On Stage: Harper brings sounds from down under to blues

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By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times


Many, many blues bands have performed at Jamey’s House of Music (32 South Lansdowne Avenue, Lansdowne, 215-477-9985,www.jameyshouseofmusic.com) in recent years, but none have had the musical line-up of this week’s headliner.

On September 16, Jamey’s will host the area debut of Harper and Midwest Kind.

The band’s founder/leader is an award-winning Australian singer/songwriter. The name on his passport is Peter D. Harper but he’s known in the music world simple as Harper.

What makes Harper and Midwest Kind unique is one of the instruments played by Harper – a didgeridoo.

One of the best harmonica players in today’s music scene, Harper effortlessly jams with the digeridoo and effects units.

His music is categorized as roots and blues, but it is heavily laced with world beats and sounds that entice listeners worldwide.

By combining traditional and modern influences, borrowing from Western and World music, Harper has created a highly original take on the roots genre.

Considered to be a virtuoso harmonica player, Harper’s innovative use of electronic enhancement and feedback breaks the traditional boundaries of the harmonica and gives his music its distinctive harmonics and effects.

His latest album, “Rise Up,” features Harper’s creative use of the harmonica and the haunting drone of the didgeridoo.

The didgeridoo is a wind instrument, played with vibrating lips to produce a continuous drone while using a special breathing technique called circular breathing. The didgeridoo was developed by Aboriginal peoples of northern Australia at least 1,000 years ago, and is now in use around the world, though still most strongly associated with Indigenous Australian music. A didgeridoo is usually cylindrical or conical and can measure anywhere from three to 10 feet long. Most are around four feet long.

“I was doing a jam in Melbourne (Australia),” said Harper, during a recent phone interview from his home in Grass Lake, Michigan.

“A guy with a didgeridoo asked if he could sit in. I didn’t know what it was. I listened and it was awesome. I wanted to learn how to play it.”

“Some aborigines from Australia helped me get a real Australian native didgeridoo.”

Traditional didgeridoos are usually made from hardwoods, especially the various eucalyptus species that are native to northern and central Australia. Generally, the main trunk of the tree is harvested, though a substantial branch may be used instead.

Traditional didgeridoo makers seek suitably hollow live trees in areas with obvious termite activity. Termites attack these living eucalyptus trees, removing only the dead heartwood of the tree, as the living sapwood contains a chemical that repels the insects.

“My didgeridoo is made from a eucalyptus tree,” said Harper. “It’s made from nature.

“When I started playing the didgeridoo, it wasn’t easy. It took me six months just to learn how to circular breathe.

“I was living in Melbourne at the time. Blind Pig Records, who I made three albums for, absolutely loved it.”

Harper’s first album was a self-released disc in 1997 titled “Live at the Soup Kitchen.”

He then recorded three albums for Full Moon Records – “Glass on the Stepping Stone” (2000), “Live at St. Andrews” (2002) and “Way Down Deep Inside” (2003).

His three LPs for Blind Pig Records were “Down to the Rhythm” (2005), “Day by Day” (2007) and “Stand Together” (2010). Harper followed with a trio of albums for Bluharp Records – “Live at the Blues Museum” (2012), “Bare Bones” (2013) and “Show Your Love” (2016). “Rise Up” was released by Access Records in 2020.

Three of the final four albums were billed as Harper and Midwest Kind while all the previous albums were released under the name Harper.

“Rise Up,” which was released on February 11, 2020, reached # 3 on the Billboard Blues Charts, was listed in the Top 20 Albums of 2020 by Blues Blast Magazine and was also nominated for Best Modern Roots Album, and Best Modern Roots Band, 2021 by Independent Blues Awards, USA.

“The ‘Rise Up’ album was recorded in Ann Arbor in 2020 – just before the pandemic started,” said Harper. “It still got to Number 3 on Billboard without touring to support it. I was happy with how it went.”

Harper was born in Guildford, Surrey, England, but relocated with his parents to Perth, Western Australia at the age of 10. In the late 1970s he played in a brass band learning to play the euphonium and trumpet. Inspired by Stevie Wonder’s harmonica playing, Harper was self-taught on the instrument and played in clubs before securing his first recording contract.

It was a chance meeting with a Hopi “Dan Running Bear” in Silverton, Colorado, that led him down the path to rediscovering the music of his homeland. Fascinated with the spirituality and culture of the American Natives, he found the same qualities present in the Australian natives of his homeland.

According to Harper, “The didgeridoo is a spiritual and healing instrument, and it seemed blues music accepted it with open arms.

