More than most genres, the blues is replete with remarkable life stories, and that of Mississippi Heat frontman Pierre Lacocque is especially fascinating. The son of a Belgian Protestant minister and often penniless Old Testament scholar, he was born in Israel and attended an Orthodox Jewish school in Brussels, the Athénée Mamonide. His parents believed, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that he should learn about Judaism and the suffering of the Jewish people. Lacocque and his siblings remain the school's only non-Jewish graduates to this day. Lacocque learned to play folk tunes on a harmonica but had no idea that the blues existed.

In 1969 the family came to Chicago, and Lacocque heard Big Walter Horton perform at the University of Chicago. "From one moment to the next I was a new man," he told WBEZ radio host Niles Frantz. Practicing the harmonica "six, seven, eight hours a day," he also began to write original blues numbers. He went to McGill University in Montreal, played in bands there, and hit bottom after a promoter absconded with a $1,000 prize he had won. Returning to Chicago, he studied psychology and philosophy, married, and got a Ph.D.: "For fourteen years, my excitement was to read, study, write, and publish." After another crisis point, "I finally found my calling. Ever since I got back as a full-time musician, everything has fallen into place for me."

Mississippi Heat was formed in 1996, and various members have rotated through the band; Lacocque is the motivator and constant. Currently the band is a sextet, with hard-core shouter (think Etta James) Inetta Visor and four other Chicago blues veterans joining Lacocque and bringing a familiar ease to his original compositions. Mississippi Heat's sound fits squarely into the classic Chicago blues tradition, and the band's covers are powerful: an album from a couple years ago, One Eye Open: Live at Rosa's Lounge, features scorching versions of Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady" from Visor and of Jessie Mae Robinson's "Cold, Cold Feeling" from guitarist and vocalist Lurrie Bell.

The main attraction, though, is Lacocque's harmonica. The predominant impression is one of great delicacy, not a word used all that often in connection with electric blues. Even for a harpist-headed band, Mississippi Heat features a lot of utterances from the reed family's smallest member. Lacocque can do a howling, blasting solo with the best of them, replicating the classic Muddy Waters band sound in which the harmonica went toe to toe with the electric guitar. But what's more surprising is the variety of other sounds emerging from his instrument. He excels in quiet, dancing passages at the top of the harmonica's register. And he's playing, more often than not, during vocal solos or those of other instruments, single-handedly laying down an added musical stratum or providing wordless commentary, sometimes quite humorous, on the lyrics of a song. He has an effect in which he cycles rapidly through the notes of a chord, creating a sound resembling the humming of a motor, and he can imitate a guitar at low volumes as well as high ones.

Mississippi Heat comes to the Ark on Tuesday, May 1.

[Review published May 2007]