On his Grammy nominated recording Spectacular Class
, Jontavious Willis included a track “Daddy's Dough,” where he did the vocal and played acoustic guitar. He was joined by Andrew Alli, who creates a solid rhythmic thrust with his fine acoustic harmonica accompaniment. That track and one other, “The Blues Is Dead?,” undoubtedly are the first opportunities for many listeners to get acquainted with Alli's considerable talents, developed over the twelve years since he was first attracted to the harp. And now Alli has a new release, Hard Workin' Man
on EllerSoul Records, that will undoubtedly delight blues fans, particularly those partial to traditional electric blues.
Given the current situation, one might think that the harp player would be discouraged by the coronavirus news dominating everyone's attention. Alli has a more philosophical outlook.
“We are in very interesting times. When we look back at this period of time, we may find that this might be a catalyst for a lot of creative endeavors. I think we will hear a lot of great music, and see plenty of great art. When you think back to a song as well-known as “St. James Infirmary,” that was written for a specific reason and time. We have been fortunate up to this point in that we haven't dealt with anything like they did back in the early 1900s.
“As these things unfold, we will see how influential it is on our art and culture. We are being forced to be creative. If this ain't the blues, I don't know what is!”
Alli grew up in a family environment that welcomed a variety of music.
“I was always listening to music. My Mom and sisters were into the performing arts, singing and dancing. I never gave any thought about pursuing music until I was in college, when I heard a guy playing harmonica, busking on a street corner in Richmond, Virginia at a local market. What he was doing really resonated with me, the sound he was getting on the harp.
“After talking to the guy about what he was doing, I went to the local music store to buy a cheap $5 harp. I appreciated all types of music, including blues, but never really gave it a good listen until I started playing the instrument. After tooting a couple notes on it, it opened up a new world of possibilities, that I could be a musician if I wanted to. It felt so good, providing an outlet that I didn't even know I needed”.
Early on, Alli made a promise to himself, that if he was going to take music seriously, he would need to learn to play the instrument the right way. It was important to him to pay homage to the instrument, to work his way back through the history of the harp and blues music.
“Once I started listening to players like Big Walter Horton, Sonny Boy Williamson, and of course Little Walter, I just got sucked in. At that time in my life, it was magical to me, the sounds those guys were making on this little instrument and the possibility that I could even get close to that sound. It was the inspiration to dive deeper into the music, to the point where I was skipping classes at times”.
“Looking back, I realize now that I made a lot of social sacrifices. I spent countless nights at home trying to learn a certain lick or song, or just listening to the music. Eventually I gained a greater appreciation for the blues. Up until then, I did not have the proper context to give it a good listen. The more I got into it, the more it resonated with my life. People used the music as an outlet to talk about life, which made so much sense to me.
“Music is nothing but a reflection of where we are culturally. Whether they want to admit to or not, some people wanted to move beyond blues music because of the connections to a lot of struggles that specifically the African-American people in this country have dealt with. It wasn't that people didn't like or appreciate the music. They just did not want to deal with the troubling history”.
“For me, those issues will always be a part of the music. But the blues is much more than that side of the story. Blues music is a complex thing.
“There are people out there who say the music is nothing more than twelve bars, the I-IV-V pattern, three chords. The reality is that blues is full of subtleties and nuance. My blues forefathers and foremothers were masters of the subtleties of the different styles. If you just look at the form of the music, you will never understand what it really is. You have to be a complete student, constantly learning and listening because there is so much depth to the music”.
Managing to make enough classes to complete his college education, Alli earned a degree in Environmental Science.
“There was a point where I was in-between on what I wanted. But I pushed through. That was what made the most sense. I am a big outdoor person. As a kid, our parents used to lock me and my sisters out of the house all day. It made sense to do something where I could be outside as much as possible. But I consider playing blues to be a privilege. I am still learning to fully appreciate it. It always has something to teach you. I have learned a lot about people, my history. I can't find the words to explain what it means to me in my life and my relationships”.
Learning by listening, Alli developed a good ear for hearing the nuances, which has served him well.
“We all have a natural ear for sounds. And we all know classic songs, something simple like “Happy Birthday.” You can just toot away on the harmonica until you find those notes, the right ones. That is how I started to understand how to play. The notes are there, you just have to find them.
"I would listen to a Little Walter tune, or one from Big Walter. It would take some time to figure out what key harp they were playing in, what position they are in. Once you get that, you feel like you are part of the song. It is rare to find two harp players that sound alike. To me, it is an extension of your voice. Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) sang like he played. He had a strong vibrato and his phrasing was very unique. No one else played it like him. As you listen, you start picking up patterns and styles. How did he get that sound, that tone?”
