Gone to harp heaven

Legendary blues harmonica player James Cotton headlines Sierra Nevada Brewery’s 2003 Harmonica Blowout

James Cotton

James Cotton

Photo By José Luis Villegras

Third Annual Blues Harmonica Blowout 2003 Sierra Nevada Taproom Tuesday, January 14, 2003

It’s official: Congress has just declared 2003 as “The Year of the Blues.”

And what better way to celebrate than by kicking out some serious jams at the third annual Blues Harmonica Blowout in the Sierra Nevada Brewery’s Big Room. The stellar line-up alone is cause for jubilation.

Showcasing five big headliners in one big show, this roster proves that the blues is as tough and creative now as it’s ever been.

On Tuesday night, in Chico, California, one of the founding fathers of blues harp and a living blues legend, Mr. Superharp himself, James Cotton comes to play. Cotton undeniably stands at the top as the major player of an increasingly talented corps of blues harp players. On this evening, the troops include modern masters Paul deLay, James Harmon, and Mark Hummel with his Blues Survivors, buoyed up with the bombast of guitarist Jr. Watson. As straight-ahead, no-nonsense blues, this is a show likely to buckle your knees.

The opportunity to see James Cotton, one of the original giants of the Chicago blues scene, provides a moral obligation for the blues fan. Name the absolute greatest of the blues greats, and Cotton has worked with them.

Born in 1935, Cotton began his career in music at the tender age of 9. He ran away from home in Tunica, Miss., packing only his 15-cent harmonica and a determination to meet his harp-playing idol, Sonny Boy Williamson. He found Williamson in Arkansas at the radio station that broadcast his famous King Biscuit Time show throughout the South. The young Cotton passed himself off as an orphan to Williamson, who took pity on the youngster and took him in under his wing.

Cotton apprenticed with Sonny Boy six years, learning harmonica from the greatest living player of the time and beginning to discover for himself the rigors of a blues man’s life.

At age 15, Cotton began making his own way. He soon began playing with the legendary Howlin’ Wolf, then starred on his own radio show before waxing “Cotton Crops Blues” for the fledgling Sun Records company in 1954. When Muddy Waters’ band swung through town, Cotton signed on and headed up to Chicago. There, Cotton spent a dozen years onstage with Waters, continuing to hone his skills until he played the sharpest of harps. In 1967, Cotton started his own blues outfit, and he hasn’t stopped since.

A strong player, Cotton has been known to blow the reeds straight out of his harp. He’s recognized for an aggressive yet supple style, one that can be down and dirty exactly when it needs to be. Serious throat problems have lately forced Cotton to minimize his singing, but he remains a masterful instrumentalist in complete control of the music. His name synonymous with harmonica excellence, James Cotton rightfully commands a huge following.

The blues will continue draping the room when wailed out by the other major talents on the bill. Paul deLay is one of the most original players and songwriters coming up in the harmonica world. His form of sonic creativity on chromatic harp will be in heavy rotation when he steps up for his turn at the mic.

James Harman draws deep from Southern blues harp masters for his inspiration when playing. Harman is as renowned for his song writing as his playing; his tunes often echo the fat horn-drenched blues as they simmered out from Los Angeles in the ‘50s. Devoted as he is to “strictly the blues,” he may make the fillings in your teeth ache—but in a good way.

Harman and guitarist Jr. Watson (considered among the finest of West Coast blues guitarists) first joined forces working with raunchy Kid Ramos, and even their basic bar blues are bottom-of-the-bottle authentic.

This outstanding blues harp extravaganza has been assembled by none other than Mark Hummel, who will also take the stage with his Blues Survivors to swing out his sophisticated bright blues. The evening promises to be spectacular. With all this variety, there’s certain to be a blast of blues running hot and cool, a tantalizing mixture of different tempos and flavors all adding up to deliver one red-hot harmonica evening. Chico should be honored that all these distinguished talents are coming together here to celebrate a truly American idiom—the blues.