Thursday, June 21, 2012
“I been in the blues all my life,” Muddy Waters once said. “I’m still delivering ‘cause I got a long memory.”
In other words, once the blues gets in your bloodstream, you’re stuck with it forever. Paula Harris (11:30am Saturday at Main Arena and 2:10pm at President’s Stage), winner of the Monterey Bay Blues Festival’s 2012 Battle of the Bands, has been happily coming to terms with that. Though Harris has been involved in music for more than two decades, it’s only been about a year since reinventing herself as a blues singer.
“I was doing covers and corporate things, and that gets really old ’cause it doesn’t allow you any creativity,” Harris says. “I was ready to give up, but then a few people I respect told me I had a natural blues-singer voice.”
In addition to snagging first place in the MBBF’s Battle of the Bands, Harris and her band placed third in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn. She considers both unlikely achievements, especially since she’s a newcomer to the blues.
“Who’d think that a band that’s been together less than a year can go down to Memphis and do so well against bands that have been around for decades?” she asks. “I think I got really lucky with the people I found for my band. I have never had this kind of chemistry with a band.”
On June 29, the vocalist will release her debut Turning on the Naughty, featuring a couple members of Tower of Power’s brass section. With Harris’ powerful vibrato and gamut of original tunes laden with humor, sexual innuendo and relationship reflection, the green-eyed South Carolina native embodies some of the same stuff that made Etta James a legend before her.
One of her new tunes, “I Just Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore Blues” – loosely based on an old 16-bar bluegrass tune – is both self-deprecating and empowering. “It’s one of those things that either makes you laugh or cry,” Harris says. “I choose to laugh.”
Over quintessential Chicago, 12-bar blues, the singer belts out: “Fresh outta the shower gotta look at myself/ and all this fat thought it was someone else.”
Harris has seemingly unlimited range, the lung capacity of a mythical entity and Ruth Brown-caliber self-assuredness. On the title track, through a wall of horns laying down a traditional blues riff, Harris brings on more of the deliciously suggestive, delivering each verse as if she has an itch and the only way it can be scratched is “between the sheets.”
This past year was also good to Charlie Musselwhite (2:50pm Sunday at Main Arena and 5:30pm President’s Stage). The MBBF regular – known for his blue-collar brand of electrified harmonica-driven blues – was nominated for his seventh Grammy for The Well, appeared on Tom Waits’ Bad as Me (he was also on Waits’ 1999 Mule Variations), won Blues Music Awards for Best Instrumentalist (harmonica) and Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year, and contributed to Cyndi Lauper’s acclaimed album Memphis Blues (also nominated for a Grammy). It may sound like an unlikely pairing, but Lauper and Musselwhite complemented each other well as they toured the world.
“We’d play the blues and also play her old hits, but bluesed up,” Musselwhite says. “‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ now has a harp solo.”
Over the past five decades, the musician has released more than 20 albums. His seminal 1966 debut Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band – known for establishing Musselwhite as a harmonica wiz – still stands out as a tapestry of back-alley blues, funk, fuzztone guitar, Musselwhite’s sandpaper-rough voice and the timeless cover of Duke Pearson’s “Cristo Redemptor.” Some 45 years later, the blues veteran never seems to struggle to churn out new material.
“I love the music, and if you love something it’s always fresh,” Musselwhite says. “I’m always looking for new ways to say the same thing or new things to say.”
He also says the extensive work he does with other musicians – including Lauper, Waits, Eddie Vedder, Bonnie Raitt and most recently Ben Harper – is key to his perpetual growth as a musician.
“I’m interested in the way people think about things and their approach to music,” Musselwhite says. “Whether I’m recording for them on their album or they’re recording for me on my album, it’s always a fun challenge and I look forward to those situations.”
Apparently, the Blues Hall of Famer has another talent: He’s playing a convict named Graves in Don’t Shoot, I’m the Guitar Player, opposite Eric Roberts. Production is likely to begin sometime this summer. In Musselwhite’s only other movie appearance, he plays himself in the low-budget horror flick Pig Hunt about a 3,000-pound killer piece of pork.
With so many achievements throughout the years, it’s hard for Musselwhite to pinpoint one thing he’s most proud of. “Mainly, just being able to stay alive and the fact that the career keeps going,” he says. “That’s pretty special.”
Some of the other MBBF Main Arena performers not to be missed include Salinas native and Grateful Dead extended family member Jackie Greene (4:10pm Sunday), the Creole and Cajun-inspired Andre Thierry & Zydeco Magic (6pm Saturday) and Grammy Award-winning R&B diva Evelyn “Champagne” King (8:20pm Friday).
THE MONTEREY BAY BLUES FESTIVAL happens 5pm-midnight Friday, 10am-midnight Saturday and 10am-11pm Sunday at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. $55-75/one-day arena passes; $30-$40/one-day grounds; $99/three-day grounds; $160-$220/three-day main arena. 866-558-4253, www.montereyblues.com