As some of you may know, I've been playing harmonica for the past few years. It has been a casual pursuit, and I'm still awful. But I find it interesting. This past weekend, I went off for a much needed vacation. My destination was the 98' SPAH convention in Romulus Michigan (outside Detroit).
SPAH is the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica. It is an interesting organization that is very much in flux. This was their 35th anniversary. SPAH has, until recently, been focused on the old Harmonica Bands (like the Harmonicats), classical players, and jazz standards players. Recently there has been an outreach to the younger blues/jazz players. And both groups were very much in evidence this weekend.
The convention hotel was always a-buzz with music from standards to blues, folk, jazz, Irish, and classical. There's a trio (Chromatic, 3 foot chord harmonica, and Tuba-sounding Bass harp) over in that corner doing a rendition of 'Yackity Sax'. [So, yes Gary they do still exist.] Down in the Atrium Bar, there's a crowd trading harp solos with a piano player. Lots of old friends renewing old friendships and old arguments...trading stories, licks, and tricks.
The days were filled with lectures ranging from 'Beginning Blues' to 'Arranging for the Harmonica' to 'Harmonica on the Internet' to 'Customiztion' and various other demonstrations. There were a couple areas selling all sorts of harp stuff.
New to the convention this year was the 'SPAH Jazz Club' where a jazz trio (piano, bass, & drum) backed up all commers. Not enough can be said of this backup band, they were incredible, very tasteful, and fun. Allen Holmes, a DC area jazz harper, said that playing with them was like being lifted musically. Old and young harp players swapped solos constantly. Many of these folks are real characters, Pete Peterson comes to mind... a wonderful player with loads of charisma.
I was most looking forward to Thursday night's 'Blues Blowoff'. It was held in the Hotel Ballroom, which leaves a significant atmosphere deficit. But that was quickly filled as the music started. Washington DC locals, BluesWorks opened things up. They are a nice acoustic trio (guitar, piano, & harp). Next Colleen Crongeyer (AKA 'Little Sonny Girl') played... she's all of 7 and played some very good blues harp. I feel very ashamed to say she's far better than I am.
The folks with the unenviable task of following this prodigy were Chris Jones (Guitar) and Steve Baker (Harp). They were astounding. I'd highly recommend seeing them, but as they currently reside in Germany... it may be difficult. Chris is a wonderful acoustic guitarist with some neat tricks and he's a really nice guy. Steve Baker is a bit of a harp legend... and lived up to his billing. They do an incredible job of filling the room with sound.
Late addition and Philly native, Steve Guyger was up next. Great straight ahead Chicago Blues - he plays at the Full Moon Saloon in Baltimore fairly often, check him out sometime. The backup band from this point on was Big Dave and the Ultrasonics sans Big Dave Steele and Dave Morris. Many of you have heard me rave about these guys. They did a great job, even more impressive that they weren't doing this with a lot of practice time.
Next up was Curtis Salgado. What can I say about this guy... WOW. He's a very good harp player, but he has the most expressive, emotional voice that I've ever heard. And he left plenty of room for other folks solos. Unfortunately he's a left coast guy. I don't think he makes it over to this end of the country often.
You must understand that in the bluesharp world a sure way to deity status is to have been the harp player for Muddy Waters. Kim Wilson was, I think, the last. He is most famous from fronting 'The Fabulous Thunderbirds'. He is awesome, and since the audience is full of harp-freaks, we got some extra fireworks. A lot of experienced harp players had to pull their jaw off the floor after that one. For the last couple songs, Kim pulled back Salgado, Guyger, and (post-Muddy Diety) Jerry Portnoy from the audience. It was an awesome night.
This is getting really long, and I've gotta do some work, so I'll try and shorten the rest.
Friday night, local friend, Carol Lessure, and I headed out to find some dancing. We ended up at Crash Cargo's (a converted church) for the 'Atomic Fireballs'. Pretty cool band, they are another of these nuevo-swing bands, very much in the Cherry Poppin' Daddies mold. More than any of the others I've seen, they are into the Louis Jordan/Cab Calloway schtick. And that went over well with me.
Saturday was the big banquet. And the show is still mostly devoted to the older generation of players. But the young turks are creaping in. Robert Bonfiglio started and ended the show, he's a Classical soloist. He played the Vaughn Williams' Romance for Harmonica to open the show. And ended it with a Blues Medley (backed by Chris Jones. In between we got a reconstitued harmonica band of the remaining greats, a wonderful Jazz set by one of the young turks and ended by including Pete Peterson and Charlie Leighton (who hadn't played publicly for 30 years).
After the show, my close personal friend, Buzz Krantz hosted a blues jam til 3am. As he had every night since the convention began.
Wow, I had a lot of fun. Did I play? Nope, I'm not stupid... just intimidated.