To say Norton Buffalo plays harmonica is like saying Michael Jordan plays basketball. He’s a master.
This Grammy-nominated performer and longtime Steve Miller Band member can rip out a solo that sounds like he’s tearing up an electric guitar rather than blowing through the holes of a tiny metal box. Or he can stand back and subtly add to the layers of sound around him. His harmonica can do the work of the high end of a guitar, the tumbling notes of a sax, the wheels of a train, the blues of a loner (which manage to still sound happy) or the pep of a campfire song. All of that range is held in his hands over a few inches of space.
And quite a few well-known musicians have taken note, among them Steve Miller, Bonnie Raitt (check out the harm solo on her hit “Runaway"), Johnny Cash, David Grisman and Bette Midler (that’s him blowing away in The Rose.) When a musician needs a good harmonica player, they call Norton Buffalo.
It takes more than talent to win the trust of fellow musicians. Buffalo knows when to hold back and when to bring himself to the center. It’s the nuances that make up the musical conversation, be it in a rock band of six or a duo with an acoustic guitarist. Bringing out the best in others is part of what Buffalo’s harmonica brings to the stage.
“No matter what the musical style, if somebody asks me to play on their record, I come in and I’m able to play it,” says Norton from his home in Paradise, Calif. “I think it’s my ability to sit down and hear the song and find something great but yet different to play with it.”
Buffalo has been playing harmonica with the Steve Miller Band for more than 30 years. When he’s not doing that, he’s playing with his rhythm and blues band The Knockouts, or country/Americana music with guitarist Roy Rogers, or folksy, world music with Norton & Friends, a group formed with his wife, Lisa Flores, and friend David Aguilar.
“My sound morphs depending on who I’m playing with,” he says. “There’s a tendency over the years to want to put musicians in a box, and I just love playing music. … I do my best to knock down any boundaries that anyone tries to give me.”
That attitude doesn’t always work for record labels, who typically look for a specific sound to market. He left a deal with Colombia Records in 1977 rather than be boxed in musically.
“Most people would’ve given their right arm to have a deal like that, but I felt the music wasn’t getting out to those who really wanted to hear it,” he says.
His most recent album, 2002’s Roots of Our Nature, was recorded with Roy Rogers on Blind Pig Records.
“Each album might be one style or another,” he says. “It might take me 20 years to put out all the styles I want to. I’d probably be further in my musical career if I stayed in one style, but it would drive me nuts.”
When Norton hits the Rollin’ on the River Stage with The Knockouts on July 25, expect to hear mostly rhythm and blues with a bit of Latin and reggae thrown in.
He’ll be playing with guitarist Johnny “V” Vernazza, bassist David Brown, drummer Kirk Harwood, and Austin De Lone on keyboard.
“I’m coming up there with a band that loves to rock and crank it up,” says Norton.
If you miss him, or just can’t get enough, he’ll be back in town at the Reno Events Center on Aug. 16 for the Steve Miller Band and Joe Cocker concert.