; Lee Allen was also in the band. Dave, John and I did a couple of shows in San Francisco. The idea of an acoustic show was new and different at this time. The shows were fun and well received. They went back to Los Angeles, not my favorite place. A couple of months later they started the Knitters. I have always played the music that I play because I love it. In that way, it has not been difficult. I feel a sense pride that I am continuing an art form that I learned from the masters. My musical roots also spread wider than the stereotype is supposed to allow. The music all comes from the same place as far as I am concerned but that is another discussion. I have had quite a varied range of musical experiences. Still, I will not lie and say that it has been easy. I don't have some of the material things that I would honestly love to have and the ease of life that some of these things would bring. But selling out is just not an option, changing my music or politics is not an option, kissing up to someone simply for my own gain is not an option, playing in the White House for someone that I cannot stand is not an option. I know people who have done all of these things but I will not. Has this made my life easier? No, I doubt that it has. Do I feel a sense of regret or bitterness? No.
LAH: Can you tell us a little about the time you spent with Big Walter Horton? How did Big Walter influence your playing and dedication to the music within yourself?
KD: I loved Big Walter Horton. It was one of the great things of my musical life to be able to hang with him. Two of my favorite harmonica pieces are "Walking By Myself" and "That Ain't It." Both of these Jimmy Rogers songs feature Walter's amazing harmonica. His percussive style on "That Ain't It" is a revelation. It is one of the major components of my style and comes directly from this recording. His solo on "Walking By Myself" is the only solo that I play note for note.
In 1972, I heard that Big Walter was going play in town. I had to see him! The doorman didn't want to let me in; you are old enough to go off to war but not to go to a bar and hear a band. I managed to get in and get my favorite seat. From the first stool at the bar, you had a clear view of the stage and the dressing room door. The band came out and did four numbers. The dressing room door opened and Walter came out dressed in that gray suit blowing an "A" Marine Band. Instead of walking to the stage, he walked towards the bar and stopped right in front of me. I cannot say how long he stood there blowing as I was more or less in shock; a couple of minutes I imagine. However, the amazing tone of that un-amplified Marine Band, I will never forget. A couple of months later, Willie Dixon's All-Stars came to town. The group included Johnny Shines, the piano man, Lafayette Leake and Big Walter. Walter was outstanding!
The third time he came to town I had the chance to meet him. I didn't talk much and he seemed to like that. We would sometimes ride or walk to the gig together. This was something very, very special for me. Walter would always tell me the same thing, 'Don't worry about the notes get your tone. The notes will come later.' He taught how to play around with melody and how to put humor in the music. About soloing, he said what all the great soloists do, 'Make your point. Say something as soon as you start, let them know it's you.' I have dedicated myself to trying to perform with the spirit and joy that I saw Big Walter Horton display every time he played.
LAH: Would you tell us about your decision to live Europe?
KD: It is amazing how things come about. I had a paper route as a kid for 3 years. As it happens, every museum in Boston was on my route. So, for 3 years I received daily exposure to great things from far away places. I was becoming curious about these places. About the time that I stopped with the paper route, Boston got one of the country's first UHF stations. It was really kind of an art channel. It had regular art-house styled film festivals. There would be a week of Jean Renoir films, then a week of Hitchcock, a week of Truffaut and so forth. I was able to continue learning about things in Europe. I had in mind then that I would some day live in Europe. Years past, I was living in San Francisco and I decided to take a three-week vacation in Europe. I contacted someone who said he could get some gigs for me. I went, did the gigs, they went very well and after being asked to go back three times in one year to play, I decided to make the move.
LAH: Do you have a particular political or spiritual agenda that is promoted through your music?
KD: I try to help people as I can, to be generous with my music, my general knowledge and whatever else that I might have. I try to encourage people to be their best. I try to do unto others as I would have them do unto me and to be good to people even if they are not good to me. That is not an easy one. I am pro-people. I believe that people have a right to clean water, good schools, affordable housing and basic healthcare. I believe that governments should spend more time assuring that their citizens have these four basics. I attempt to bring this sort of sensibility to my songwriting. As time goes by, I will offer more and more people and or politically oriented" ideas and links on my website.
LAH: Your web site is wonderful (www.deetone.com ), and includes a "Cooking" section. Please detail your relationship with cooking/music making.
KD: Well I cooked a birthday dinner for Big Walter Horton, fish for Jimmy Rogers. I guess that's putting cooking and music together. However, to answer, I started to cook in restaurants to supplement my music income. Cooking is a lot like music. It is logic, mixed with passion, original ideas and improvisation. If you understand this and keep your eyes and ears open, you can learn it. I cooked in restaurants for twelve years in Boston, Providence, San Francisco and Austin.
