Harmonica Shah | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Harmonica Shah

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"Real, raw--that's what I prefer," Harmonica Shah told Living Blues in 2001, and his recordings testify to that. Shah was born in 1946 in Oakland, where he listened to rootsy one-man bands Juke Boy Bonner and Jesse Fuller as well as Chicagoans like Eddie Taylor and Elmore James. He also spent a lot of time in Somerville, Texas, where he heard his grandfather sing field hollers and traditional country blues as he plowed his land behind a mule. Shah didn't turn pro until the 80s, when he started sitting in with musicians in his adopted hometown of Detroit; eventually he scored a few gigs of his own. He released two CDs in 2000, Motor City Mojo (Blue Suit) and Deep Detroit (South Side), both blasts of the kind of rough primitivism that rarely makes it onto disc anymore. Shah's buzz-saw harp sounds influenced by Big Walter Horton and his squalling train imitations follow down-home tradition, but his melodic ideas and sparse, front-loaded phrasing are as idiosyncratic and primal as his lyrics, which he often doesn't even bother to rhyme. His bellow, shot through with machismo, sometimes threatens to depart entirely from standard intonation, and his sensibility is unabashedly ghettocentric: on "Repo Man," from Deep Detroit, Shah bemoans the likelihood of his Cadillac being snatched in a voice that recalls Jimmy Reed's piercing upper-register wail and mush-mouth singing. And "Bloodstains Upside the Wall," a rarely recorded Lazy Lester song Shah covers on the same album, is an urban nightmare--the singer finds his woman lying dead in the hall outside their bedroom, where "bloody tears" drench the pillows. Shah's scream sounds both maddened and desperate, and it's matched by guitarist Howard Glazer's manic solo. Saturday, March 15, 10 PM, Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452.

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