a harpist for harpophobes

Blue Blazes (Alligator)
Sugar Blue

By Allen Howie

Let me say right up front that I'm not the world's biggest harmonica fan. In fact, unless it's Toots Thielemans, the J. Geils Band's Magic Dick or my dear old dad (I'm serious!), I could probably go the rest of my life without ever hearing the instrument again.

That was before I got an earful of Blue Blazes, the new disc by Sugar Blue. Remember the killer riff that snakes its way through the Rolling Stones' "Miss You," then burrows about a mile into your brain? Or the tasty solo that ends the tune? That's Sugar Blue (a.k.a. James Whiting).

Toss in a strong, supple voice, a terrific band, the added spark of the Chicago Horns and a seasoned ear for material, and the result is Blue Blazes, an aptly-titled gem of a record.

From the opening blast of "I Ain't Got You," it's Sugar Blue's show. Whether it's a slow, soulful blues like "Help Me" and "I Just Got to Know," a funked-up version of "Miss You," or the brassy swagger of "One More Mile to Go," he leads the way, locking into a feverish groove one minute, then spinning a dazzling, lyrical solo the next.

Blue is one of the few players who tackles the instrument's difficult upper register. When he solos, his tones are clear and sweet, his melodies nimble and tasty. When he slips back into a rhythmic role, he pushes each song with a smoldering intensity. And the numbers he wrote — the pretty, instantly memorable "Country Blues" and the tortuously twisted groove of "Out Till Dawn" — stand their ground easily next to classics like a streamlined cover of Willie Dixon's "Back Door Man" and a woozy take on Muddy Water's "Just to Be with You."

Harp the way Sugar Blue blows it is a different instrument than you've ever heard. Get Blue Blazes, and prepare to be converted.