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Published: 2002/06/28
by Chris Bertolet

Downhome Sophisticate – Corey Harris

Rounder Records 613194
It’s awfully tempting to describe Corey Harris as a cross between Robert
Randolph and Ben Harper. And I guess I just did. But my motive is
noble and pure: I want every one of you to dash out and buy seven copies
of Downhome Sophisticate — one for the house, one for the car,
one for your jilted lover, one for your reclusive neighbor, one for your
doubting preacher, and two to bury in the backyard, encased in steel, in
case of Armageddon. To pique your interest, I employ jam shorthand, and
beg your forgiveness.
In my own defense, though, it’s a pretty fair comparison. Harris,
Randolph and Harper are all modern day buffalo soldiers, and all three
are physically striking black gentlemen who have a certain way of making
girls and guitar jock wannabes a little wobbly in the knees. And in a
surface sense, Corey Harris offers the best of both musicians:
Randolph’s bee-sting leads and unabashed, foot-stomping joy, and
Harper’s probing blues consciousness.
But in a deeper sense, he offers so much more. Downhome
Sophisticate reveals a man with a deep understanding and love for
African roots music in all its forms, from rap to reggae, from gutbucket
to gospel. With every note, his unmistakably American songs call back
to their source; one can imagine Harris reaching across the Atlantic,
joining hands with Ali Farka Toure to marry traditions. But while this
is studied music, even studious sometimes, it’s anything but academic;
he plays with easy freedom on any branch of the family tree, often
several at once.
Harris deploys his throaty tenor masterfully, altering diction, tone and
dynamic to serve his compositions — a Delta growl here, a slave-coast
moan there. His meticulous recreation of Pidgin phrasings is something
to behold; it sounds like he’s lived lifetimes in the Caribbean. And
his guitar playing, and particularly his lap steel sound, is slathered
in soul.
Most impressively, Harris manages to strike a rare balance between
maturity and passion. Like Harper, he writes accessible, inviting songs
undershot with subtle intricacies for the careful listener. But if Ben
Harper calls us to observe the world’s ills through tear-washed eyes,
Harris takes an emotionally circumspect approach to the blues: crying,
dancing, laughing, and when necessary, raising a fist.
The album unspools like a pilgrimage slideshow set on shuffle. "Black
Maria", a Toure-inspired ode to the Motherland, feels like its center of
gravity, the place from which to experience the rest of the record.
Here Harris mates African themes to a lustful tango, a brave and
unlikely gambit that pays off richly. Moving outward we find
"Capitaine" – one of two precious guitar instrumentals – evoking
Mississippi John Hurt fingerpicking on the banks of the Niger. "Sista
Rose" tosses dub with brass-happy calypso for an authentic island tang.
And Harris comes hard with the counter-pointed "Santoro," revealing a
Marley-esque antiauthoritarian streak: "See the beast coming rolling
with his whip / Red, blue lights flashing with three full clips / I
ain’t the one bustin’ caps for fun / With a gattlin’ gun."
Harris truly smolders when he burrows into the belly of the American
South. "Money On My Mind" and "Where The Yellow Cross The Dog" will
spine-tingle North Mississippi All-Stars fans and other partisans of the
New Blues, and I defy anyone with a pulse to sit still for the
double-time stomp of "Frankie Doris" or the honky-tonk ass whooping of
"BB" (which features Henry Butler reducing a piano to matchsticks).
Moving still outward, Harris nods to Hendrix with "Fire", a psychedelic
liberation march all his own, and demonstrates almost unfair flow on the
hip-hopping title track. There’s truly little this guy can’t do.
In fact, if the world keeps turning out musicians like Corey Harris, we
may just run out of jilted lovers, reclusive neighbors and doubting
preachers. And who knows, maybe we can stop worrying about this
Armageddon thing altogether.

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