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Micah Blue Smaldone is a white boy from Maine who plays the blues. He doesn’t sound like Jonny Lang or Eric Clapton; Smaldone could be straight out of Mississippi, circa 1936. He’s got great finger-picking skill, and even changes his singing voice to sound old-timey. This could be a problem for your typical blues fan. As blues scholar Elijah Wald points out in his new book, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, "It is common to hail blues artists not for their technical skill or broad musical knowledge, but rather for their ‘authenticity.’ "
Wald actually says that this obsession with authenticity is wholly misguided: "Hard as it is for modern blues fans to accept, the artists we most admire often shared the mass tastes we despise, and dreamed not of enduring artistic reputations but of contemporary pop stardom."
So put the notion of "authenticity" out of your mind (blues listeners in the ’30s certainly weren’t thinking about it) and see if you don’t start tapping your feet and humming along. On his debut, Some Sweet Day (Northeast Indie), Smaldone covers a lot of ground — from the Mississippi Delta to urban St. Louis on up into the rutted back roads of Appalachia. Listen to how his fingers tug you gently through the lazy, twisting muddy waters on "Boats up the River." Or how, on "Pine Needle Rag," he recalls scenes of a turn-of-the-century carnival or vaudeville show in a darkened theater. Listen to the way his frantic trills on "Root Hog or Die" help capture the feeling of a poor farmer kid wandering around a big, bustling city for the first time.
As with the popular blues artists of the pre-war era, Smaldone is a talented musician able to play many different styles, from country blues to ragtime to folk. It’s his clear passion for the music, and his selection of material that translates into an emotional experience for the listener.
It’s fitting that Wald’s book just came out; not only is it a great survey for blues beginners, but a bomb that explodes all the romantic notions we have about race, class, and the creation of the blues at the crossroads. In that way it makes a great companion piece to Some Sweet Day, an album that raises similar scholarly questions, while at the same time strumming the blues in your own heart.
Josh Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Micah Blue Smaldone plays a CD-release party Feb. 16 at Stillhouse Studio Theatre, in Portland. Call (207) 879-5498.
Issue Date: February 13 - 19, 2004
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