Mississippi Blues in the middle of the Tel Aviv winter! Alvin Youngblood Hart opened the Winter Acoustic Edition of the Tel Aviv Blues Festival #4 at the Barby on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 – and it was a wonderful experience. What he can do with a guitar is mesmerizing, and I know, because I sat almost literally at his feet, right up by the stage (the advantage of coming seriously too early to a show) and watched every move. The moment I heard that intoxicating slide guitar, I was captivated. Mama may “not allow no stayin’ out all night long” but I could have stayed and listened all night…
Hart was born in Oakland California, but his roots are in Mississippi, and every summer as a child they’d drive the 2,000 miles to visit Big Mama (aka his grandmother). When he’s singing Big Mama’s Door – and he did, and I’m so glad because it’s a favorite of mine – it’s real. Hart is inscribed in the blues tradition of listening and learning the classics and standards, making them your own, and then adding your own songs and your way of playing, to be passed on to the next generation. It’s something you can feel as he’s singing, whether it’s Leadbelly’s When I Was a Cowboy, or his moving rendition of Tampa Red’s Stop and Listen. You can hear the layers of time, and feel Hart’s warm voice and strong presence in the songs.
He sang before a crowd of hundreds as if we were all gathered around the fireplace, or sitting on someone’s back porch. He did incredible things with the guitar, and made it all feel easy, natural, as if he was born with a guitar in his hands. What he did with Charlie Patton’s Pony Blues still has me flying. As he sang, each song had a history, and stories of his family and blues lore were interwoven with the songs, like the story of his friendship with Henry Townsend (1909 – 2006), that began with a Hart writing a letter to the blues musician. When he talked about learning a song from a scratched record borrowed from the library, something that despite the vinyl renaissance, children today may never experience, there was a sense of childhood memories that have become a chapter in history.
The harmonica came out for City Lights, and when it did, the audience applauded. Hart seemed to be surprised, saying, “I never heard anyone clap for a damn harmonica before,” and someone from the audience called back: “Welcome to Israel.” Somehow mournful, full of longing, a yearning for something that feels like it’s always out of reach, this song has a rock history, as Roy Loney and Cyril Jordan, founders of the Flamin’ Groovies, recorded it on their album Teenage Head in 1971.
Originals like A Prophet’s Mission and Big Mama’s Door merged with blues classics like Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie’s When the Levee Breaks and Charlie Patton’s Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, each song with its own hue and texture, coming together in a rich tapestry of sound, woven on the air by the artist, bearing the imprint of his presence, Alvin Youngblood Heart.
Image credit: All photographs by MuperPHOTO, and may not be reproduced or used in any other format without written permission of the photographer.