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Just as the blues itself made the transition from early acoustic recordings to electrification in clubs and concert halls, blues harp styles have changed in the years since pioneers like Sonny Terry began making "race records" in the '40s. As a result, fans who may only be familiar with the more rock-influenced harmonica explorations of, say, John Mayall or J. Geils' Magic Dick are missing out on a lot, according to Pikes Peak Big Harp Blowdown III organizer Joe Sciallo.

"There's a quintessential sound that you won't necessarily hear in their recordings," says the guitarist, whose band will be backing three Colorado blues harmonica players Thursday, June 5, during the "almost annual" Pikes Peak Big Harp Blowdown. "If you listen to the blues harp that started coming out of the '50s, mostly in Chicago but also on the West Coast and in New Orleans on the Excello label, it still retains some of that acoustic quality. You know, it still has that front porch thing going on."

Sciallo attributes that to "the way they cup the harp" as well as to arrangements that maintain "an acoustic feel even while amplified." Harpists Al Chesis, Ronnie Shellist and Steve "Homeboy" Williams will be looking to bring back that era in a big way next week.

"We'll be playing things from the Little Walter catalogue, Slim Harpo, [Paul] Butterfield and Junior Parker," says Sciallo, who also promises some duos and trios, at which point the harp players "almost become like a horn section."

The players all have pedigrees: Chesis toured with both Muddy Waters' son and his last guitar player Bob Margolin. Williams, formerly of the Bijou Street Blues Band, has shared stages with Waters and John Lee Hooker and is described by Sciallo as "Paul Butterfield incarnate." Shellist, of the Denver-based Shuffletones, is "the youngster of the group" with a "really huge sound" and an inclination to push the form forward.

"As Lightnin' Hopkins would say, he's plowing a new field with an old plow," says Sciallo.

The show will also feature Musical Journeys, an exhibition by Lilian Critchlow Kaiser, whose music photography has been featured in the New York Times and Rolling Stone.


Pikes Peak Big Harp Blowdown III
Venue 515, 515 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs
Thursday, June 5, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$12; call 209-8478 for more.
  • Big Harp Blowdown to highlight best in blues harmonica

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