Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Harmonica player melds blues and punk

Jason Ricci


Jason Ricci




One of music's hottest harmonica players started out as a relatively talentless punk rock singer -- at least that's what he says.

Jason Ricci said members of his first group, punk rockers Farm Dog, bought him a harmonica to keep him away from the other instruments.

"I couldn't really ruin the song," Ricci said. "I certainly could mar the tune, but I couldn't ruin it -- you know, like [with] a drum, or bass, that holds the whole thing together."

Now he just destroys the instrument on a regular basis, playing blues, rock, soul, funk and more with his band, New Blood. They perform at Blue 5 Restaurant on Friday.

Ricci's mother got him a teacher in their hometown of Portland, Maine. Ricci said he was a dedicated student, but he couldn't relate to the blues at first. He would rather have been listening to the Misfits, the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat and other hard-hitting punk acts.

Then he heard Big Walter Horton playing harp with Carey Bell on the song "Trouble In Mind." Instantly, he found an emotional connection that trumped his rote learning, and he was transformed into a blues junkie.

"The next thing you know, I was buying B.B. King records without any harmonica on it, and going and taking my mom's records," he said. "And I'd do my homework. I remember the first time, I was listening to [Led] Zeppelin and the tape ran out, and I was looking around, and I was like, 'Where's that Howlin' Wolf cassette?' You know what I mean, I couldn't wait to hear it. I remember that, and thinking, 'God, Mom was right -- this guy's great.'

"Listening to those songs, they were so menacing. ... It had a lot of the same spirit that the punk music did, a lot of that same sincerity and urgency that I was getting out of bands like Fugazi. ... And it was certainly, on many levels, just as raw."

Ricci carries his punk rock roots on stage with him, whether he's sporting a pink-tinged mohawk or wearing a beat-up leather jacket, and his live shows are certainly intense, as anyone who saw his November performance at Blue 5 can attest.

But he's also unafraid to step into jazz and world music realms. His chief influence there is his guitarist, Shawn Starski, who co-wrote several of the tunes on the band's latest release, "Rocket No. 9." Starski, too, is as emotionally in touch with his instrument as he is technically gifted.

Go to this story at roanoke.com to hear a podcast with Ricci, and three songs from "Rocket No. 9." Bonus: The 'cast includes quick discussion of Sterling "Mr. Satan" Magee, a street-performing hero of the blues who in the late 1990s spent a couple of down-and-out years in Halifax County.