Paul Oscher,
Down in the Delta
(Blues Fidelity, 2005)

Though born in Brooklyn, usually a location passed over in the genre's historical geography, Paul Oscher has blues credentials to defy even the illest-intentioned critic. As Muddy Waters' harmonica player, he was the first European-American musician to play in that fabled band. He even roomed in Muddy's Southside-Chicago basement with legendary blues pianist Otis Spann. Beyond that, he's performed or recorded with an impressive-unto-startling variety of blues giants: from Son House and John Lee Hooker to T-Bone Walker and Magic Sam, and a whole lot more between and besides. Also a vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist, Oscher is one talent not to be trifled with.

If you love the deep, gruff, no-quarter-asked-or-given stuff, Down in the Delta is as advertised: what Mississippi Fred McDowell (yes, Oscher has backed him up, too) liked to call the straight and natch'l blues. It's recorded right, too: live, no overdubs. The cuts are either solo exercises or small-band numbers, tackling expertly chosen material from Sonny Boy Williamson I, Robert Lockwood Jr., Leroy Carr and Robert Johnson, a few originals and some happy surprises: W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" (done downhome-style), Duke Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" (ditto) and Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia" (which morphs into Ivory Joe Hunter's ridiculously lovely r&b-ballad "Since I Met You, Baby"). Oscher manages to roll them into one organic whole, into the sort of thing that, at least at one time, afforded musical nourishment to back-country juke joints and Deep South front porches.

On the other hand, the original "Deborah's Baby," Oscher's idea of a white (as in Nashville type of a) country song, is the one number that feels out of place, to my hearing anyway. It's a true story, as you don't have to read the promo material to figure out from its too-specific-to-be-made-up storyline and unforgeable emotion. On the third hand, no law decrees that blues singers need to exhale and inhale blues. Earlier generations of blues artists didn't; they just got recorded that way. Still, it's Oscher's blues -- as well as his stirring instrumental take on "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" -- that will have you Down in the Delta and thrilled to be there.

by Jerome Clark
27 May 2006

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