Famous Dave's brought two great Chicago blues harmonica players to warm up blues fans on a cold January weekend. Starting out Friday was Billy Branch, a powerful, expressive player who despite playing with energy and passion always seems relaxed and laid back on stage. Billy started out with a fast rolling instrumental that allowed him to show off his strong, fluid harp licks and super fast riffs. His neatly dressed backing band, outfitted in all black as Billy was, proved a tight road band on guitar, keyboard, and bass anchored by the solid drumming and vocals of Mose Rutues. Mose took the vocal lead on "Who's Making Love to Your Old Lady" as Billy's penetrating harp riffs and the rhythm section drove this fast rolling song. The band's great a capella harmonies on the refrain were a treat.
Billy played brilliantly all night, playing nearly all covers and exposing Twin Cities blues fans to his incredible talent and respect for the many great blues harp players that proceeded him. His cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom," had the emotional feel and strength of the original, spiced up by his strong harp playing. All night long Billy seemed like he was putting on a harp master's demonstration, blowing great held, bent, repeating, subtle, very high, very low and always rich and fluid harp riffs, delivered with style and power. The band did not waste any time between songs, flowing smoothly from one right into the next, pushing as much blues as they could into the night. In fact, it was well after closing time before Billy would finally leave the stage.
On "Crazy, Mixed Up Woman" Billy played incredible chromatic harp, playing way down on the low end with powerful, rich low tones. Billy then brought one of his old Chicago friends, and current Twin Cities resident, Barbara Le Shore up to sing while he played harp. Barbara's big, rich, and powerful voice served as a perfect complement to Billy's powerful harp playing. Later Billy played "You Gotta Help Me" as he strolled through the crowd playing, stopping to kneel down and play next to Barbara's table, who bopped in her chair to the great harp riffs he was blowing. The band closed out the show with the catchy lyrics and riffs of "Where My Money" and Billy's sweet, beautiful, high-soaring harp licks on the up-beat "Soul Love."
For harp lover's, it simply does not get any better than Billy was on this night. Billy has been an active participant in the Blue in the Schools program, teaching school children about blues and blues harmonica playing. This night the enthusiastic audience made up the school body, and Billy delivered Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells, and his own powerful harp sound. It would have been nice to hear a little more of Son of the Blues, who have put out some very solid original blues, but that will just give Billy and the band something else to give the crowd the next time they come to town. Hopefully we won't have to wait to long.
Saturday night brought the rich, fluid chromatic harp sounds of Eddie "Harmonica" Burks to town, backed by the solid local blues band, the Moses Oakland Quartet. Eddie blew strong, rich, traditional Chicago blues harp all night long, proving he is master of the chromatic harp. On "Big Boss Man" Eddie's vocals delivered in his strong, textured voice matched his strong, fluid harp playing. Eddie blew some nice repeating riffs and achieved a rich, strong chromatic sound on "My Baby Knows What to Do." Smiling brightly and frequently, dressed in flannel shirt, suspenders, and dress pants, Eddie was the picture of a veteran blues man more concerned with comfort and substance than worrying about looking stylish.
Eddie gave the crowd two treats on "Stop Breaking Down." He played a beautiful, slow harp solo with rich, full chromatic riffs. Then he kept on playing as he made one of his frequent walks into the crowd, singing through his harp mike and then singing without a mike at all. His strong, sometimes shouting, vocals were filled with passion and energy. His subtle, sweet harp sound and great soulful vocals on the grinding "Blues With a Feeling" showed the control he has over both.
While his first set started low and slow, Eddie really got the crowd dancing and jumping with his more up-tempo and energetic second set. Eddie kicked it off with a strong, rousing version of "Sweet Home Chicago," shouting his vocals and letting his sweet, strong chromatic harp fly with abandon. His version of "Got My Mojo Working" showed the subtle, seductive, and sensual sounds Eddie achieves on chromatic harp. This served as a nice contrast to his stong, enthusiastic, shouted vocals. Eddie played his way through a strong "Hoochie Coochie Man," getting down on the dance floor again to play his harp and sing, showing a few dance moves on the dance floor as he played. His long, expressive version of the song, featuring a powerful harp solo, and solid vocals was a treat. While blues fans were having a great time, it would have been hard to find anyone having a better time than Eddie. He closed things out with the winking, joking, up-tempo blues of "Can I Play With Your Poodle?" his fast harp riffs and shouting, strong vocals driving this catchy song home.
These two nights of Chicago blues harp were the best back to back nights of harp I have heard in a long time. While Billy Branch is a more powerful and flashy player, Eddie brings style, tones, and chromatic harp sounds mastery that are unique. Ironically, Billy is the more laid back, interacting with the crowd yet more reserved, while Eddie loves to play out in the middle of the crowd, where he seemed to spend much of the night up close and personal with his fans. And you have to love a veteran, working blues man like Eddie, who commented between sets that he needed to sell a few CD's since his round-trip bus ticket from Chicago had set him back $150. Both players have mastered their instruments, love the blues, have a reverence for the players that came before them, and are gracious with their fans. For a night of great blues harp, you can't go wrong with either one. Blues fans should thank Famous Dave's Music Director Paul Metsa for putting this weekend of great blues together and all the other great blues acts he has brought to Twin Cities blues fans over the last year.
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