Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers kicked off the Newburyport Bluescruise, Boat Cruises On The Merrimack River series last Saturday night. With a penchant for old time blues and a motivation to play them hard, EH&TDS cranked out gritty, tasteful renditions of old blues classics as well as their original material based on the older blues forms. Playing these tunes on board the Captain’s Lady III was a masterstroke.
Cruising along the Merrimack River for three hours last Saturday evening, the band sounded good as their audience were treated to green summery vistas. Rock cliff islands, old cottages, old houses, and rolling greenswards passed by the boat cruisers’ eyes as the musicians entertained.
EH&TDS opened their first set by shouting “Welcome to the boar” then started right into “Kokomo Me Baby,” a sung Erin Harpe lead with her sexy coos, her assertive electric guitar lines, augmented by thumping bass, solid drum smacks, and whistling bleating, harmonica lines. Harpe’s voice as a lead vocalist grew darker, huskier as she went along, often capturing the verisimilitude of 1930s and 1940s blues and jazz torch singers while her look and outfit remind of a film noir starlet.
Marked by a professional steadiness and a purposeful stride, EH&TDS made clear right off the bat they are a top notch band in the area blues scene. The band next launched into a bouncy blues version of their Lovewhip song “Lovewhip Blues.” Lovewhip is the name of their Afro pop ju ju band that features the exact same lineup of EH&TDS. Punctuated by a pulsating groove, this tune practically hop scotched around the surface of the deck, motivating several to move their feet.
The band’s theme song “Delta Swing” found harmonica man Matt Prozialeck letting loose sweet intervals of shiny notes thickened with the Chicago influence of playing as many as possible at once. His heavy dose of notes kept alight an interesting contrast with Harpe’s down tempo crooning, her drawling vocal.
With an emphasis on the backbeat, the band’s “Voodoo Blues” moved more of the boat’s passengers to dance to the jumpy motions of this number. Eventually, Harpe swaggered her way through the beautifully down tempo “Charles River Delta Blues.” Harpe’s voice sharply cut through the soundscape with a deep sexy soulfulness as her voice carried the song with the force of a pendulum swing.
The band’s take on “Pick Poor Robin Clean” took the audience back to a time when blues was played at juke joints and Victrola record players. Prozialeck’s harmonica and Harpe’s handy gazoo recreated the old time blues sound as the rhythm section’s rollicking groove kept things thick with charging momentum.
At one point, crossing blues with reggae, the group offered a motivational beat on the electric guitar and harmonica. The guitar and harp built upon a hefty, thumpy beat that made the entire band, and every one board the boat, part of one gorgeous groove, especially bass guitar man Jim Countryman who looks much sexier since last year’s surgery. The band also managed to rearrange John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” into a gritty, bopping, jumping mid-tempo dance fest. Thank God for any band that can do something interesting and fun with this bar band cliché. As an added treat, Harpe displayed some of her high pitched vocal chops on the close out.
Another bluesy take on a Lovewhip hit kept the dancers dancing before they went into a Memphis Minnie tune, offering tasty electric guitar licks, and some really purty high-pitched harmonica lines. Erin Harpe’s lead guitar work has grown by leaps and bounds lately, though she’s likely been studying the lead work for a while. She works those effect pedals like nobody’s business and plays with up tempo flair.
A blues arrangement of their Lovewhip song “Gimme That” allowed Prozialeck to blast his harmonica with a more aggressive form of the great American genre. His chops included echoing lines, brisk stop and start motions, and a fierceness that harmonica player don’t often get to display. Additionally, Harpe’s cutsie timbre coated “Gimme That” with a candy like vocal, another nice touch on the blues boogie number that moved at a disco pace.
Harpe cooed and handclapped her band into the down tempo joy ride, “Good Luck, Baby.” Its peppy, upbeat island freedom got the on board crowd to sway their sway to its breezy charms. Harpe shook her hips and got everybody on board to shake theirs as well when she soothed them with Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips,” a timeless classic covered by many in blues and rock and roll. Here, Harpe joined the rhythm section with her feisty guitar licks while Prozialeck played the enticing harmonica line. He blew a lilting, melodic sharpness out through his microphone, one that made some think he might give himself whiplash.
Harpe was all class on “Winnie The Wailer,” her eloquent phrasing sounding like to belonged to a better time in American music. Svelte, velvety, silky smooth, her vocal caressed the lyrics as gracefully as a white glove sliding down a fancy banister. Similarly, the band’s performance of “Chauffer Blues” was as much a treat for the ears as for all of those dancing feet.
“Fishin’ Blues,” as popularized by Taj Mahal, featured more of the snappy electric guitar and harmonica work. Drummer Devin Vaillencourt kept it empowered with solid work on all of his pieces, especially the tom tom. It was another good night for Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers. Only last Saturday night, they played for the first time as a band on a blues cruise boat ride. The boat thing seems to work for them, as they played well and everybody on board the well attended show was having a very good time. Granite State Blues Society board member Mike Bocuzzo was on board and was one of the happiest revelers on deck.
For tickets to the next two Newburyport River Blues Cruises, please go to: