GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Guitarist Chris Vandercook and harp player Mark Prados get warmed up for their Saturday gig, "Hoodoo Man Blues."
Saluting the blues-harp masters
Of the many roads traveled by blues players, once you're off the county blacktop and back onto city streets, all roads seem to lead to Chicago. Once you're there, downtown and in the dark of night, with the club lights gleaming off rain-slick sidewalks, you'll know you're at Little Walter Jacobs' place by the mournful sound of a troubled man bleeding onto his instrument.
'Hoodoo Man Blues'
Featuring Mark Prados with the Chris Vandercook Band
Place: Atherton Performing Arts Studio, Hawaii Public Radio, 738 Kaheka St.
Time: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Admission: $20 ($17 for HPR members and $10 students)
No one less than the noted guitarist Ry Cooder called Jacobs the most influential blues player of all time, and Jacobs did it with a little metal box filled with reeds, the humble harmonica. Jacobs was the first instrumentalist of any stripe to use amplified distortion in music, and his influence has colored virtually everything you hear today that's in the shade of blues.
That Little Walter died at 37 after a drunken fistfight, a scarred, broken, angry man who waved pistols around during gigs, well, that's the way a bluesman becomes a blues legend.
Right about the time Jacobs died, in the late '60s, Honolulu teenager Mark Prados was doing his homework, discovering that the glorious honking solos played by the white Chicago harmonica god Paul Butterfield were a direct conduit to Little Walter.
"I bought the album 'Little Walter Boss Blues Harmonica,' and it changed my life," says Prados. "I dropped out of school and listened to blues records every second I wasn't at work -- they were my breakfast, lunch and dinner."
PRADOS BECAME known in Honolulu for his own blues band, Mojo Hand, led by his distinctively soulful harp playing. He's teaming up with skillful guitarist Chris Vandercook for "Hoodoo Man Blues" Saturday night, a salute to Chicago's blues harp masters, ably assisted by guitarist Joey Wolpert, bass player Vance Keever and drummer Alvin Cameros.
The show will be wall-to-wall Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson, Shakey Horton, as well as Little Walter, and it's such a rich mine of blues virtuosity that Prados wishes there was time for James Cotton and others.
He'll be using a '50s-era mike and a 1950 Fender Deluxe amplifier to grab that authentic sound. "Even so, I don't place too much emphasis in gear. The harp is an acoustic instrument, so all your chops have to be acoustic to begin with. The amps just shade the tone."
He mostly plays Hohners, but notes that his first harmonica cost $3.64 in 1972 and they go for as much as $35 today, "and the quality control isn't as good." Which might explain why he collects antique harps.
Vandercook, who can play anything, cut his blues teeth on a best-of album by Muddy Waters in the early '60s, a record that featured, naturally, Little Walter. "I got to know a lot of great harp players in Chicago at that time," says Vandercook, who commuted from nearby Madison, Wisc. "Both towns had a great blues scene, and I got to know Luther Allison well, who advised me when I started playing myself."
His main influence, though, was Robert Junior Lockwood -- "Aw, he taught EVERYONE!" -- and Vandercook points out that playing blues guitar with a harp player is a different kettle of fried catfish.
"You have to have a pretty good chord vocabulary; you're comping like a jazz piano, sending ideas back and forth to the soloist," explained Vandercook. "Think Miles Davis and Bill Evans, trading jazz licks.
"Some of the Chicago tunes of that era need a real harmonica virtuoso to pull it off. Luckily, we have Mark!"