Four times, now, I've started this CD just to hear the effortless little woebegone slide in Corey Harris' voice as he sings, "High fever got me-e-e." It's not a fearful, pneumonial plea, but it perfectly imparts the considerable discomfort of chickenpox.
Harris is a storyteller. After the first 50 or so times waiting for the "me-e-e," I got used to the earnest two-trombone and tuba intro with the National Steel slathered over them as tastefully as sweet butter on a hot biscuit. Eventually, I even understood how the melody suggested the complex and original twining of these unexpected instruments, although you would never suspect how the actual tune takes shape based on the opening. It joins the rest of the song as almost a descant.
By the second track, it was less of a surprise to find Harris singing "Frankie And Johnny" like it was a brand new song, the instrumentation combing a minor-mode weep on slide with percussion suggesting a horse that can't dance and a Chicago blues bassline that could have come from two songs with completely different tempos.
In short, this is blues like you've never heard it before, which is to say there is not much that's predictable in these 17 tracks. For example, the third tune, "Berry Owens Blues", is one you'll remember from an old field recording, except that Harris just wrote it. He cut it with the grain of tracks covering Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Memphis Minnie and Big Maceo Marriwether, cooking them all with his own bouquet of seasonings aged from his childhood devotion to Hee Haw and Soul Train, and from a post-college sojourn in Cameroon, yet wrapped in the mystical essence of his New Orleans home.
Harris' original take on the truth of country blues led Billy Bragg to tap him for a project scoring lyrics Woody Guthrie wrote in the 1950s. He'll join Bragg and members of Wilco in recording the songs for an album tentatively scheduled for a late 1998 release. He's a fine choice for the project: With his soulful voice and visceral guitar playing, Harris clearly is a master at giving lost music new life.