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Wednesday, June 12, 2002

HIGH NOTES

Corey Harris: 'Downhome Sophisticate'


At one time, rural folks were thought to possess different priorities from people who lived in cities, a contrast that was made clear by the fact that "country music" was only played and listened to by people who actually lived in the country. These days, you're as rural as you want to be, whether you live in a shack on the bayou or a condo in Philly, and anyone who thinks today's country music reflects priorities any different from Barbra Streisand's obviously doesn't listen to it.

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When country blues moved from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, it lost much of its relaxed openness, becoming tighter, constricted, more "urban" in its emotional urgency. Today's young blues artists are mostly urbanites, but 33-year-old Corey Harris from Louisiana has revived and reinvented the rural blues tradition from the inside out. The title of his fifth studio album, "Downhome Sophisticate," describes a rootsy musical intelligence that city folk only wished they could "get crunk with."

Like Macy Gray, whom he sometimes resembles vocally, Harris channels music from an earlier era mainly for its groove and melodic ease, but without making it sound pickled or mannered. Unlike Gray (or almost any other "urban contemporary artist"), Harris sees his influences everywhere, and while Delta blues is the template, the overlay is all sorts of Africa-based motifs, from highlife ("Money Eye") and New Orleans funk ("Frankie Doris") to hip-hop ("Downhome Sophisticate") and Cuban bolero ("Black Maria"). A more direct connection to Africa is explored on "Santoro," the chorus of which features local girls offering up a Malian chant in a dialect that only downhomies will probably get (though the white-on-black violence theme will not be lost on outlanders).

Even more expressive than Harris' voice is his guitar work, whose shape-shifting quality defies easy categorization. Harris' virtuosity is in many ways a function of his band's uncanny ability to sound as if all three members are operating out of a single consciousness. They sound like friends; like people who've spent their entire lives playing this music on the same front porch or in the back of the same greasy roadhouse. Crunk it up.



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