Dancin' fools: Harris wows 'em after 5

Corey Harris and the 5X5
at Fridays After 5
August 19

Though the sky looked dark as tropical storm Bonnie theoretically drew near, the mood I was in last Friday as I walked to the Downtown Mall made the prospect of getting rained on just icing on my moldy old cake. But alas for my temperament, the sky held out for Corey Harris and the 5x5 in the Dog Days of Summer Music Festival at the amphitheater, treating the good crowd of parents and yuppies to a jam-heavy set interspersed with fabulous blues numbers.

I've seen Harris twice at venues around town, and I wondered what changes, if any, he would make to his impressive set for an outdoor performance. But as I began to listen, the tweaking was obvious– in place of the clever blues and world beat numbers that have composed much of Harris' set in the past, Friday's performance was heavy on the instrumental interplay, with one chord change lasting for minutes on end, as the crowd of dancers and onlookers shook their approval.

Composed of Harris on guitar and vocals, Victor Brown on bass and backing vocals, Darrell Rose on percussion, and Johnny Gilmore on drums, the group displays amazing virtuosity. They're all well past the point of just playing well, concentrating now on transcending the limitations of their instruments. Sporting what appeared to be an Ibanez guitar from 1985 (a favorite of shredders everywhere) Harris played sparse licks throughout the entire performance, with nary a complete 6-string chord to be heard.

Starting off with a reggae-flavored tune, Harris brought out his Wawa pedal for the song's "waka-waka..." intro before descending to playing on the song's off beats. When he chose to keep his mouth closed, his guitar aligned with the bass riff, as island-flavored background percussion marched the song on to Corona commercial heights. Next up was a jammier tune that basically consisted of two chords, for which Harris played sustained guitar chords for pretty much all of the song's four minutes, peering at the crowd through thick sunglasses.

"Sister Rosa," from Harris's Downhome Sophisticate, finally got me going with its New Orleans tinged world beat vibe. The crowd seem to dig the tune's up-beat sound as well, as the number of dancers down in front increased by about 30 percent. Harris's voice strayed onto many melodic patterns while the backing instruments kept the same sequence going, one of many things that reminded me why I regard him as one of the best musicians I've ever seen live.

Slower blues numbers put a damper on at least some of the crowd's will to move, but for many– notably a gentleman dancing alone to the pumped-in R&B an hour before the show started– nothing could stop their wandering feet.

Corey Harris and the 5X5