Virtuosity at seventy
From the April, 2019 issue
Peter Madcat Ruth has long been described as one of the best harmonica players in the world, and nothing and no one I've ever heard has made me disagree. I've known Madcat since 1973. It's been my pleasure and good fortune to have heard him in concert and to have played music with him on stage and in recording studios more times than I can count. With remarkable hand-mouth coordination, he climbs from west to east on a harmonica faster, and in more ingeniously circuitous ways, than most. He bends notes impressively far and impossibly slowly. When he sprays numerous notes while interspersing vocal whoops, hollers, and shouts, you'd be forgiven for looking to see where he's hidden a spare oxygen tank.
While all that is exhilarating to witness, his virtuosity is not empty show but flawlessly serves a great variety of genres. While Madcat is arguably unparalleled as a blues player, he's also a genuine jazz improviser, and he fits in seamlessly with folk, country, pop, and even Indian classical ragas. He plays one of the simplest of musical instruments yet draws from it remarkably expressive, evocative, and exciting music.
One of Madcat's most significant, and possibly least obvious, skill sets is his ability to be, by turns, a studio musician (on over 130 albums and counting!), sideman, band member, and bandleader. It's rare for a musician to wear all those hats as gracefully as Madcat has for decades. So, it's fitting that for his seventieth-birthday celebration at the Ark on April 4 (see Nightspots, p. 57), he's invited musicians from many phases of his long career to join him.
Two renowned mouth-harp players top the list: Howard Levy--who is also regularly described as one of the world's best harpists--and Corky Siegel, now 75 and an elder statesman of the blues and rock scene since founding the Siegel-Schwall Band in the 1960s.
Chris Brubeck, the son of the legendary jazz icon Dave Brubeck, has played music with
Madcat since 1968, first in his father's band, and for almost three decades now, along with guitarist extraordinaire Joel Brown, in Triple Play.
There are also eight mostly young Michiganders, familiar names to all local folk fans, who each have extensive histories with Madcat: Joshua Davis, Shari Kane, Mark Schrock, Seth Bernard, Dominick and Rachael Davis, Drew Howard, and Michael Shimmin. Herding this baker's dozen of cool cats will be MC Michael Jewett, a WEMU radio host and Madcat's longtime friend.
The concert falls two days after Madcat's birthday, so he'll be a septuagenarian when he takes the stage. The night will not be a farewell but a lively commemoration of this Madcat milestone.
[Originally published in April, 2019.]
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