By Mark Grabowski
Schoolhouse Rocks! A smile spreading across my face, I realized I had cracked the code, had stumbled onto the moment that people into music know and love: when you listen to something new for the first time and can, with no difficulty, match it up with another tune from the past.
To me, the first real track from Corey Harris’ new CD, Downhome Sophisticate, is a dead-ringer for “I’m Just A Bill” from the mid-70’s TV show Schoolhouse Rocks.
“Frankie Dorris,” the track in question, begins with a seeming homage to George Clinton’s Funkadelic, with its muti-layered “sha-na-na-na” vocals, but when Harris begins singing the verse, he sounds like a higher-pitched version of the animated bill in question. This time, though, the song is about a woman’s plans to get a court settlement “any way that she can” instead of a civics lesson.
But before you write off Corey Harris as a mere imitator of camp, let me tell you this– his new CD is the best that’s come across my desk in a while. It is an eclectic array of styles from straight 12-bar blues to funk to native West African. Harris and his band, The 5X5, who play at Starr Hill Saturday, June 8, seem to have mastered them all, producing catchy and vibrant songs on such varied topics as police brutality, good-for-nothing friends, and money.
Born in Denver Colorado, Harris was early on exposed to jazz, gospel, and R&B– all easily identifiable elements of his present sound. After college, Harris made two trips to Cameroon, which seems to have deeply affected his present-day songwriting style: everything is beat oriented, and some pieces on Downhome Sophisticate are clearly influenced by African Folk music.
Other songs are more in the style of Harris’ first album, Between Midnight and Day, a Robert Johnsonish ode to the blues. On these tracks, his voice takes on the grand expressive style that made that album a critical favorite. But the tracks on this disc that diverge from the blues style are the most impressive. “Santano” has a distinctly Ben Harper feel, with a looping guitar riff and a strong melody that sticks strongly to the beat. The title track features near-screaming vocals and Red Hot Chili Peppers-vintage funk.
Listening to a double CD recorded live at Starr Hill last year makes it easy to predict what the band will sound like this time. The songs they performed last time they visited the Main Street venue don’t feature the worldly writing style Harris shows on his new CD, instead mostly drawing from the blues and a little funk, but they are performed with great passion and skill.
I’m going to the show just to see how the band performs the new material. With a back catalog of the size and worth of Harris, everything they do is bound to please.
Corey Harris and The 5X5 perform at Starr Hill Saturday, June 8, at 9pm. $10.