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O.C. CD REVIEWS : Juicy Wit and Harp Licks on Harman's Latest

August 14, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two of Orange County's most experienced blues figures, traditionalistJames Harman and blues-rocker Mike Reilly, have come calling with new CDs. Ratings range from * (poor) to **** (excellent), with three stars a solid recommendation.

*

James Harman Band

"Black & White"

Black Top

Allow them only the strength of their musicianship and their mastery of blues tradition in its many facets, and James Harman and his oft-changing but always talented backing ensembles would merit a place of honor on the national roots-music scene.

But Harman accepts no such limitations. On his fourth album in five years, the Huntington Beach-based dean of Orange County blues continues to use the genre not just as a vehicle for vibrant playing and his own irrepressibly entertaining personality, but as a playground for a lively wit. He isn't content to rehash the same old themes and grooves that keep many a respected blues outfit going; instead, he lets his quipster's knack for wordplay and his storyteller's imagination run wild, with engaging results.

The musicianship is, in fact, sufficient on its own to make "Black & White" worthwhile. This is Harman's second album with the still teen-age Robby (Sugar Boy) Eason as his guitar-playing sidekick, and the kid continues to prove that kid is not the right word for him. Eason is an already mature talent who has the stuff to be the next Jimmie Vaughan.

Like the former Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist (and older brother of the late Stevie Ray), Eason is a versatile player who exudes authenticity at every turn, who plays with an absence of flash and an abundance of taste, economy and authority.

Harman throws everything at him, from the Latinized rhythms of "Too Right to Run" and the rock 'n' roll of "Hollywood Girls" (which sounds like a ZZ Top song without the high-gloss turbo-sheen) to the jump-blues, funky stuff and swampy R&B that crop up elsewhere, and Eason sounds right at home.

The harmonica-playing Harman and his young guitar-slinger show how well they've come to work together in the instrumental break of "Sometimes (the Rules Just Don't Apply)," sprinting like a champion relay team as Eason hands off the lead to his boss without a break in the solo's rapidly vibrating instrumental tone.

The album finds Harman getting in plenty of juicy harp licks (he declares, credibly, in the album notes that his fat, slinky solo in "Too Right to Run" is "my favorite harp part I've recorded since 1964--really!").

A new rhythm section, drummer Lee Campbell and bassist Joey Leaon, plays masterfully, and Fred Kaplan takes a fine guest turn on piano. All these assets are marshaled wonderfully by Harman and his longtime co-producer Jerry Hall, who somehow recapture the rawness and immediacy of a mid-'50s Chess release without making it sound like a self-consciously archival exercise.

The album's extra value comes from the playfulness in the songwriting and Harman's colorful commentary on human foibles. He isn't one to crank out yet another "my baby left me" blues. Instead, in "Cold Tile Floor," he has his baby leave him passed out in the bathroom, having turned the air conditioner onto "high cool" to make sure he will awake shivering, and get the message that their relationship has gone into the deep freeze.

Harman has tried for unifying themes, or at least thematic hooks, on his recent albums, and a chunk of "Black & White" is devoted to proclaiming and exploring the virtues of integrity and simplicity, of being upfront.

In the comical "Cut to the Chase," Harman, an Alabama native whose homespun Southernisms are always a delight, demolishes a slick, phony, incessantly jawboning business sharpie:

Do you think I'm green, just fell off the turnip truck?

Are you messin' with my mind, or after my last buck?

But Harman has been around long enough to know that much as we'd like to live in a clearly marked world of black and white, it's not likely to happen. The gritty Southern-soul "Sometimes" acknowledges that life is full of anomalies and things that don't add up, and that maybe it's better that way.

At more than an hour, "Black & White" could have used some pruning, and its peak moments don't reach quite as high as those on last year's "Cards on the Table." But as Harman proceeds along a bluesman's path where the foremost rule is to keep on keepin' on, he has produced another keeper.

* The James Harman Band plays Saturday at 9:30 p.m. at Harbor Lights Brewing Co., 24921 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point. $5. (714) 240-2060.

*

Mike Reilly Band

"Caught in the Act"

Crow Magnum Records

There's something a little suspect about the "Southern rock" and "blues rock" styles. Yeah, the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd are cool, but a lot of their imitators' stuff seems geared to folks who are mainly interested in getting so tanked or fried that they can do little more than stand up (with effort) and scream "Boogie!"

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