I have always been very good at frying things but doing that for eight hours…I learned the skill of how to cook with wood. Believe me it is a skill. Suddenly, I could work anywhere. After a while I got tired of fatten frogs for snakes. I ruined my knee cooking and decided it's my restaurant or no restaurant. I really enjoy cooking now, I offer recipes on my website and I am working on a cookbook. I will spend more time the cookbook once I can spend a little less time on some of my Deetone Records projects.
LAH: Which harmonica is your all time favorite?
KD: My favorite harmonica, without question, is the Hohner Big River. It's a ten-hole diatonic. The holes are wider than other harmonicas and this allows more air to pass over the reeds giving you a better more breathy tone. It is easy to take apart which makes it easier to work on. I love them.
LAH: Is there any advice you would like to give to the aspiring harmonica player?
KD: Advice that I would give to all harmonica players would be to learn how to tune and do basic repairs on your harmonica. Why, you will always be in tune and your harmonicas will always work! Think about that. After a while, you will be able to customize your harmonicas and set them up exactly the way you want. Keep your harmonicas clean, they will last longer. Try to find your own voice, your own style on the harmonica. Start writing your own songs now. The law of averages says that a certain percentage of them will be good. Concentrate on getting a sound, a good tone. Master acoustic harmonica before buying an amplifier. If you want to become more comfortable playing with a microphone simply practice with one. You do not need to plug into or even have an amplifier to do that. Go out and see all of the live music that you can, support the people who play it and when you like what you heart, buy the record.
As you all have read, Mr. Dunn not only plays the Blues, but he passes along the true spirit of redemption, social change and hope for a brighter future through his original and adaptive works. Read further for brief reviews of Keith's fine CD's available through Deetone Records.
"Alone With The Blues" Keith Dunn, Deetone Records, Netherlands
"Alone With The Blues" is just that - Keith Dunn, his harmonica and his music alone in a recording studio. This recording is right up there with the finest harmonica releases of the 20th century, and that is saying something! Again, the only instrumentation on the CD is the voice and harmonica playing of Mr. Keith Dunn.
The opening track "Strange Things Are Happening" is a great indicator of the sort of social consciousness Mr. Dunn possesses, with poignant lyrics and excellent harmonica accompaniment and soloing. The very next tune " Need To Make A Dollar" is a musical rumble with fantastic harp playing and true social commentary regarding the plight of the poor, and what it takes to survive in the tenements and poor parts of town all over the world. The third track "Geronimo" is reminiscent of tent revivalist Peg Leg Sam with all the wet and juicy acoustic harp you could want packed into a four minute soliloquy denoting the dangers of alcoholism. This tune recounts the ravages entire communities and classes of people suffer based on the way liquor is marketed and made accessible to the poor. In fact , most of the 14 tracks on this CD are not only outstanding examples of diatonic harmonica stylizations, but also direct commentary on the state of the world today.
Mr. Dunn also provides us with some sultry ballads, and true to this recording's form, they are accapella selections. "Face The Facts" has a lovely yet mournful quality, reminding me of the soulful singing of Bobby Bland. Those songs have particular merit as personal reminders of some of the harder lessons life offers. Dunn is certainly a writer-vocalist of this time, but honors the Blues tradition well. He also has written some nice "memoir" type tunes with huge harp and emotion-drenched voice propelling the music and tantalizing the audio palette of the listener. The alternating "driving" and "melodic" harmonica is just what Blues harp should be - it's not an ***-kickin' contest each time you hear it, but it does kick ***!
The harmonica is powerful, lyrical, at times very playful (" Deetone Dance") and always outstanding. Each song has a totally different groove and musical "hook". Mr. Dunn does a fine job of incorporating nearly every style of diatonic harp playing into these 14 selections. He does one cover tune, "Bring It On Home" with fabulous results, making the song his own.
Upon listening to "Alone With The Blues" for the ump-teenth time, an epiphany fell upon me. THIS is what Blues has always been about, and will always be about. The message and musical content truly illuminates the "human condition" as we understand it, and calls for social reform much as Leadbelly's "Jim Crow Blues" or Brownie McGhee's "Down By The Riverside". Dunn is an artist in every sense of the word, unafraid to broach the controversial subject, unwilling to sugar-coat the vile and disgusting, undeniably real in every context.
If you are a harmonica player or know of one, this CD is essential to your harmonica education! For the Blues enthusiast, if you add only one harmonica CD to your collection this year, you owe it to yourself to make it Keith Dunn's "Alone With The Blues". You will be glad you did!
"Play To Win" Tramp Records, Netherlands
Just a brief note to let you know Keith Dunn has a full band CD available from his web site only. I will say this "Buy It Now!" After Keith has finished the cover art, I will provide a full review, but you can beat the crowds by contacting him at www.deetone.com today for your own copy of this great disc.
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