Various Artists – Tom Walbank Presents Hootmatic Blues
22 songs – 58 minutes
A British émigré based in Arizona, harmonica player Tom Walbank began this project innocently enough: He wanted to connect with other harp players in an effort to produce a song in the style of country blues legend Sonny Terry but using three reed benders in the style of Elder Roma Wilson, a Detroit-based street-corner musician who recorded trios with his sons.
Walbank quickly enlisted Joe Filisko, the Chicago-area resident who’s recognized as the foremost proponent of country blues in the U.S. today, along with fellow Brit Gareth Tucker, who’s reached equal acclaim in Europe. That recording – which serves as the title cut of this digital album – proved so successful that Tom started reaching out to other world-class talents he admires, including former Muddy Waters sideman Paul Oscher, Bob Corritore, Aki Kumar, Phil Wiggins and Andrew Alli.
While others were too busy to participate, all of those talents signed aboard in a lineup that also features Italy’s Marco Pandolfi, Spain’s Quim Roca and France’s Charles Pasi as well as a quintet of rotating guitarists: Max Coniglio, Rich Miller, Steve O’Connor, Joseph Champagnon and Roman Barten-Sherman, a polished, 16-year-old whiz kid with four prior CDs to his credit.
The sound of a train whistle opens “Uncloudy Day,” a beautiful instrumental from Kumar – the native of Bombay, India, who’s now based in the San Francisco Bay Area. A tongue-blocked masterpiece, it begins a run of solo performances and yields to Pandolfi’s rapid-fire “Po Reel,” a tune delivered through circular breathing techniques and octave jumps. Two tribute tunes follow in rapid succession: Tucker’s low-register pleaser “Swinging Low Sweet Chariot for Charlie M.” – an obvious tip of the hat to Musselwhite – and Miller’s dynamic “Tribute to Rainer” – for Germany’s legendary Rainer “Harpface” Sochting.
Walbank makes his first appearance and holds his own with “The Cuff,” yielding for Marco’s sprightly “Pandolfi’s Jump” The sound changes dramatically for the title cut, “Hootmatic,” a layered Piedmont blues stunner that features plenty of circular breathing the whooping techniques popularized by Terry, and alters once more as Oscher – a harp master in his own right contributes the tasty instrumental “You’re Gonna Need Somebody” on finger-picked guitar.
More changes abound as Walbank, Filisko and Tucker return for the ballad “Alone with the Blues,” mixing bass harp, chromatic and diatonic, adding steady foot stomps for rhythm. “Blues for Rory,” honoring American acoustic blues queen Rory Block, follows with Roca and Walbank doubling on chromatic before Corritore and Tom share the spotlight for “Arizona Blue,” an unhurried paean to the Grand Canyon State, where both reside.
It’s back to the Piedmont once more as Wiggins makes his first of two appearances with high-end pleaser, “Guitar Rag.” It’s the guitar’s turn to shine next as O’Connor attacks “CC Rider” with outstanding single-note runs and claw-hammer rhythm techniques before Alli – one of the true rising talents on harp in the world today – joins in with the jaw-dropping, uptempo “Simple Times.”
The train theme returns with Walbank’s “Lulu Blues” before he and Coniglio take charge for a traditional take on “Lay My Burden Down” and Filisko’s in full command for the solo effort, “Henry’s Lament,” a number based on Henry Whittier’s 1920s recording, “Rain Crow Bill Blues.”
The mood mellows with Tim’s attack on the diatonic overlaying Miller’s guitar stylings for “Blues for Neve,” which yields to Wiggins’ “Jimmy Bell,” with Phil trading verses with harp runs in the first and only tune in the set to feature vocals. The disc concludes with a Filisko-Walbank duet for the familiar “Skip to My Lou,” Tim’s “Last Train Home” and the gypsy-jazz delight, “Saint Gervais,” by Pasi and Champagnon.
If you’re a fan of overblow technique or electronically enhanced harp pyrotechnics, look elsewhere. But if you’re a fan of traditional country harmonica, this is about as close to essential modern listening as you’ll ever get. An inexpensive digital download available from the website above, and highly recommended.