Madcat & Kane have been performing together for eighteen years, but in any poll of blues fans, they long ago were candidates — and voted in and elected — as one of the finest duos working in that genre. That’s not surprising, since both Peter Madcat Ruth and Shari Kane were already seasoned veterans when they first combined forces at Top of the Park in 1990.

Madcat has been a well-loved mainstay of the local music scene since the early 1970s, when he moved here from Chicago to join New Heavenly Blue, a blues/rock/jazz band formed by Chris Brubeck, son of jazz immortal Dave Brubeck. That band, though short lived, led to an ongoing association with the Brubeck family that brought Madcat national and international fame as one of the finest harmonica players in the world. Although he’s continued to work with Chris Brubeck in a number of different bands ever since — he’s with Brubeck now in a trio called Triple Play — and has also performed solo and been an invited guest with countless other musicians in many genres, the Madcat & Kane duo is his longest-running group.

Shari Kane also arrived in Ann Arbor in the mid-1970s to go to school at the U-M, but music soon became her main focus of study. She absorbed avidly from the entire range of blues guitar players — traditional Delta, the Chicago giants, and contemporary. And not only from blues players: she credits Pat Donohue, house guitarist for radio’s A Prairie Home Companion, with introducing her to the concept of simultaneous running bass and lead lines, which allowed her to accompany herself when she took solos in the duo.

It was an important skill when Madcat & Kane began performing, since their intent at first was to come as close as they could to producing the sound of a full band. Kane was mostly playing electric guitar; Madcat used pickups and played through amplifiers. Now they play primarily acoustically. The change came about in a classic necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention manner: on one of their European tours they ran into difficulties with the amps they were provided and were forced to rely on just microphones. They loved the sound and the freedom.

The shift to a more acoustic sound has not, however, mellowed their approach to the music. Madcat’s solos today are as soulful and searing as when I first heard him thirty-five years ago. Kane’s playing grows ever more intricate without sacrificing drive.

Longevity like Madcat & Kane’s is rare in the music world. That durability is a testament not only to their brilliance but also to the deep friendship they share, and to their ability to bring audiences into the ease they feel with each other. It makes their shows seem as much like family reunions as concerts.

Madcat & Kane are at the Ark on Saturday, July 26.

[Review published July 2008]