Going out with a bang

This year’s edition of the popular free concert series Downtown After Five concludes this week with a performance by bluesman-and-more Corey Harris and his band The 5×5.

Although grounded in the blues tradition, Harris’s most recent recording, Downhome Sophisticate (Rounder Records, 2002) journeys across the many voices of the African diaspora, from Chicago, the Mississippi Delta and the African-American gospel choir to hip-hop, Afro-Pop and Jamaican reggae, a stylistic range one enthusiastic reviewer characterized as “afro-blues” and “blues-hop.”

Harris’ fourth studio album is an attentively but not heavy-handedly produced atmospheric recording, evoking a friends’ evening jam session in an isolated rural home. It’s a collection of tunes equally suited to drumming along with on the steering wheel during the after-work drive, playing at home as a complement to the crickets and cicadas filtering in an open window on a summer night — or subjecting to a studious, analytical headphones listening session.

Lyrically, Harris focuses largely on Africans and African-Americans, touching on police brutality, the legacy of the slavers’ auction block, and the shared history of “Momma Africa … mother of humanity.”

He sings in the voice of a wild-eyed prophet over the dark and interlacing circular rhythms of “Fire” (possibly the album’s most striking track), observing: “Babylon a crumble/her towers they did tumble/now her guns rumble/everywhere, rumors of war” and issuing a furious rhetorical inquiry: “Why so much bloodshed?/Why many more will fall?” To which he provides the harshly honest answer: “Blood and fire all around the world/and it makes no sense, no sense at all.”

The mood shifts to the other end of the emotional spectrum with “Sista Rose,” a cheery bit of dating advice to a younger sister set to layered, upbeat Afro-Caribbean guitar and horn melodies; Harris considers it his favorite on the album. “It’s a very fun song to play. It’s very danceable,” says Harris, who spoke with Xpress from Guyana. “It’s also a song that travels well. People seem to really feel that tune when I take it to Africa or down here in Guyana.”

“Which one of them want to please you, not tease you, who be for true? … Africa born you/let no man scorn you/yes sister, you a queen, it true/so make you never do what they do,” insists the song’s protective narrator.

Other danceable pieces (like the bluesy “Frankie Doris” and “Money on My Mind”) will no doubt succeed in getting Asheville’s lively crowds moving, as will the title tune, a Delta blues/hip-hop hybrid in which Harris strongly advises, “Downhome sophisticate — better get hip to this.”

“Capitaine,” which challenges “Fire” for biggest impact (albeit by a different emotional route), is a friendly, front-porch acoustic-guitar duet whose intersecting rhythms both soothe and intrigue.

“I’ve been playing music all my life,” says Harris, whose biography includes an impressive range of geo-musical influences. Although she was raised in Denver, Harris’ mother was of solid Southern extraction; so was his stepfather (who had jazz, R&B and gospel musicians in his lineage). After initiating his musical career with kitchen-implement percussion performances, Harris began formal training at age 5 with trumpet lessons; at age 12, he took up the guitar.

As evidenced by his confident handling of the blues, Harris lived for a time near New Orleans, where he developed his strong vocabulary of traditional American forms. But as even the most casual listener to Downhome Sophisticate might suspect, Harris has also traveled far from the deep South — to the even deeper south of Central Africa (specifically Cameroon, from which he returned with a penchant for impressive Afro-pop riffing).

In the past, Harris has performed with musicians as diverse as the styles he handles so competently, among them Billy Bragg, B.B. King, the Dave Mathews Band, Natalie Merchant and Buddy Guy.

Harris will be featured in the first installment of the new PBS miniseries The Blues. That episode, directed by motion-picture luminary Martin Scorsese, will air this winter.

Downhome Sophisticate would easily appeal to both the collector with the Robert Johnson LP carefully positioned on the shelf beside the turntable, the Ben Harper fan looking to branch out in his listening habits, or the teenager who’s been digging Mom and Dad’s Graceland CD and is curious to hear more of the world-music sound but not ready to tackle the mysterious names in the Putumayo catalog.

It’s equally easy to imagine Corey Harris and The 5×5 inspiring the full range of Downtown After Five attendees — whether with beer in hand, child on shoulders, or loved one in close embrace — to get up and enjoy dancing and listening away the last warm Friday evening of the year.

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