Hard Workin’ Man
Emerging harmonica sensation Andrew Alli hails from Richmond, VA, the same area of his mentor, the Piedmont harp master, Phil Wiggins. Alli not only blows his blues harp in an intense, county rooted style, he can sing with passion too. He’s a young cat with an old soul. Allie has studied the greats. His live shows apparently can transport you back to Big Walter, Little Walter, Junior Wells, and Sonny Boy Williamson. In fact, readers on these pages may be familiar with Alli through his appearance on the EllerSoul Big Walter tribute album, Blues for Big Walter. Alli did two songs on the album, “Evening Shuffle” and “Easy II,” surrounded by nine other of today’s greatest harp players including Kim Wilson, Steve Guyger, Bob Corritore, Mark Hummel, Sugar Ray Norcia, Mark Wenner and more. To be included in their company, is a testament to Alli’s skills.
To complement Alli’s old school approach, the guitarist who loves to play through vintage equipment, Big Jon Atkinson, not only plays guitar and bass on Hard Workin’ Man, Alli’s debut as bandleader, but did the engineering, mixing and mastering as well. Atkinson also tours regularly with Kim Wilson. Alli’s backing quintet also has Carl Sonny Leyland on piano, Danny Michel or guitar and either Devin Neel or Buddy Honeycutt on drums. Nine of the dozen are Alli originals, either instrumentals or vocal tunes. He covers Harmonic George Smith’s “Good Things,” Big Walter Horton’s “Walters Sun” and Little Walter’s “One More Chance.” Like the great classic blues records, each track runs for two-three minutes.
Alli’s mission is to attract a younger audience, and he’s been able to build a loyal fan base in the Richmond area and played to great reception at festivals such as West Virginia’s Heritage Blues Festival. Alli performs in both a duo and with a band. His duo acoustic partner, the equally talented singer/songwriter and guitarist Josh Small, and the two continue the long tradition of Piedmont and Tidewater acoustic blues guitar/harmonica duos, (yes, in the tradition of Cephas and Wiggins)Alli also has had a full band, Andrew Alli and the Mainline, that plays mostly Chicago blues.
Alli, now 33, began playing harmonica when he was 21, having discovered harmonica before he really discovered the blues. Once he did, however, as mentioned, he took a deep dive. To quote www.countryblues.com, here is Alli explaining how he approaches blues and harmonica, “I’d say early on I instantly fell in love with Big Walter Horton. I think for many reasons, but what I really got from his playing was his subtlety and many nuances. When you hear a harmonica player talk about their favorite players or songs, it tends to be more of amplified stuff. I was drawn more to what these guys were doing with their hands and how you can roll the sound with cupping. Big Walter was absolutely the master. His playing definitely was one of the biggest influences on me. Of course I took a lot from all the other greats – Little Walter, Junior Wells, Frank Floyd (I and II), George Marcus Smith. I’ve been playing a lot more chromatic harmonica, and that’s a completely different world. Relatively speaking, there aren’t too many chromatic players out there doing the real blues. There’s a ton of people playing the diatonic but there’s only a handful playing the real good chromatic blues. I’ve had the fortune to meet a lot of guys that actually had played with Big Walter and met him. Everyone says he was the best. He could play so softly and so innocently – but he could also be very aggressive and angry when he wanted to. He didn’t overplay. That’s the one thing I’ve taken from his playing is leaving space for all those notes to sink in. Anyone can play any note, and it’s the least amount of notes you can play and still get a strong message across – is what I took from that and really try to focus on when I play…”
You’ll hear both the diatonic and the chromatic on Hard Workin’ Man as well as some of Alli’s influences. Yet, more than anything, you’ll hear his own style, which melds Peidmont, country blues, and just hints of Chicago. It would be hard to miss with his supporting cast, especially Atkinson. Dig in and realize that this young harp player should be around for many years to come.
- Jim Hynes