Saturday, May 26, 2007

BLUES HARMONICA GENIUS!! Sugar Blue Blows Them Away!!@!

Code Blue
Sugar Blue (Beeble Records)

I've been playing blues harmonica for almost forty years, and the long and short of the that statement is that I'm not easily impressed with blues harpists who come along late in the day. Sugar Blue, though, is someone I take my hat off to; best known to the general rock and roll audience as the harmonica player on the Rolling Stones' Some Girls album (that's his sweet, Paul Butterfield-like solo on the signature "Miss You" track), I've seen him a couple of times when he and his band happened through Southern California on tour, and after both concerts I didn't touch my harps for a week, after which I picked them up again and commenced to practice more than I had in years. The man is restores the legitimacy of technique and speed to the blues harmonica, traits that had been sullied by John Popper, a muddy, imprecise musician whose harmonica improvisations resemble so much audio mud.Sour-note central. Sugar is fast and crystal clear and very clean in his attack; he's been criticized, in fact, for being "too clean". As it goes, there isn't a blues harp player alive who has better execution than Sugar Blue. The added plus with Sugar's playing, rare among those players who play fast and long that his solos make melodic sense. Jason Ricci and Howard Levy are others who combine superlative technique with innovation. The man can build a solo. It's not that I'm into speed and technique for their own sake, but I do admire Sugar Blue's ability to have these aspects serve real musical ideas. The new album Code Blue, is a whirlwind of the blues harp applied to a broad array of approaches, including traditional blues motifs, Rolling Stones' style guitar rock, Mahavishnu/Dixie Dregs fusion. His solos are sleek, cutting, rapid in the musical ideas coming from the band leader. Bear in mind that a little of Blue's singing goes a long way--he is like that guy in the chorus who steps out for a solo, singing at the top of his range, slipping off key too often. That, combined with some lyrics that tend to be preachy and the lead-footedly philosophical, can make the vocalizing a bit agonizing. It does give one an embarrassing flashback, as the more Sugar stretches his vocal chords in what he assumes is maestro's knack for rhythm and blues melisma reminds me of those times , in the seventies in bands that were rally drinking associations when I was in front of the microphone, screaming and grunting and bellowing in the mistaken and drunken illusion that I sounded like a hybrid of Jack Bruce, Otis Redding and Gene Pitney. Sure enough, when tapes were played back from the frat parties and keggers we played in around the dock pilings of San Diego's beach areas, I was shamefaced and humbled. At best I sounded as if I had a sock crammed down my gullet, my mouth sealed with duct tape, trying to scream because a crazed Lobo fan threatened me with a reconditioned Trojan while I struggled against an ugly metal chair I was tied to. It was not pretty, not hardly. The best of it all was that no one was killed during my performances, and that I had fun. Or so I was told but witnesses who were not as deep in the back as I had been.Still, for Sugar Blue's part, the harmonica work is about the best one can come across, and the band is simply crack jack, nimble, sharp as a drawer full of razors.


  1. Anonymous3:47 PM PDT

    Sugar is definitely my "Man" I'm a bassplayer by trade, but have been foolin around on Harp most of my 54 yr. life. Like you, hearing Sugar for the first time on Blue Blazes, caused me to let 'em lie for a week or two, but then, I went through the same thing on Bass after seeing Stanley Clark for the first time. There's a lot of guys whose playing I appreciate for different reasons, but Sugars precision, and ability to evoke tones with breath and mouthing techniques, without relying on mic/amp effects, is, to me, what sets him apart.

  2. Interesting article. Although I have not purchased Sugar Blue's latest album I am very fond of his previous records. He pushes the envelope of what a blues harmonica player should be. I am curious as to why you say that Sugar Blue comes along late in the day? A seasoned player such as you should realize that Blue's career stretches back at least 3 decades and he is hardly proving himself now. I also find it that a player of 40 years would have the audacity to say that John Popper is a man who has "sullied" the legitimacy of speed harp. Just because of the mechanics of the diatonic harmonica there is no possible way he could be hitting wrong notes frequently. I press you to provide examples. As for Sugar Blue's solos, they are exciting for about the first three or four songs. After that he has pretty much spent all of his tricks and is only ever doing variations on the patterns that he repeats over and over again. His fast runs and rants are all the same the only thing that changes are the chords behind them.

    His harp work is not the best that one can come across anymore. See Popper, Ricci, Del Junco, Levy.

  3. We disagree, obviously, on the matter of John Popper. I'm willing to concede that he has a unique sound, but it's a not a pleasant sound at all. His speed is impressive, but his intonation leaves much to be desired. He needs more Butterfield clarity in his playing, less Bob Dylan, which is to say that those slurs, chokes and bends should be more musical.

    You think Sugar Blues uses up his licks after three or four songs and I think otherwise. Any and all blues and rock players have a limited vocabulary as to what they can do given the splendid simplicity of the forms, and their art, as soloists, is to develop a style and hone a technique that allows them to get the most bang for their blues buck, ie, play with a minimum of repetition. Popper has patterns no less than Blue, (or Norton Buffalo, or Mark Ford, or Ricci or any other worthwhile harp players), and the issue is how well a player parlays that into a style one can adjust, vary, and continually keep interesting in the course of a live set or a disc. Improvisation is basically "variations" on these patterns, and how well one controls their technique as it serves their imagination is the real criteria, not their speed. Blue continually surprises me , live and on record, and I admire his command of tone, phrasing and continuity. Popper is speed for speed's sake, and it's really not worth the effort it takes to listen to him wheeze and gargle on the harp, hitting all manner of clams and bum notes, just to witness one of his sklar runs.

    Ricci, Del Junco are very, very fine harp players, and absolutely no one is better than Howard Levy, who's virtuosity is off the chart. Levy, though, is a thoroughly trained musician, a pianist first, a harmonica player second, and a jazz musican at heart. What he plays, what he can do, and the musical resources he draws upon are quite a few steps ahead of what all the other mentioned players are capable of doing. Sugar Blue, though, is very much in the upper echelons of other blues and rock harpists; he's the first real advance in blues harp style since the debut of Paul Butterfield. A broad claim,I suppose, but one I'll stand by. All the same, thanks for reading, thanks for the comment, and rock on, brother!


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