Corey Harris | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

When guitarist Corey Harris hit the national scene in the late 90s, he seemed a likely candidate to lead the growing acoustic revivalist movement among young African-American bluesmen. Since then, however, he's proven more interested in expanding what his audience thinks of as "blues" than in hewing to tradition. His latest, this year's Downhome Sophisticate (Rounder), melds southern American and Afro-Caribbean roots music with greasy funk grooves, electrified hip-hop, and occasional forays into wild-hearted rock--but rather than present his idiosyncratic fusion as a break from the past, he connects all these genres, the blues included, to the history of the African diaspora. At the core of Harris's music is a striving for freedom, both aesthetic and political: he plunges through melodic, rhythmic, and lyrical tropes like a shape-shifting trickster god, and his focus on folk and indigenous sounds recalls the anticolonialism of African liberation music. "Sister Rose" and "Money Eye" evoke the cadences, melodies, and instrumentation he encountered on a recent visit to Mali, while "BB" sounds like a roadhouse romp--a juxtaposition that implicitly links the ritualistic trance state common to many African folk traditions with the sweaty abandon of a Mississippi juke joint party. Harris recasts two venerable spirituals, "Don't Let the Devil Ride" and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," in the harsh electric glare of blues rock, and on his own "Fire" he tears off searing, fuzzed-out single-chord blues licks on his guitar--but "Fire" is also seasoned with hand claps, like an antebellum ring shout, and Harris delivers its apocalyptic lyrics in a wracked Rasta bellow. "Downhome Sophisticate" is the disc's centerpiece and manifesto: riffing on the title he combines two different spoken recitations of the phrase (one in a strong Mississippi accent), an electronically distorted sung version over rootsy slide guitar, and a moaning group chorus that evokes the African-American spiritual tradition. His lyrics--"Check po' monkey, get your freak on / You won't believe what they puttin' down"--borrow from modern street talk and centuries-old folklore (the archetypal "signifying monkey"). And for anyone who might challenge his music's "authenticity," Harris has a few more choice words here: "I know that some of my people can't get with this / Better look out boy / Check your etiquette." Friday, August 30, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.

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