Additional help came from several area harp players. Alli also attended several SPAH conventions (Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica), where he heard some great players like Ronnie Shellist and Adam Gussow who inspired him early on, musicians who also teach people how to play.
“Being around other musicians, I've developed a sensitive ear, which really helps to break down a song to figure out what is going on, to make the distinction between players. To the general public, the average person will not hear much difference between a well-seasoned player and even a beginner. They hear some notes, and they are content with that. In the world of musicians, there is a higher bar. You have to be able to listen, to put your harp down sometimes to hear the music.
“I used to get so excited about hearing a new song that I would immediately start trying to play along, instead of listening to the whole song, to really think about the groove and the sound they were trying to get. My playing has improved because I am willing to listen more than play at times”.
As his skills improved, the harp player started doing front porch parties for friends, blowing some tunes at 2 am for a few people. He gradually connected with other local players and learned about some opportunities to sit in with blues and jazz musicians.
“That is the natural process when you first start playing out a bit. That is how you get accustomed to how live music is done. I would go down to the local jazz club on Friday night, waiting until midnight when they switch over to blues, and hope I could sit in for a song, hoping I could play a couple twelve bars. Then I would come back the next Friday to do it again”.
Finally getting the urge to start his own band, Alli teamed up with some musicians from the clubs to form the Morganfield Five, a short-lived ensemble. His first real band was the Last Night Blues Band, paying homage to a Little Walter song. There weren't a lot of harmonica players in the Richmond area, so Alli got lots of invitations to play. He did some touring with several singer-songwriter musicians.
“My roommate told about these two guys, Josh Small and Tim Berry, that were playing a benefit show in a local park. He said they played some blues and might let me sit in. As a harmonica player, you always have your harps with you. I dropped by as they were playing a Howlin' Wolf song. It was a relaxed setting. I sat in, and after hearing me, they asked if I wanted to play the rest of the set.
“At the end, they asked me if I wanted to do an East coast tour that was starting the following week, I said let's do it! Next thing you know, we did a European tour followed by an Australian tour. I went to all these places just because I decided to go see if I could play. With any musician, when you put yourself out there enough, the momentum starts to pick up, like the old saying – fake it until you make it. I don't think anyone really “makes it”. But there is certain point where there is enough momentum that you have to keep riding it, especially if you love what you are doing. That is all I have been trying to do”.
Growing up in the Piedmont region, Alli gradually acquired a liking for that style. A fine mentor was close at hand. The duo of guitarist John Cephas and Phil Wiggins on harmonica were internationally known performers of the Piedmont style.
“Some years back I was invited to the Richmond Folk Festival to co- teach some workshops with Phil Wiggins. That was a big honor because he has been a huge influence. When I delved into that style, it sounded like home. Since then, Phil has invited me to be a teacher and performer at the Augusta Blues & Swing up in West Virginia. I believe this will be my fifth year as a part of that event. It is a great place to share and talk about where the music is going”.
Once the Late Night Blues Band had run its course, a new band was formed, Andrew Alli & the Mainline. That group included the late Ivan Appelrouth on guitar, Chaz Hibbler on drums, and Ken Kellner on bass guitar. They started touring and playing more festivals. Applerouth was another musician who had a big impact on Alli's approach.
“Ivan was a really good friend of mine. He was the guy who changed my perspective on the sensitive ear. We would spend nights drinking beer and listening to records all night, not playing, but appreciating what they were doing. I owe so much to him for teaching me that approach. He was a very tasteful player. One big lesson was to take my time when I play. I'm still grappling with the loss of him as he was a very good friend”.
Alli first connected with Jontavious Willis at the Augusta fest three years ago.
“We had talked a bit on the internet. Once I saw him, I wanted to get with him because he plays the stuff I like! He was also a teacher & performer there. We hit it off right away. He is a true student of the music. We are constantly digging up obscure tunes and texting each other new stuff we find. It is really heartening to find someone young who is just as enthusiastic as I am about learning. He is on the same wavelength. He is a busy man, and I have a crazy schedule, but whenever we can combine forces, it is always a good time”.
You often hear musicians talk about the importance of tone. Count Alli as one of them.
