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HowellDevine - Delta Grooves

Sparta Records

12 tracks

HowellDevine is a trio of Bay Area musicians whose sound is more like something from the Mississippi Delta and Hill Country than the San Francisco and Oakland area. Harp/guitar player (and former guitar maker) Joshua Howell teamed up with drummer/percussionist Pete Devine and added bassist/composer Safa Shokrai to form this eclectic and deep blues band. The backline depth and vibrancy adds richness to the electric slide work and harp, making for an interesting sound and giving a new edge to classic Delta blues.

Two originals and ten covers comprise this set. The originals are very cool and well structured pieces. The first is a train song simply called "Train", a full instrumental with harp, bass and drums inter-playing and giving us an emotional ride. The drumming over lays the harp blows so well, and the bass beat makes for a great feel. Well done! The other new cut, "Harmonica Wobble" begins with the bass and drums laying out a groove and then the harp joins the fray in a mix of what is almost classical, Latin, jazz and Delta sounds. This instrumental also sells itself, with the trio winding themselves into a musical vortex of sorts. Howell and Devine get credit for both songs and they are quite good.

Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Write Me a Few Lines" opens the CD. Howell's guitar slides and moans nicely here and the groove is sweet. They stay down home in the Delta with Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen" with Howell moaning and groaning on slide and vocals. They keep it short and sweet, with the electric guitar and almost tribal drums featured throughout. "When You Got a Good Friend" follows the first new track, another RJ cover. I like it, but perhaps the vocals were almost too clean sounding; the guitar makes up for this and is more visceral and gutsy.

Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman" gets taken down perhaps a notch further in tempo than James did it. Howell skips imitating the James falsetto, focusing on a clean vocal presentation and picks out some nice guitar. Devine's drumming here at reminds me at times of a military march, evoking a different sort of picture but it plays out well. Sonny Boy Williamson's "Mighty Long Time" and Muddy Water's "King Bee" are next, and Howell's harp on the former and guitar on the latter are well done. The vocals here and throughout are also good, but again perhaps too "clean." The vocals are more folksy rather than bluesy; not bad at all, but not as guttural as the songs perhaps call for.

Two traditional cuts follow; on "Boats' Up the River" and "Long Haired Doney" the vocals work with their folksy charm. The stick work by Devine is really cool on the latter, too. Jimmy Reed's "You Got Me Running" follows the original instrumental. It shuffles nicely- great guitar work here. The vocals are smooth, slick and appropriate. The traditional "Poor Boy" closes out the set. Howell croons effectively: "I'm a poor boy and a long way from home." The guitar and drumming are primal and gutsy, and Howell and Devine conclude with their trademark approach.

I must say this CD grew on me. The first time through I thought it was just another set of Delta covers packaged up together because they could be. But then I listened to the drums and the guitar work and the harp and the words and it was like a fire growing from a spark to a glow to full flames. These guys are well-honed musicians who have a good approach to their sound. I'd love to see more original stuff from them and get a better appreciation for their own work, but the glimpses in the two new cuts were promising and the covers were really well done. An impressive set of electrified Delta blues!

Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and work with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.

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