“I also owe my life to a clan of nomadic Australian Natives who saved my father and I from starvation when we were trapped at The Fitzroy Crossing (Western Australia), in between two fast flowing river torrents. They gave us enough food and water to last us until the flood had subsided.

“I feel my music is my way of giving back to these wonderful people.”

Harper’s relationship with the blues harp goes back a long time.

“When I was a youngster in Perth, my grandfather taught me how to play harmonica,” said Harper. “Eventually, I got into the blues.”

In Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the world, there was a thriving blues and folk scene. The blues had a rawness, an honesty and a passion of the soul which spoke to Harper deeply. Then, like every blues lover, Harper began his journey backwards to discover the deeper roots of the music.

According to Harper, “I think Muddy Waters really hit me hard. There was something incredibly special about his sound, his powerful voice and his songs. I would sing his songs constantly.”

Harper had the honor of backing legendary blues guitarist Muddy Waters on harmonica for his West Australian tour. He also performed at a Royal Gala Performance for the Queen of England in Perth, Western Australia.

“I also really dug Sonny Boy Williamson II as well,” said Harper. “I loved his rhythmic use of his harp. I was also inspired by a pretty wide range of players and styles like Little Walter, Sugar Blue and Stevie Wonder who guide me in my harmonica playing.

“Blues is honest music. It’s all about emotion. These guys play it with a passion.”

Midwest Kind is Harper’s band, and the Midwest is Harper’s home.

“I’ve lived in Michigan – in the Ann Arbor are – for 15 years,” said Harper. “Michigan was the first state I came to when I moved here from Australia. I really liked it and have been here ever since. I wanted to live in the country. And Michigan is good for touring because it’s in the middle of the country.

“Midwest Kind is a five-piece with three vocalists. My manager Bobbie Llewllyn is on vocals. Lee Lewis is on bass, Brent Hiller plays drums and Austin Johnson plays guitar. I play harp, didgeridoo and sings.

“In a night, I might play didgeridoo 10 times. I didn’t want to make it a gimmick.”

Video link for Harper and Midwest Kind — https://youtu.be/ocol-YR2qcQ.

The show at Jamey’s will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door.

Jamey’s House of Music is a prime destination to hear folk, jazz and blues music every Thursday through Sunday.

The “Thursday Night Jazz Jam” and the “Sunday Blues Brunch & Jam” are regular features on Jamey’s calendar while Friday and Saturday night shows feature national and regional acts.

Jamey’s features a popular “Guest Singer Series” featuring many of the best singers in the region performing a set from 7-8 p.m. with the backing of the Dave Reiter Trio and occasional guest musicians.

This week’s featured performer on August 25 will be Julie Charnet. The show will start at 8 p.m. There is a $10 cover charge

Julie Charnet has performed as a jazz and blues vocalist for almost two decades. She has worked with a variety of the best jazz and blues musicians across the country and overseas at top name clubs and performing arts centers. Her Swing cd, “Is You Is” can be heard on Spotify, itunes, WRTI, 90.1, WXPN, 88.5 and WBGO, 88.3 and others.

“Sunday Blues Brunch & Jam” is a favorite of Jamey’s regulars because Jamey Reilly and his band the Philly Blues Kings (www.phillyblueskings.com) are the performers each week.

The Philly Blues King are a veteran outfit comprised of David Reiter on guitar, keyboards and vocals, Maci Miller on vocals, Bill Marconi on drums and vocals and Reilly on bass guitar. They have performed together for 15 years (except for Miller) and are the house band for Jamey’s House of Music. They are well known for tight, jazz inflected classic blues.

Reiter performs on a seven-string guitar and Reilly plays a fretless five string bass and that sets the group above the ordinary. The three veteran musicians have each spent decades playing the blues professionally and have backed many well-known national artists. Maci Miller, an internationally recognized jazz singer based in Philadelphia, joined the Blues Kings and quickly established herself as a top-flight front woman.

Video link for Philly Blues Kings — https://youtu.be/bAnBVLc7Wsg.

The show at Jamey’s House of Music on August 28 will start at noon. Admission is free.

We’ve all heard the saying “Fish out of water.” This weekend, it will be time for a “Fish alongside the water.”

Samantha Fish

Samantha Fish, a standout blues artist, will be one of the featured acts at this weekend’s XPoNential Music Festival, which is running from September 15-17 at the Camden Waterfront (Harbour Boulevard, Camden, New Jersey, http://xpnfest.org).

