My, what a good time for an album review
Writing about Jason Ricci has been on my agenda more or less since I started blogging on the Harp Surgery. It’s odd, really, that he doesn’t get much airtime here, considering he’s one of the most phenomenal players alive AND his unsolicited praise adorns our sidebar. In fact, the first gig review Wilf ever did for this website was Jason Ricci but that was years ago. It’s high-time we checked in on him again.
So today I’m finally going to review Jason’s album, Done with the Devil. What finally got me off the couch (figuratively anyway) was the news that he’s had a bad run of luck recently. We saw reports in June, and a great deal of speculation, that there had been some reshuffles in, or departures from, his (very very good) band, New Blood – and that all engagements were on hold ‘til August. On top of that his website is down, he’s in hospital with a punctured lung and no health insurance, and a series of financial calamities seem to have come calling at just the wrong time.
And because Jason Ricci is to 21st century harmonica what sliced bread was to sandwiches, I’ll make a suggestion of what you can do to help.
It’s pronounced Jay-son Rih-chee
First, let’s introduce the man, just in case you haven’t had the absolutely terrifying experience of Jason Ricci’s sonic samurai style. He combines the old-school Chicago sound of your Little Walters with rapid-fire Pat Ramsey licks, then shoots them to pieces with rapid-fire machine gun overblows and then drags ‘em to Jazztown. If that sounds like a confused description, it’s because listening to Jason Ricci can provoke very confused emotions.
Simply put, give him a harmonica and Ricci is a dangerous man. Check this out:
When he saw him in 2007, our own Wilf wrote:
He has planted his flag on the ramparts of Fort Radical. His appearance and his persona is that of an edgy Punk. His energy is arresting. His playing is simply astonishing. If I had to credit specific harmonica players and bands for redefining the blues’ boundaries, Blues Traveler, Alabama 3, Little Axe, Lee Sankey, Lee Oskar and Sugar Blue readily come to mind. Jason Ricci vaults them all.
That about sums it up.
Done with the Devil
Many moons later, after reading much effusive praise for Ricci and watching many of his killer videos, I finally got ‘round to purchasing his latest album, Done with the Devil.
What can I say? I’ve heard a lot of hardcore blues fans dismiss Ricci by saying “It ain’t blues” or that it’s “just notes”. Certainly, not all of it is blues, and there are a lot of notes. There are times when his fast runs sound a bit like Eddie van Halen, but (perhaps unlike van Halen) Ricci still knows where to leave space. Just because his harp is fast-talking doesn’t mean it’s verbose.
The title track, ‘Done with the Devil’ is a hectic rock-edged number that offers a little insight into Ricci’s own demons and his emergence from an apparently troubled past: “done with the devil, but the devil ain’t done with you,” goes the chorus. Predictably it features some high octane solos that will burn your eyebrows off if you stand too close to the speakers, so don’t.
This is an eclectic album, but there are a few tracks to satisfy the blues lovers. ‘Keep the Wolf From My Door’ and ‘How It Came To Be’ offer two great expos on electric and acoustic approaches to roots music, demonstrating how comfortable Jason Ricci is in the blues tradition while reworking it artfully.
‘Sweet Loving’ is a surprisingly catchy tune, considering it’s an upbeat, syrupy love song that should stick out on this album like a teenage Paul Butterfield in the south side of Chicago. I think its appeal may lie in being the first harmonica ballad to homosexual love (Ricci has been openly gay for a while now) that simultaneously shreds 3rd-position harp playing a new a****** on the lower octave.
You’ll find more emotional depth in the song “Broken Toy”, a tortured rumination on sexual identity – “not a girl nor a boy/ I feel just like a broken toy”. Our man takes a turn on the chromatic, alternating with a scorching diatonic solo that will leave any remaining harp-blowing homophobes with something to think about.
Here are some quick critical comments
1. Ricci’s vocals are serviceable, but they pale in comparison to his harp skills.
2. Not everyone’s going to swallow the punk-edged ‘I Turned Into a Martian’.
3. Even less so the just plain crazy ‘Afro Blue’. I’m guessing it’s just too avant-garde for your average blues, brews and BBQs harp player. It does, however, show why Jason Ricci is an easy contender for being the most important harmonica player of his generation.
3. The album ends on a very bizarre note: the final track ‘Enlightenment’ is a carnival-themed piece that reminds me the1920s German expressionist film Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari.
Help a brother out
But listen, the album’s cooking. If nothing else, every harmonica player should own it just so they know how violently a man can drag Hohner’s tiny toy into the 21st century. Overblows, overdraws, bends to the yayas: there is no territory beyond Ricci’s reach. If you’ve ever, ever considered supporting a master of our art, make it Jason Ricci. The timing couldn’t be better. Jason himself has said:
When asked, “How did a white boy from Maine get the blues?” I often answer, “If you don’t have the blues when you start playing them, you will after ten years of trying to make a living at it.”
So let me put this in even clearer terms. If you want to help Jason and yourself, buy his new album. Now.