Down in the Delta
(Blues Fidelity Recordings, CD - BF 1001)
Review Date: Nov 2008
by Jim Angehr
Before you listen to Paul Oscher’s 2005 Down in the Delta, and you should, there are two things you need to know about him. The first is that Oscher was the first white harmonica player to occupy that seat in Muddy Waters’ band. In fact, next to Little Walter, Oscher might be the best harp man ever to play in Muddy’s band. For proof, listen to Waters’ Live at Mr. Kelly’s, which features more than one man on harmonica; Oscher is the most accomplished.
Second, while Paul Oscher’s blues are as entertaining as anything you’ll find on the radio today, they come from a harrowing, dark place. “Deep blues” can be played these days by anyone over 50 with sunglasses, but Oscher backs up the claim with real darkness—and perhaps most convincingly on this Down in the Delta. Part of the reason why is that he’s a one man band; most of the tracks are just Oscher on guitar, harmonica, vocals, and percussion. Couple that with a bare-bones production style, and you’ll start to think that these songs are cut from the same dark cloth as John Lee Hooker’s Modern singles. In addition, Oscher is an absolute master of blues phrasing to the point that Muddy must be looking down on him with that signature crooked smirk. He’s a wizard at recasting the second “A line” of a verse to add just the right amount of variation and tension, and he knows exactly when not to sing, too. Any blues cowboy can belt, “I gave you all my money/But what can I do,” but only the very best can slip a pause in there after “can” that stops the line for a split second, allowing the very heart of the blues to sing in that silence. Add all of those things together, and you have deep blues. However, even beyond the particular ingredients, Down in the Delta carries with it an intangible aura of menace that makes you think that Oscher believes the story of Robert Johnson at the crossroads to be more than a fairy tale. Let’s leave it at that.
Most of the songs on Down in the Delta feature Oscher alone. The liner notes are careful to say that when Oscher does vocals, guitar, harp, and percussion, they’re done all live at the same time, which is pretty remarkable: Oscher is so accomplished on each thing that dubbing them in separately would be a feat in itself, but being able to marshal together those elements simultaneously is stunning. It would be a mistake, though, to label this record simply as a solo outing because the sound generated by Paul alone fills the room just as well as any—and when you hear the couple of band tracks, one of which offers Levon Helm on drums, they don’t sound much different at all from the solo sides. One man and the blues is more than enough.
The album is two-thirds covers, many of which are standards, but not so obvious that you’re sick of hearing them just from reading the track listing. There’s no “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” “Stormy Monday,” or “Mojo Working,” but you do get W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues,” Leroy Carr’s “Blues Before Sunrise,” and the like. Oscher makes each of those blues sound fresh, and his originals seamlessly stand beside them. The country-tinged original, “Deborah’s Baby,” and the instrumental rendition of “What a Friend We Have” add some tasty variety to the proceedings, but the good news is that the straight-ahead, blues material is so good that you’d be happy to have Paul sing just the blues to you all night long. Yes, this is a dark and uncompromising ride, but you’ll be challenged to find a more engaging deep blues album than this one.
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