Fish is scheduled to play at 6:10 p.m. on the Marina Stage at Wiggins Park.

Samantha Fish is a veteran musician, a talented singer, an adept songwriter and – most importantly — a guitarist with roots in rock, blues and Americana.

Guitar World named Fish as “One of the 30 best guitarists in the world.” She came in at Number 7 behind Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa.

Fish is touring in support of her latest album, “Faster,” which is an ironic title considering nothing went faster in the 20 months of pandemic shutdown.

Faster could also be a description of Fish’s touring pace in 2022.

“I’ve just been touring up a storm this year,” said Fish, during a phone interview a few weeks ago from her home in New Orleans. “Since March, I don’t think I’ve had more than one weekend off. When I’m on the road, I just try to sleep as much as possible and drink water. Hydration and sleep are key elements.

“Now, I’m preparing for the next phase. We have a surplus of dates to make up. We’re still making up dates that were lost to COVID.

“I think everybody wants to make up for lost time. I feel like I’ve been catching up. I hate missing shows. I hate disappointing fans. I’m just trying to reach that level of balance again.”

“Faster” is the sixth album by the Kansas City native and her sophomore release for Rounder Records. Her Rounder debut was 2019’s “Kill or Be Kind.”

“Faster” debuted in the Billboard Blues Charts at Number 1. It also debuted at Number 2 in the Folk Americana Charts and Number 10 in the Rock Albums Charts.

“I built this band to perform the ‘Faster’ record,” said Fish. “After a while, I started to mix my set list up a little more.”

“Faster’ has a strange timeline.

“‘Faster’ is a pandemic album,” said Fish. “I started working on it during the pandemic. I told myself – go inside yourself and be creative.”

“Faster,” which was produced by Martin Kierszenbaum, was released on September 10 on Rounder Records.

“Martin reached out in 2020,” said Fish, a native of Kansas City, Missouri. “We had a Kansas City connection.

“I came to Kansas City in October. We met and meshed really well. We just forged a friendship and started talking. I realized he was the guy I wanted to produce the album. He’s done pop but he’s from Michigan and the rock scene there.

“We cut the album in L.A. We went to Village Recorder to make it. We started in December and spent a couple weeks in the studio.”

The Village Recorder is famous for landmark recordings by Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, The Stones, Supertramp, Pink Floyd, Smashing Pumpkins, Chili Peppers and many other projects.

“It’s a pretty incredible studio,” said Fish. “I was in awe when we first went there. We were in the studio where Dr. Dre recorded ‘The Chronic.’ I thought t myself – I’m here and I’ve got to make the most of this moment.

“I had a bunch of songs ready to go. I had an abundance of material. I cut 14 songs. Twelve of them are on ‘Faster’ and the other two are on a special edition of the album.

“Martin had a different approach to production. He played all the keyboards, and I did all the guitar work. The album has a heartbeat. It’s very human. I recorded most of the songs live – meat and potatoes.

“Martin put a lot of time into the record before we stepped in the studio. Then, we both put a lot of time into pre-production. It was very calm.

“I’m always into exploring. Every record I make is different from the last. You’ve got to be open to change to grow. You have to listen to your heart.”

Fish has music in her DNA.

“My dad played, and my mom sang in church,” said Fish. “My dad’s friends all played music. They’d come over to our house and play. It was a social thing. My uncles played metal with heavy guitar. My dad’s friends played country-and-western and blues.

“I started with drums and did that for a couple years. I’m glad I did because it gave me the rhythmic foundation. When I picked up guitar – that’s when I started singing. Not long after, I started writing songs.

“Songwriting is something you have to work on if you want to learn how to write good songs. I still play songs today that I wrote when I was 20. My songs are rock, country and soul – all bluesy even though I’ve never written a standard blues song.”

Musical diversity has always been crucial for Fish – listening and playing.

“I listened to a lot of soul music — people like Otis Redding and Ray Charles,” said Fish. “I was also influenced by blues acts — especially North Mississippi blues — people like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough.”

Video link for Samantha Fish — https://youtu.be/lAe4Yg0gx-I.

There will be shows Friday and Saturday nights at the Freedom Morag Pavilion – Geese, Patti Smith and War on Drugs on Friday and Snacktime, The Revivalists and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats on Saturday.

Some of the other top acts slated for this weekend’s three-day extravaganza are Taj Mahal, Felice Bothers, Lucinda Williams, Kathleen Edwards, Jenny Lewis and Chestnut Grove.

