Harmonica ace and Nashville Music Award nominee Jason Ricci doesn't mince words or concern himself with questions about image and direction. A onetime punk rocker and one of the rare openly gay performers in a genre dominated by traditionalism and conventional notions of sexuality, Ricci says an obsession with authenticity is the primary thing preventing many blues performers, particularly white ones, from gaining a larger audience.
"When Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf or John Lee Hooker were recording and performing, their biggest concern was finding and writing good songs," Ricci said. "They didn't go around saying, 'Well, I've got to make sure that this tune confirms to this pattern' or 'The turnbacks are in the right place.' If they wanted to do a country song, they did a country song. If they wanted to put in a passage where they did more talking than singing, they did it. They weren't worried about whether it fit anyone's definition of the blues."
"But there are a lot of musicians today, and some of them are people whose work I enjoy, that are preoccupied with satisfying predetermined notions about what blues should sound like on the stage. They ought to be more worried about making good songs, and doing them in a way that will attract more people. If they did that, and stopped trying to be something they're not, the blues will keep going and be just fine."
Ricci and his band New Blood, who'll be making a rare Nashville appearance Wednesday night at Nashville Nights, certainly don't specialize in recycling past Chicago or Delta blues anthems. They're among the most popular and hardworking ensembles in any style, averaging more than 300 dates for the past seven years. Their current release Done With the Devil (Electo Groove) hardly covers familiar territory.
Several of its 10 originals offer lyrical variations and comments on the controversial work of Aleister Crowley, whose writings on the occult, politics and culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries still generate plenty of discussion. There's also an excellent cover of a tune from Sun Ra, another source seldom utilized for blues sessions.
But most importantly, the music of Jason Ricci and New Blood contains plenty of emotion, drama and musical flamboyance. With a toughness and sensibility developed and honed during his years spent living and playing with dynamic individuals like Junior Kimbrough and his son David Malone, as well as R.L. Burnside and others in the Memphis/Mississippi blues community, Ricci's playing, singing and writing adroitly blend vintage spirit and contemporary insight and attitude.
"The best lesson that I learned from people like David Kimbrough is that you've got to tell your own stories and be your own person," Ricci says. "The great thing about the blues is it's all about individuality and expression, if you have the creativity and courage to discover it. When you're a white guy from Portland, Maine, and you're playing with black men in the Deep South who've seen it all, they know immediately if you have anything to say, and they want to hear what it is. They inspired me and taught me that expressing what's in your heart is far more important than adhering strictly to a 12-bar format or worrying about getting all the chord changes right."
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