Frank Bard,
Harmonica from the Heartland
(Pleasant Run, 2001)

There's no more human instrument than the harmonica. The flute and harp may be more sublime, the guitar and piano capable of greater bombast, but none of them can share a room or hold up a conversation the way a harmonica can. It's an instrument without airs. Sadly, it's been stereotyped as the instrument only of blues artists and front-porch dabblers. Here's Frank Bard, with Harmonica from the Heartland, to show the fools the error of their ways.

Harmonica from the Heartland claims to be "An Instrumental Collection of Tunes from a Variety of Genres," and the claim's not overstated. The songs range from traditionals to show tunes, but they're all songs usually sung. Not a one of them suffers from the lack of a voice.

Heartland may be the first album ever to open by announcing "It's Over." Having expected a harmonica-only album, I was surprised by the addition of a piano. A quick look at the credits straightened me out. The harmonica does not stand alone here. The mood is helped along by a collection of instruments, from the expected banjo and guitar to the unusual mandolin, piano and dobro. The backup instruments and their fine musicians are largely responsible from the great atmosphere of the songs. But the harmonica clearly leads the pack, taking the place of lead vocalist. Its personality shines in "Panhandle Rag," dancing through the song to end with a quick musical twirl that I swear winked at me.

"Muddy Waters," "Sweet Beulah Land" and "Georgia on My Mind" move back into more traditional bluesy-folk fare. The stringwork deserves as much credit for the ambling feel of this song as the harmonica. "Georgia" is perhaps dominated by the harmonica more than any other song on the album, while "Sweet Beulah Land" owes a great deal of its melancholic charm to the backup instruments. All of them will satisfy the traditionalist, but they still have a little individual flair, if only in the flourish of an ending note.

In spite of the sweetness of musing sweetness of the slower songs, I was more captivated by the uptempo music. I immediately replayed the downright perky "Sunny Side of the Street," and I love the jazzy feel of "Coal Miner's Daughter," with the harmonica putting gloss and gravel over the strings. And I'd nominate Bard's version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for an award. It starts out as slow and wistful as Judy Garland could have ever rendered it. As soon as "dreams come true," the tune swings into a more lively step altogether. Guitar and banjo join in with the cheerful outlook, making this more a song of hopes to come than dreams beyond reach.

"Storms Creek" is the liveliest song on Heartland, with quick-fingered strings providing a backdrop for the occasional shouts of the harmonica. Sadly, the harmonica is almost absent from this one, only showing up for the occasional flourish. But it shows back up for the final song, the traditional "Peace In the Valley." Peace is a lovely ending to a conversation, winding down like sweet farewell.

Harmonica from the Heartland is a great album for fans of the harmonica, and a better one for those who think they aren't. Engaging and varied as the best visitor, it should be welcome in any setting.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002

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