Chestnut Grove

Chestnut Grove has its roots in the Delaware Valley and has played gigs at the Ardmore Music Hall. The band recorded “The Album” at BarnSound Studios in Newtown Square with producer Derek Chafin.

Chestnut Grove was formed by James Daniels, John Tyler, Sean Murray and Dee Gerhart in 2011 during their senior year of high school. The band’s name was chosen in memory of would-be member and guitar player Matt Barber, who passed away tragically in a car accident on Chestnut Grove Road.

“We’ve been together for more than a decade,” said Gerhart, during a phone interview. “We’ve been touring heavily since 2015.

“We all graduated from high school together in 2011 – Boyertown High School. Our drummer James played with our guitar player John. I was doing acoustic singer/songwriter doing open mics. We weren’t drawn together musically.

“In my senior year, I was in a talent show at Boyertown High. I did some numbers like ‘You Really Got a Hold On Me’ with Zach Winkler. They approached me and it rolled on from there.

“We covered a lot of Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix. I was the only one singing. We immediately started working on some originals. We were trying to be a jam group but drifted more to singer/songwriter.

“It’s collective songwriting. It’s mainly driven by me and James, but everyone has an input. Each has their own part of the puzzle.”

In 2015, Gerhart, Winkler, Daniels, Tyler and Gary Geers, with the help of friend/engineer Owen McGreehan, released their self-produced album, “Perkiomenville,” to a sold-out hometown crowd at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.

“We recorded that album at our barn studio in Perkiomenville,” said Gerhart. “It had 10 tracks with a vert rootsy, Americana feel.”

In 2016, the band recorded the EP “Let it Down” with critically acclaimed producer Bill Moriarty, who has worked with notable artists like Modest Mouse and Philly’s own Dr. Dog. This EP featured a collection of songs including “Whiskey Hand” and “Let it Down,” two of the band’s first hits.

The band released the EP “Black Champagne” with Mad Dragon Records in 2018, signed a deal with Nimbleslick Entertainment, and began touring the East Coast and Midwest. Chestnut Grove has headlined venues including the Trocadero, World Cafe Live, and Ardmore Music Hall, while continuing to gain popularity in their home city of Philadelphia and beyond.

In 2019, Chestnut Grove began recording their first full-length studio album when home from touring. In 2020, they released the single “Golden Age,” which received praise from American Songwriter Magazine. The band’s ambitions for 2020 had also included completing and releasing the new album and embarking on a US tour–goals ultimately derailed by the global pandemic.

Undeterred, Chestnut Grove went back to the studio with producer Derek Chafin (AKA “Chestnut Grove’s sixth man”) and finished “The Album” featuring singles “Golden Age,” “Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Newspaper Hats,” and fan favorite “I Know Somebody.” This album was released in 2021 at Ardmore Music Hall and virtually streamed via Nugs.net, followed by appearances on Radio 104.5 and 88.5 XPN.

Video link for Chestnut Grove — https://youtu.be/sWBiFGvzK_Q.

Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center (226 North High Street, West Chester, www.uptownwestchester.org) is presenting Hailey Brinnel on September 15 and Classic Stones Live on September 16.

118 North (118 North Wayne Avenue, Wayne, www.118northwayne.com) will host Atomic Fizz on September 15, Darlingtyn Swwik on September 16, Plush in the Box on September 17, Wally Smith Hammond Trio on September 18 and Friends of the Brothers on September 18.

The Sound Bank (119 South Main Street, Phoenixville, www.soundbankphx.com) will have Sticky Hand String Band on September 17.

The Ardmore Music Hall (23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, www.ardmoremusic.com) will present Old 97s on September 16, Steal Your Peach on September 17, Richie Kotzen on September 18, Hayley Heyndericz on September 20, and Sierra Hull on September 21.

The Sellersville Theater (24 West Temple Avenue, Sellersville, 215-257-5808, www.st94.com) will present Beyond Purple on September 16, Todd Snider on September 17, Josh Ritter on September 18, Southern Culture on the Skids on September 20, and James Hunetr Six on September 21.

Phantom Power (121 West Frederick Street, Millersville, www.phantompower.net) hosts The Felice Brothers on September 16 and Hole in the Sky on September 17.

Zoetropolis Zoetropolis (112 North Water Street, Lancaster, www.zoetropolis.com) will present The Montvales on September 21.

Mann Music Center (Mann Center, 5201 N. Parkside Avenue, Philadelphia, http://manncenter.org) hosts Roxy Music: 50th Anniversary Tour with special guest St. Vincent on September 15.

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