Prejudice is a dangerous and all-too-common trap for music critics. Case in point: This CD, by a white Houstonian calling himself Harlem Slim and playing blues, seemed suspect at first glance. But it is a great joy to report that Harlem Slim handily proves himself deserving of the name. Think John Hammond Jr. and you'll have an idea of what this awesomely talented guitar player is doing: solo and minimally accompanied acoustic and electric blues. Slim's Web site accurately describes his métier as "Delta blues & Piedmont ragtime." It also includes a testimonial from the Reverend Billy Gibbons, a man who knows more than a thing or two about blues guitar. So yes, we are dealing with something special here.
Very special, in fact, when it comes to Slim's stunning agility, which includes not just playing the right notes but investing them with the sort of soulfulness that makes artistry out of what for other players are merely scales and riffs. (Check out his witty final coda on "Delta Thug Blues" for a sweet sample.) He can go from playing sloshy, electric juke-joint slide with the authenticity of Delta masters like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside to dexterously covering some of the best-known songs (and some of the hardest to personalize in any revelatory way) by masters like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. In short, Harlem Slim is a guitarist of uncommon ability and empathy for the blues, in all its permutations. He also manages a fairly effective Delta wail 'n' growl when he sings. So no matter where this Slim hails from, he sure croaks with the genuine sound and feel of the deepest, blackest America.
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Slim also makes the classics sound new, as on his graceful yet deceptively potent telling of "Statesboro Blues," or on his freshly shaved and smart "Terraplane Blues," or on his brief fingerpicked bottleneck instrumental of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," which has a languid holiness. Perhaps he brings no new twist to the blues, à la Kelly Joe Phelps, one of the genre's more interesting newcomers. But Slim's facility and feel are rare treats at a time when too many guitarists seem to think it's about how many notes you play rather than how you play the notes.