by A.J. Wachtel
For many decades, Boston’s music scene has been ahead of the curve in different genres including rock ’n’ roll, folk, punk, and new wave. Berklee College of Music attracts musicians from all over the world to study, and world class ensembles like the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops cover the classical and the orchestral sides of the panorama perfectly. But behind everything, and still standing as tall and as important and popular as ever, is the blues. One of the best blues bands around is Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers, who keep the flame alive and just keep getting better and better gig after gig.
Noise: Erin and Jim just got back from an acoustic blues duo tour of the U.K. in April and May. Tell me some of the high points and low points of your tour. How are audiences different in the U.K. than in New England? And who was the craziest character you met on tour?
Erin Harpe: Some high points: There we so many. Every host we had and venue were really great. We stayed with a fan and friend of my dad’s, Philip Ratcliffe, in Dunoon, Scotland. He featured us on his blues radio show and we also got two newspaper articles written about our gig, plus a photo shoot to promote our gig that week! There was a line out the door at the show! We were at his farm for several days, hung out with chickens, and checked out his guitar collection. We talked about Mississippi John Hurt (Philip wrote a book about him!). We also were hosted by Scottish bluesman/slide guitarist Dave Arcari in a great gig in a beautiful area in Scotland on Loch Lomond. Then there was the Isle of Mull! The Isle of Skye! I guess you could say the highlight was Scotland where it was sunny the whole time – unbelievable! All the parts of England we went to were very cool. Low points: the amount of whisky one is tricked into drinking, and driving a stick-shift the wrong way around a roundabout!
Jim Countryman: The acoustic blues duo tour was fantastic. I was apprehensive a bit to see what types of venues we would be playing. Our U.K. booking agent did a great job placing us in listening rooms and pubs where the gigs were so much fun. We had several sold out shows, including our second gig in London at Brooks Blues Bar where U.K. great harp player, Alan Glen, sat in with us for our two sets and was killer. He had been in The Yardbirds. The rest of the shows were packed—so surprising! We had a lot of people come out who are blues fans and are familiar with Erin or her dad Neil Harpe (Stella Guitars) so we had a built-in audience in most places. The best part of the whole trip was the quality of the music fans. They all were fans of delta blues and very informed. They loved Erin’s singing and finger-picked guitar playing. Erin and I have been developing our duo for the last year in prep for this tour. It doesn’t have a name yet. We were billing it as Erin Harpe’s Delta Blues Duo, but that may change. Erin plays all acoustic guitar and I play bass ukulele (U-Bass!), Erin also plays kazoo and a toe-fitted tambourine dubbed “toebourine.” A portion of our fans actually prefer the acoustic format so we will still continue to develop this side act with performances and recordings.
The craziest dude we met was a fan at a gig on the Isle of Skye. He was in his 50’s and was on the dance floor twerking along to our whole set. He also did a killer version of a U.K. police siren where he continually karate chopped his vocal cords with his hand while screaming like a banshee. We also met an elf of a mussel diver who was so drunk on single malt that he just stood near Erin during the break and breathed VERY hard on her neck, enough for her to ask: “Are you actually breathing on my neck?” His response in Scottish whisky slang: “Aye, I am!”
Low lights was the trial-by-fire driving in the U.K., Erin drove the whole time, over 3000 miles, I tried to work the Sat Nav (GPS) and keep Erin on the left side of the road. The Sat Nav pretty much got us lost going to each gig and we had no smart phone with a data plan so there was no other way to check out where the clubs were. The roads in Scotland were often single lane with a 60 mph speed limit and if someone is coming the other way, you just have to pull over—crazy with all of the blind turns and cliffs, actually very scary! We need to have better Internet next time. The U.S. is surprisingly ahead of the U.K. in this department. We only got pulled over once for going through a red light and so far have only been charged $175 in damages for the rental car scratches. We will see if that figure goes up. They have access to my credit card and can charge what they want.
The big difference in the type of fans was that people seemed like they were true fans of the genre, sort of like the sports followers in Boston, but for old delta blues music —they were fanatics—not just out to get wasted and Go Bruins, but Go Memphis Minnie! I thought it was a hoax at first, but they were sincere and bought merch!
Noise: You won the 2012 Boston Music Award for Blues Artist of the Year. Does winning a BMA have any concrete gains to it, or is it more about bragging rights?
Erin: I think that the Boston Music Award makes us stand out just a little bit. To a new club you’re looking to play or to a potential concert-goer that may not have heard of you, it’s like, “maybe they’re good.” There is so much these days competing with people’s attention, and they want to be convinced. Why would I like this band? Why should I leave my house? That’s how I feel like it is in America. In the U.K., from the perspective of this tour, people seem to love live acoustic music, which is what we were hoping! Our last gig was on a Monday night, which we were very skeptical about, but it was packed! It was a very cool venue, a farm-to-table store/restaurant that had music.
Jim: Nothing really has come about because of this. The crowds at our gigs are the same, and the venues are the same. When Lovewhip (Erin and Jim’s side project) won a BMA in 2004, we were able to land a deal with a booking agent who was then able to get us paid gigs regularly. I don’t think awards really do anything anymore, the most important thing is to always keep developing your fan base and keeping that connection going. Playing to the academy seems to bring crickets these days in Boston.
