Rock & Roll

Blues, In Progress and Motion

Harris didn't let a TGIF crowd that wasn't there for a learning experience unnerve him: "We're just doin' the best we can," he grinned over their noise. Hart was less composed. On record, originals like "Joe Friday" and "That Kate Adams Jive" add life and edge to his straight blues statement, and the new, pointedly titled Territory (Rykodisc) is an audacious turf grab in a year when Lucinda Williams is doing for the blues she loves what Billy Bragg and Wilco are doing for the Woody Guthrie they love--reconstituting them for a greater good it's pointless to distinguish from self-discovery or self-aggrandizement. Having asserted its intentions with a Western swing original perfectly suited to Hart's keen blues tenor, it goes on to mix chestnuts like "John Hardy" and "Mama Don't Allow" with a ska original, a Beefheart instrumental, Ruth Etting's (later X's) "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes," and the harrowing tale of "two mixed-blood brothers" who got lynched in 1886 pursuing an assault case they were right about--its guitar accompaniment blues-based, all right, but only because the Grateful Dead are too. If the album doesn't flow like Williams or Bragg & Wilco, well, there's nothing gracious or integrated about Hart's claim, which is that when you start with country blues all of American popular music is your territory. Conceptually, it's uncompromising, and musically it can only hit home piece by piece.

Sadly, no one who encountered Hart at Tramps had any way of knowing this. A 35-year-old who looks younger, a fat brown giant with major beard and hair, gotten up in white T-shirt and black Bermudas for the big show, he exuded about as much charisma as a large mushroom. His drawl was so thick and faint that it was impossible to make out anything he said above the din, although I did hear him recommending "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes," the only selection that hinted at the scope of his ambitions, to the X fans in the audience.

Granted, I was tempted to underrate the crowd myself. Like a fool, I'd somehow envisioned an evening in which Mahal's minions--prompted perhaps by a few words or a duet from the master--honored the heritage the younger men were taking over. But Mahal wasn't passing any batons. The blues lesson I'd last witnessed a decade ago--cf. House of Blues's recent An Evening of Acoustic Music, which I prefer to his Grammy-winning product for the adult-rockers at Private Music--was transmuted into a soul show. Mahal stole his enthusiastic shtick from his contemporary Otis Redding, another big man with a big heart, and he brought it off without the nostalgia no one who performed that music in its present can avoid, washing his opening acts away long before he sagged into recent originals. Corny? Country? Not hardly. Just big fun, another treasure of a lived life brought out and shared. Like Ry Cooder, Mahal does Hawaiian stuff now too. Why shouldn't he? He moved to Maui 12 years ago.

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