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Just the Basics

From the beginning, the harmonica has been one of the basic tools of the blues -- and for good reason: It's readily affordable, easily portable and relatively simple to learn. Its distinctive, reedy tone, rendered by both exhaling and inhaling, seems especially right for the genre. It can honk like a horn one minute and wail like the most anguished human voice the next.

Historically speaking, the early blues-harp masters hailed from the Mississippi Delta region. Many of them ended up in post-World War II Chicago, where they helped define the city's influential, hard-driving blues sound. James Cotton is one of the genre's surviving stalwarts. Born in the Delta town of Tunica, Mississippi, Cotton first played professionally as a child, accompanying his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson, on the King Biscuit Time radio program. He later honed his chops gigging regionally with Howlin' Wolf and others before debuting as a 19-year-old frontman on recordings for the Sun label.

In 1954, Cotton joined the Muddy Waters Band and relocated to Chicago. His collaborations with Waters continued on and off over two decades, cementing his reputation worldwide as a hard-toned harp-blaster. By the '70s, he'd teamed up with Johnny Winter and other blues-rockers, finding a whole new audience in the process.

In recent years, Cotton has mainly fronted his own touring band. He came back from throat surgery in 1993 to release two CDs on the Verve label; the more recent, Deep in the Blues, earned him a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album in 1997. A brilliant production, it wisely featured Cotton with minimalist acoustic accompaniment, offering what is likely to be his last performance as a singer. His voice reduced to an eerily effective rasp, Cotton emerged from those sessions with his pipes apparently shot for good.

To this day, though, Cotton is still a force to be reckoned with as a player. At a performance at last spring's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a chair-bound Cotton led his band through an impressive survey of vintage electric blues. So don't expect any singing -- or dancing for that matter. Just dig the harp.

-- Roger Wood

James Cotton performs Friday, October 30, at Billy Blues, 6025 Richmond. Showtime is 9 p.m. Tickets are $25$50. For info, call 266-9294.

Janet Jackson -- A clever way to start off might be to wax nostalgic about the crush I had on Janet Jackson when she played Penny on Good Times. Truth is, though, the '70s TV Jackson I had the real crush on was an Angel by the name of Kate. But, hey, times have changed. Sure, Kate's still fine. But ever since Janet went nasty, her very public sexual awakening has demanded attention. Then again, name one insatiable sex kitten singing about bisexuality and S&M who doesn't. How did Janet go from sweet little Penny to being such a handful? Frankly, who cares? Fact is, her brand of funky, big-production dance pop is well written, well crafted, and -- yep -- damn sexy. On Friday and Saturday, October 30 and 31, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Showtime 8 p.m. Tickets $25.25$100.25. 629-3700. (Paul J. MacArthur)

Martin Sexton -- Eclecticism isn't always seen as an asset -- especially in the big leagues. But it looks like the big leagues will have to live with Martin Sexton -- for a while, at least. With his untiring work ethic and unbelievably pliable voice, this thoroughly mixed-up Boston troubadour has won over the industry the way it oughta be won over: from the ground up. And even with a sweet deal from Atlantic in his back pocket and commercial coaching from Don Henley producer/creative foil Danny Kortchmar, Sexton can't shake the urge to wander. Breathtakingly vast and shot through with populist humanity, Sexton's new CD, The American, doesn't feel like the proverbial "long-anticipated major-label debut"; it simply feels like Martin. And Martin's a guy with a lot of interests, from folk to jazz to blues to rock to soul to cabaret pop to cowboy theme music. He has the means to sound like Levon Helm one minute and Aaron Neville the next. But mostly, he just sounds like himself -- whoever that is. On Sunday, November 1, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Showtime 6:30 p.m. Tickets $12. 528-5999. (Hobart Rowland

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