Bob Nisi: It was more of a bragging rights deal I suppose, but we may have gotten more high profile gigs out of it.
Noise: You were International Blues Challenge semi-finalists in 2011 and 2013, and in 2010 and 2012 you were the Boston Blues Challenge Competition winners. When you were competing in the international blues challenge were other artist’s impressions of the New England music scene mostly fact or fiction? And are their struggles similar to the difficulties you see locally?
Erin: Most musicians I talk to in Memphis or the U.K. or anywhere really are faced with the same thing —the difficulty of doing it all yourself and not making much money. It’s everywhere!
Jim: I often had to educate people when we were in Memphis as to the great rock history in Boston. No one seemed to know how rich and diverse the music scene in Boston was and in some ways still is. Some of the older blues guys knew Bonnie Raitt got her start here. After hanging out with Rosy for the last four years and listening to the stories of Boston’s blues past, you would think this town would still be on top of the blues scene. It must have been so exciting back in the ’70s and ’80s for both blues and rock.
It seems like music everywhere is decreasing in importance though, so the problem is not Boston specific. Hopefully, things will come around to live music again. They sure do like live music in the U.K.
Bob: Most artists were curious about the scene in Boston and compared it to their own. Some sounded similar to Boston with minor differences— the same struggles really… “keeping the blues alive” in a constantly changing music scene.
Noise: Erin, your dad, Neil Harpe, is a known guitarist and you recently released a CD with him called Delta Blue Duets. What was it like recording with him and playing live with him?
Erin: Delta Blues Duets was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I had been offered two days for free in a studio. We rehearsed some songs we play together, went in to record the next day, and mixed the second day. So far, my dad’s joined us onstage once (my birthday last year), and it was great. He knows most of my Delta Blues material, and he’s got some incredible acoustic guitar counterparts he plays to what I’m playing on electric guitar.
Noise: With a last name Harpe, why don’t you play the harp?
Erin: I really should have been an auto-harpest. If I’d been a boy, my name apparently would have been Otto Harpe. [laughs]
Noise: Where does your unique finger picking style come from and who were your guitar influences?
Erin: There are all the delta blues guitar players I grew up with—my dad and the people he played with—Eleanor Ellis and Rick Franklin, and other local guitarists like John Cephas, Warner Williams, and Archie Edwards, that were all a big influence on me. I was also really into Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, and most especially, Memphis Minnie. There are so many others that I love for blues guitar! Tommy Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, all the Johnsons… and lots of other delta blues from my dad’s record collection. Then later, I got into everything else besides blues, afropop and reggae, disco, etc.
Noise: You have been recognized along with Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, Shemekia Copeland, Rory Block, and Ana Popovic in 2013’s 30 Women Burning Up The Blues in the Alternate Root Magazine, and your soulful vocal style has been compared to Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, and early Bonnie Raitt. Are these comparisons fair?
Erin: Growing up, Bonnie Raitt, Memphis Minnie, and Bessie Smith were my favorites, so it’s always nice to hear that I sound like my idols! Other singers I love who were a big influence are: Koko Taylor, Phoebe Snow, Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, and let’s just throw in a little Debbie Harry (Blondie), and Diana Ross.
Noise: Rosy, you have a long history performing in the international blues scene and you are a partner in the VizzTone label group. You also owned blues label Tone-Cool for 20 years. How did you get involved with these youngsters?
Rosy Rosenblatt: I first saw and heard Erin online, and I realized right away that she had something unique—she was playing and singing great classic delta blues, but with a very contemporary attitude. She was obviously an extremely accomplished singer and guitarist, but soon I realized that her personality and stage presence transcended even the very cool music she was playing. If my many years on the record side of the music biz have done anything, they’ve made me very picky about female vocalists and, if I may say so, a pretty good judge of star quality. I saw that in Erin, so of course I kept stalking her until she put me in her band. I told her we should tighten up the band, win the Boston Blues Challenge, and then go on to play in front of my blues industry buddies at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. So far, all of that has gone according to plan. The next stage of the plan is to record and release a killer record, and proceed toward world domination. We’ll keep you posted on that.
Noise: What other artists are you checking out today?
Erin: There’s this band called Lovewhip. I really dig the blonde guitar player! [laughs] Kidding aside, Streight Angular are really fun, I also like Tallahassee. There’s lots of great blues I dig locally, including Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, Gracie Curran & the High Falutin’ Band, and the Ten Foot Polecats.
Jim: I like the Ten Foot Pole Cats, Sonny Jim Clifford’s rare solo performances. What I really want to see is an accordion led polka/ska band that performs drinking songs. [laughs]
Bob: So many, but I like 10 Foot Polecats, Coyote Kolb, Gracie Curran & High Falutin’ Band, and Peter Parcek, just to name a few.
Noise: Where do you see the band in three years?
Erin: In the next three years, we’re hoping to take Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers to more music and blues festivals; to more parts of the U.S. and to Europe! Our new (debut album) comes out at the end of the summer. We have some of the mixes already and we’re anticipating it being something really special and different, and we hope that people are going to love it (as much as we do)!
Bob: To get the record out and go from there! We’re really excited about it!