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Wednesday, April 16, 2003


She's got them blues good

Special to The Japan Times

When Natsuko Miura puts one hand on her hip, holds the other in the air and belts out, "I got my mo-jo wor-kin'!" you'd have a hard time imagining this young powerhouse ever had any doubts about what she was doing -- the voice, that body language . . . she's lethal. But her first experience onstage, harmonica in hand at an open mike night about five years ago, didn't go so well.

News photo
Natsuko Miura and pianist Naomi Yamashita

"When it was my turn to play, I totally froze up," she recently confessed over a beer. "I couldn't do anything. I left the stage and went home and cried."

Hard to imagine that. Earlier this year, during a gig at Hoochie Coochie, a tiny basement dive in Daikanyama, Miura cranked out two sets of blues to a wedged-in crowd of hard-core blues fans. Wearing a genie's cap, complete with crown jewel, Miura presided over the club in an appealingly defiant way, holding her chin up as she sang and listening to her band with pleasure.

Between sets, a clutch of middle-aged blues otaku were especially excited about Miura. Speaking for his buddies who were gathered around a small table crowded with beer glasses, one explained, "We're big fans. We come to all her gigs," before launching into an appreciative discussion of guitarist Grant Green.

Opening the second set, the band played a version of "Sonny" in a way reminiscent of Pat Martino's stunning interpretation of the song. But while Martino's version is intensified by his multiple guitar crescendos, Miura's harmonica and vocals give her version a bluesier, more longing edge.

Asked how she goes about choosing the songs in her repertoire, she says, "I play whatever appeals to people's emotions. At one point I thought, Do I want to sing blues, jazz, soul? Wait! I can do anything as blues." She turns her head to the side, chin up, thinks a moment, then turns back and says, "Whatever I feel as blues, I'll sing as blues."

Miura has her idols -- James Booker, Johnny Johnson, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Carol King -- but perhaps her biggest influence came firsthand from a pair of monthlong visits to Chicago. Hanging around such South Side clubs as the Artist's Lounge, Kingston Mines and Buddy Guy's Legends, Miura immersed herself in the best music she could find. As her face became known around the clubs, she was invited onstage to jam, once by Buddy Guy himself.

But as valuable as these two trips were, what Miura learned on them serves only as the departure point for her music, not the end. "The feeling and sensation I gained while performing in Chicago helped establish the foundation of my music and supported my musical style," she explains. "But I want to express blues as what Japanese people might feel as blues."

At a couple of points in the show, Miura turned to the other woman in the band, Naomi Yamashita, and shouted, "Gimme some piano!" Yamashita's loose, inviting vibe is a natural counterpoint to Miura's intensity. Like Miura, she has her canon of influences -- Dr. John, The Band, James Booker -- and plays with a confidence that comes from having made a similar pilgrimage to the places where the music lives, a journey of nearly two months that wound through New York City, Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans.

"I liked New Orleans the best," Yamashita says. "I met a lot of musicians, including Alan Toussaint, and they taught me to enjoy and feel music, not study it. Up until then I hadn't been so confident about my ability to perform, but after being with those people I think I've become stronger as a performer."

Miura says that she experiments with different guitarists, bass players and drummers but hopes to keep Yamashita in the band.

"I like having different musicians play in the band because it can change how I play the same songs. But I want to keep playing with Yamashita. I like her feeling."

Asked about that genie cap and the crown jewel, Miura at first can't remember it -- apparently her collection of headwear is large. "Oh yeah, that. I bought that at a thrift shop," she says after some thought. "I like to have different concepts for different shows. I was doing an Arabian thing for a while; now I'm into fashion from the '20s. I really get into different fashions to create a fantasy for the shows -- I might even wear a kimono sometime!"

Now there's a mojo that might just work on you.

Natsuko Miura: April 19 at Hoochie Coochie, Daikanyama. Entrance fee: 1,000 yen. For more information, call (03) 5489-3728 or see the Web site: www1.tmtv.ne.jp/~hoochie.

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