in performance: corey harris/ashley cleveland

corey harris.

corey harris.

The promoted menu last night at the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Kentucky Theatre was the blues.  But what unfolded was an unexpectedly specific avenue of blues music, namely a spiritual inspiration ignited by traditional and contemporary gospel.

In the case of blues journeyman Corey Harris, such spiritual inclinations span the globe. His collaborators have included the renowned West African guitarist Ali Farka Toure and New Orleans pianist Henry Butler. His five-song WoodSongs leaned more to the former.

In terms of generalities, the solo setting Harris performed in last night regularly summoned a hushed, lean sound that Toure favored on his best recordings. As a result, a seemingly natural spirituality emerged when Harris dressed a Delta gem like Skip James’ Special Rider Blues with mantra-like guitar phrasing that came right out of the book of Toure.

But the sense of faith was just as profound (and equally unforced) when Harris took to steel guitar for Blind Willie Johnson’s By and By I’m Going to See the King. Here, vocals became a clear, stately howl that more than matched the wiry whine of Harris’ playing.

The remaining three songs – So Good to Me, Blues (a medley that referenced, among others, W.C. Handy and Jimmie Rodgers) and the Carribean-inclined Conquering Lion – came from Harris’ new album, a record that veers closer to contemporary secular soul. But within the solo acoustic framework, last night’s versions sounded wilder, looser and vastly more accepting of the program’s spiritual blues vibe.

ashley cleveland

ashley cleveland

Grammy/Dove winning Nashville song stylist Cleveland, accompanied by husband/guitarist Kenny Greenberg, has regularly rubbed shoulders with such rock vets as John Hiatt and Steve Winwood. But her own spiritually based recordings operate from more contemporary blues terrain, as suggested last night by Don’t Let Me Fall and a rugged take on Samson and Delilah.

Still, the title tune to her new God Don’t Ever Change album threw a kind of righteous curve ball into the program that brought the ageless spiritual Wade in the Water to mind.  Precious Lord Take My Hand, on the other hand, sought out gospel in a vocal spin that recalled such present day blues revivalists as Rory Block.

The music may have had its head and heart in the heavens. But the sense of soul dominate in these performances was full of a blues fire that couldn’t help but sound gloriously earthy.

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