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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Alumnni Rejuvinate Unadulterated Blues Music

Author: Andrew F.X. Gustafson

It was an interesting pair of gentlemen who brought blues to the Gamut Room on Friday night. John-Alex Mason and Jerry Hunt play just about as pure a form of blues as you'll find anywhere. This was music straight from the South, drawing on the century-old tradition of the blues from the Mississippi delta, the Georgia piedmont, the east Texas swamplands. But they were not elder statesmen of the blues. They were a pair of young white dudes.

The quiet seclusion of the Gamut Room seems like a perfect place to hear acoustic music. But this music was not sedate; it was raucous and soulful, and deserved a fitting atmosphere and crowd. It may have lacked volume, but Mason and Hunt conducted a kind of musical regeneration; they brought us music that nobody has played or heard in a long while, especially not on this campus, but is a vital part of our cultural heritage. When I heard them bust out "I Be's Troubled," the first song ever recorded by the great Muddy Waters, I was about ready to tear the roof off the place. But somehow I maintained my composure.

Mason played a raw finger-picking style, and he banged away alternately on a beautiful National All-Steel and a tiny parlor guitar while, Hunt blew and hollered Sonny Terry-style on his harp. Mason's bass lines were unrelenting, even when he played slower songs like Willie Dixon's "Key to the Highway," or his own "Suburban Blues." He constantly banged away on his top E string, a style reminiscent of the great delta players of eighty years ago, who slammed the strings as loudly as they could to get their sound into the wax cylinder machines, or to overpower the noise of the juke joints. When he picked up the pace, like with Robert Johnson's "They're Red Hot," or whined on the slide with the classic "Rollin' and Tumblin'," he played with a vigor that really got the place moving. If only there had been a crowd to move. When I first saw Mason last year, what struck me was his voice. While not powerful, it possesses that deep, raspy quality so essential for playing this kind of blues. In this way it perfectly matches his guitar playing: he sounds like he should be playing in the thirties, with the likes of Tommy Johnson and Son House.

Jerry Hunt's harmonica playing harkens back to even more old-time style music. He plays very cleanly with few wasted notes, but he plays a very fast, rhythmic style that mimics the guitar leads. He does not resort to blasting out big, messy chords to get volume, but uses every note, bending it back and forth, moving up and down the scale with beauty and ease.

Occasionally he would let out a high pitched whooping sound while he was in the middle of a fast-paced, rhythmic solo, likely as homage to Sonny Terry, one of the great harmonica players of the forties and fifties. Terry was the master of the "fox chase" – an old style of harmonica playing that simulates the hunt by slowing down and speeding up as the hunter and hound dog race through forest and field after their quarry.

Hunt was definitely a welcome addition to the show, as his harmonica excellently complemented, and at times overshadowed Mason's playing. As a harmonica player myself, I'm always pleased to see the sideman try and steal a little bit of the show.

Their set wasn't just old-time favorites, but varied from more contemporary blues from artists like Alvin Youngblood Hart and Corey Harris, as well as a few originals from Mason, to some of the oldest blues songs anyone can remember, like "Frankie and Albert" and "Roseanne."

The fact is that all the musicians who played this kind of blues are long dead, and the current elder statesmen of the blues, like B.B. King, Buddy Guy or Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, play a much more contemporary, urban-style electric blues.

It is the young players who have gone back and rediscovered the country blues, delved into this other musical culture and brought it back to us. In this case, not entirely reinvented, but pure and exquisite nonetheless.