Blues Harp Night at SPACE

Eric Noden and Joe Filisko

Eric Noden (left) and Joe Filisko

Did you know that serious harmonica players call their instrument a harp? I did not, but for some reason I find that incredibly cool. This sweet naming scheme leads to events like “Blues Harp Night” which my housemate and I attended last night at SPACE (Society for the Preservation of Arts and Culture in Evanston). The double bill included the duo Joe Filisko and Eric Noden opening for the (what I’m told is legendary) Jim Liban Trio.

First, let’s talk about the venue. SPACE is a fantastic little club. It’s cozy and intimate, upscale and fancy, yet (and maybe this is a product of being outside Chicago city limits) much more affordable (in both ticket and alcohol prices) than a number of dingy bars with stages. It’s got a sweet cabaret/lounge vibe with tables that go up to and surround the low stage and I get the feeling there isn’t a bad seat in the place. (We got there just before the rush and snagged a nice table mid-crowd.) The best thing? They have Goose Island’s Matilda on tap.

Looking at upcoming and recent shows, it seems to cater mostly to jazz, blues, folk, and acoustic acts. I didn’t recognize most of the names, but blues guitarist Sonny Landreth will be playing in June and earlier this month Robyn Hitchcock played as did Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek.

The crowd last night was far older than I’m used to, with many silver heads of hair in the house. (Take note, however, they seemed no less drunk.) A serious survey of the crowd makes me think I was in the bottom 2% age-wise. Geriatrics aside, these folks knew how to hoot and holler and cheer along with the best of ‘em. We were seated next to a particularly boisterous table which included a guy named “Little Boy” Litell who was called out by his nickname during the first set. (Or was it “Big Boy?” I can’t remember now.)

As I said, the opening act was Joe Filisko and Eric Noden. Filisko is a tall, skinny fellow with an earring in his left ear (not in the flappy lobe part, but half-way up the ear) and a tightly pulled-back, but short-ish ponytail. For some reason I kept thinking of Joe Walsh. Throughout the set, he kept using the phrase “true story” which was either a running joke or some unconscious tic, which, either way, was entertaining, and he moved in a distinctive way that I later decided was the rhythm of a music man who never quits counting the beat. Noden was dressed in pure beatnik. He had (no lie) a French jazz Beret and colored glasses. Filisko covered harp and Noden guitar, with vocal duties shared equally between them. While they both claimed a great love for the traditional blues style, they described their own music as country blues. It seemed much more Appalachian (e.g. moonshining, hobos on trains) than Texas (e.g. “my dog ran away,” pickup trucks) which is exactly the way I like my country skewed.

The duo led off the night with a song with the repeated line “I drank way too much whisky last night” which is as good a segue way as any into my take-home point on blues: bluesmen are, for the most part, not poets. I don’t mean that in any way as an insult. Blues (and county blues in this case) expresses human emotion and feeling mainly through the instrumentals. As I will point to later in this post, wordless and breathy oooing and aahhing can be just as or more effective than traditional lyrics. Cheesy lyrics aside, these guys were a lot of fun to watch.

Filisko’s skill on the harmonica is fantastic. I was impressed by how much control he had over such a simple instrument. You often see people with their hands cupped over the front of the harmonica, but this is the first time I really saw the effect of opening and closing hands around the instrument, intermittently muffling and then ripping open the sound, with impressive result. Other things pointed to great skill on the harp; in a couple songs were passages where the sheer speed and intricacy require great breath control, and in a few instances (and this was also true for Jim Liban who came on later) I heard sounds which I never imagined could come out of a harmonica. As an example of this last point, the duo played a song called “IC Central” where Filisko plays the role of a train, from the “chug-chug-chug” down the track to the “whistle ‘a blowing.” The following YouTube clip is from a different event, but it should give you some idea.

Noden was no slouch on the guitar either. In addition to a number of flourishes and quasi-solos during the set, I was particularly delighted with a slow number which Eric introduced as a song he wanted to cut from their CD, but Joe convinced him to keep. Joe was right. Near the middle of the track, the harmonica drops out and the guitar playing becomes so sparse that moments of silence actually become a part of the song. It’s a great touch that crept up on me as we listened, but really struck me hard when I realized it.

Other highlights of the set included a song called “Angry Woman” built around the line “Ragin’ all the time,” (imaging this line coming up from deep inside you, with lots of emphasis on the R’s in RRRRagin’) and the encore “Mountain Dew,” which describes some fantastic brew which seems to cure all your ills. (The song’s narrator gives some to the preacher to cure his wife’s flu.) This song also featured some positively spectacular showmanship by Filisko whereby he held and played his harmonica with his mouth only (hands, literally, on his hips).

The headliners were the Jim Liban Trio. The leader, Mr. Liban, was introduced by Joe Filisko as his personal hero and favorite living harmonica player, and the man has apparently been a big name in the field since the 1970’s. These guys were much closer to the traditional blues vein with Liban on harmonica accompanied by an electric bass and a drummer. Note that I used the word “accompanied.” My beef was that this was not a trio, but a guy with a backup band. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but whereas Filisko and Noden seemed to play off each other, Liban just had others to fill out his sound. Whereas the former played songs, the later seemed much closer to an extended jam session and, though enjoyable, I would say the duo was more fun to watch. I was a bit sad that I never got to see the (probably very good) bassist and drummer get much of their own time.

But I don’t want to be all sour. Jim Liban can certainly play a harmonica and he seemed to have a very dramatic control over his volume, something which I imagine is harder than just blowing harder or softer. The gospel opener “Wade in the River” was mesmerizingly beautiful and the closing number “Popcorn Man” was a happy, jumpy number with nonsense lyrics. Jim’s style was very different from Filisko’s. He used a straight mic the whole time with none of the “waa-waa” hand movements I described above which made the whole thing a bit more homogeneous (frown) than Joe’s style. Liban did however, do a lot of this “yeeeaaah,” “ah-ah-ah” breathing and crooning that can be better than words. It was something approaching scat, but not quite.

For the encore, Jim called up a friend in the audience, Steve Cohen. (Apparently, harmonica players just carry around harmonicas with them all the time. I played tuba in high school, so this seems preposterous, but I guess pocket-sized instruments are a different story.) Cohen played a tune “Parchment Farm” with Liban moving to bass. I’m not sure Jim and the drummer knew the song, but if not, they caught on quickly and Steve was amazing. This was an incredibly upbeat tune that was fun to watch. It was more akin to the openers and I had wished that the Liban Trio set had been more like this overall.

This was a fun night, certainly worth more than the $10 I paid to get in and it’s opened me up to a couple new artists and genres that I’d otherwise not be into. I can’t complain about that.

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