“Tone is making one note sound good. It is being able to confidently play a note and be ok with that one note being part of the groove. Some people say tone is a relative thing. Some players try to mask a lack of tone. As far as how the harp can and should be played, there is a certain response that the harmonica likes. A good tone will reflect a strong foundation and good phrasing. Big Walter was a tone master. My man could play one long note over twelve bars. It would sound like it was exactly where it needed to be. He didn't need to play any more, or any less. And that note would be so rich with feeling”.
“All of the old cats were tongue blockers. I do tongue blocking too. Tone on a technical level is about how you are breathing as you are playing the note on the harp. Tongue blocking gives a better tone because you have more of your mouth over the harp. If you don't play the harmonica with the right kind of breathing, it can sound trebly. You want to do everything you can to fatten the sound, widen it, and soften the tone. It also gives you percussive qualities and the ability to play octaves, which you can't do if you don't tongue block.
“Tone is all you! And if you don't have a good tone acoustically, you probably won't have good tone amplified. The amp is not a solution to tone, it is a projection of your tone. One of my favorite records is one by Big Walter, The Soul Of Blues Harmonica. He plays acoustically through the whole album. No amp, playing with his hands, getting all of these different sounds. It's like he was making the point that he could get a good sound, amp or no amp. It is a beautiful album. In some ways, you can't get a lot of sounds and textures playing with a microphone versus playing acoustically. You have to be able to use both hands, so there are some constraints.”
For equipment, Alli favors the old standby, Hohner Marine Band models.
“I have gone full circle, trying everything out. The classic Marine band is fine. Usually they play great right out of the box. I have a few that Joe Filisko has worked on, modified them a bit so there is night and day difference from the stock version. He is not only a fine technician, but also a master harp player. But I kind of like the idea of opening up a new Marine Band and discovering its unique character. They are never going to respond the same. I like that as a challenge because it forces me to be more aware of my playing. It makes you think about your playing more so than how the instrument plays. You have to make adjustments to that. As you learn the natural limitations of the harp and the reed, the Marine Band was what I like to play. If Little Walter and Big Walter made all those amazing records using Marine Band harps, we don't need all of the custom models. It goes to the idea of gear versus player. I like the idea of using what you've got and making it work”.
When it comes to songwriting, the artist has some clear ideas about his process.
“I never bought into the idea that blues is just about being down and out, sad. On a commercial level, the music shouldn't be constrained to just the struggle. There are plenty of happy blues songs out there. Some songs are inspired by a situation, others by a certain groove. One example is the title track for my new album, Hard Workin' Man, that looks at the duality of where I am right now. I am still working a day job, and not ashamed of not playing music full-time yet. Every song has it's own story, tales about what is happening around you in life, delivered with truth and honesty”.
EllerSoul Records was a natural fit, being based in Richmond, plus owner Ronnie Owens is a veteran harp player. The relationship grew over time.
“Once I started playing out, I got to know Ronnie. We had talked about doing a project together. It just took awhile for the timeline to work out. I was proud to be a part of their Blues For Big Walter tribute album from four years ago. There were a lot of great musicians on that one. I was really happy to be part of that project as Big Walter was one of my biggest influences. Now they have released my full-length album. They have always been supportive of what I have been doing. I had been hearing a lot of great records recorded at the Bigtone Studio, which was out in California. Then Jon Atkinson moved to Bristol Virginia. It was like they came to me. It made sense because to me as there is nothing like the analogue sound. It is a warmer, richer sound that you can't get digitally. And those guys are killer musicians in addition to being awesome sound technicians. They play the good shit! I met Carl Sonny Leyland at the Port Townsend fest in Washington. He is a fine piano player. I was so happy that he was down to be a part of the project.
“For a lot of the songs on the album, I was going for that horn sound. I love that rich sax sound you can get from a nice old Masco or Epiphone amp. But I am already scheming to do more acoustic front-porch stuff on my next album. It would allow me to show the variety of sounds that I can play. For this recording I used a 1960s Masco, the old Epiphone, an old Gibson GA30 that I really love, and a little Harmony model. Amps for me have come and gone. You find a new sound that you like, so you play it for awhile. I am playing smaller amps lately as I am trying to turn the volume down. I have really sensitive ears. I don't know if that is from work from running chainsaws all day, but really loud sounds really cut through my ears. I'm not very particular but I do want tube amps. Again, I try to make what I have work.
“I love the music so much. Harmonica players a rare breed. I really appreciate the variety and unique flavors that are coming out from some of the new players. I have nothing but love for all of them”.
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying the sun and retirement. He is the past President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and a former member of the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years - just ask his wife!