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A Different Shade of Blue

Corey Harris got to the Delta by way of Denver.

Upon his return to the U.S., Harris moved to Louisiana and took a job teaching French and English. But whenever he wasn't in school, he was on the streets, playing his music for passersby. Before long, he came to the attention of fellow musicians and blues lovers in the New Orleans area. Among these fans was producer/scholar Larry Hoffman, who produced a Harris session in 1994. The folks at the Chicago-based Alligator imprint subsequently decided to use the recordings as they were; they form the basis for Between Midnight and Day, which hit stores the following year.

In listening to the disc, you've got to give credit to Alligator for leaving well enough alone. With a few modest exceptions, such as the kazoo that's heard on a rendition of Blind Boy Fuller's "I'm a Rattlesnakin' Daddy," the tracks on Midnight feature nothing more than Harris's voice and guitar--but they don't want for anything else. Harris displays impeccable taste in material, drawing from the oeuvres of such classic bluesmen as Charlie Patton ("Pony Blues"), Sleepy John Estes ("Going to Brownsville" and "I Ain't Gonna Be Worried No More") and Fred McDowell ("Write Me a Few Lines"). Moreover, his three originals--"Roots Woman," "Bound to Miss Me" and the title track--mark him as a tunesmith of great honesty and tremendous promise.

Appropriately, the CD earned Harris widespread acclaim and a 1996 W.C. Handy award as acoustic blues artist of the year. But these plaudits didn't stop him from making some changes on his next offering, Fish Ain't Bitin'. "It was one of my goals to showcase more of my original stuff," he confirms. "I had more original tunes that I could have put on my first album, but I really wanted to stick with the three that are on there and have the rest be covers. This time, though, I wanted to have more originals--and I feel like I've achieved something in doing it. It's a fuller picture of what I do live."

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Indeed, the nine Harris-penned ditties on Fish are just as strong as his versions of two traditionals ("Frankie and Johnny" and "Jack O'Diamonds") and six covers associated with players such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Memphis Minnie. The title cut, for instance, finds Harris using traditional instrumentation to deal with a very contemporary topic.

"I wrote it thinking about what's happening to people in rural areas and how, even if you want to live off the land, sometimes you just can't anymore," he says. "I lived in Napoleonville, about an hour and a half from New Orleans, for a while, and I would go out to look at the nice river and trees--and all of a sudden, I'd see this layer of smog. You couldn't even see the factories that were making it; they were five miles away or more. But you could see the smog. That's the way it is all over Louisiana. The rivers between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are called 'Cancer Alley' because of the high concentration of cancer there, even for people who don't smoke. So that's what 'Fish Ain't Bitin'' means to me--there are all these fish, but you can't get to them. And even if you could, they might make you sick."

Also new for Harris is the brass instrumentation that turns up on much of Fish, including "Fish Ain't Bitin'" and the boisterous opener, "High Fever Blues." The musical mix is a potent one that adds dimension to Harris's pieces without diminishing their emotional veracity. Just as important, he notes, "it was fun. Right now I'm still touring without a band, but maybe within the next year or two, I'll be able to afford to take some other musicians with me." Of course, some purists may object to Harris fiddling with his style. But the prospect of taking some heat, he says, "doesn't bother me at all."

Such obliviousness to criticism bodes well for Harris's future. Whereas some young bluesmen, including Keb' Mo', have fiddled with their sound for what might seem to be commercial reasons, Harris prefers to stick to his guns. "I like roots music," he says. "I don't really listen to the radio or to the people who are on the radio much. Hip-hop radio sometimes, and stations that play jazz and blues, but that's about it. So I can't really pretend to be something else just to get played on the radio. And I don't want to be perceived as someone who is putting on airs and hustling things just to make a little money.

"I'll put it this way: I want to make music that I'll be proud of. I never want to listen to anything I made and not like it. And so far, I've done okay."

Corey Haris. 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 19, Brendan's, 1624 Market Street, $4, 595-0609.

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