Las Vegas Sun

January 28, 2015

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Double dipping with Jason Ricci

Jason Ricci and his band blew into town, and blew me away – twice.

As I was driving cross-town to watch Ricci and New Blood play again – this time at Texas Station on Friday, I pondered the question:

What makes you go back to see a band the second night?

I’d heard raves about Ricci from a harmonica-playing buddy whose opinion I trust. (“He’s the Hendrix of the harp.”) So I went to see Ricci’s first show in Las Vegas – as a part of the free blues series at Boulder Station on Thursday night. And he was right. Ricci wasn’t just good, he was unique.

So when my harp-playing friend wrote to ask what I thought, here’s what I wrote back:

I had never seen Ricci before, although I had your raves and his album “Rocket No. 9” album. (Now I own his new album, “Done with the Devil” -- which I think is better.)

But there is just no way you can capture what he does on a record. He's such an out-of-the-box performer. He's part Jim Morrison, part Junior Wells, part Iggy Pop, part Toots Thielemans part Judy Garland, part Lee Oskar.

I've seen a lot of really good harp players -- including Thielemans and John Popper, Oskar and Magic Dick, Charlie Musselwhite and Howard Levy and all those great guys from the Bay Area.

But I have never seen anyone do what Ricci does. He has all that speed plus touch and sensitivity, amazing breath control, great tone. He has absolute control of all those foot pedals and both his harp mic and his vocal mic.

There were times when he was doing all those standard harmonica virtuoso riffs -- the stuff you see all the great players do once or twice in a night -- and then he'd just blow them up and take them in another direction. And he was doing great stuff on every song. Suddenly he'd be playing an improvised Bach fugue. Then on the next song, it sounded like a calliope was rolling through the club. Sometimes he sounded like an organ or a heavy metal guitar or a steel drum. Sometimes he sounded like a woman moaning or a locomotive.

He's so amazing that I sat there the second night about 20 feet from him and watched what he was doing. I kept shaking my head and wondering: How in the hell is he doing that? I was even more blown away.

If you hear that stuff on record, it's just a recording. It could be overdubbed. It could be a synthesizer. I mean the calliope sound could be a calliope. I had the same feeling watching Jason Ricci the first time I saw (eight-string guitarist) Charlie Hunter. You don't get it unless you see it. But Hunter is a just a player, Ricci is a performer.

There were times where you wonder if he's going to slit his wrists on stage. He looks like he's ready to burst apart at the seams. But he's in total control. He's posing and smoking and controlling the band with punches and little flicks of his hands. He turned to the drummer and imperceptibly rolled his wrists to get him to speed the whole thing up. At one point Ricci is doing a handstand parallel to the stage, at another point he’s playing the harmonica with a cat mask on, then he's down on his hands and knees retching looking like he's going to cough up a hair ball.

Plus he's got a great band with good ears. The rhythm section (Ed Michaels on drums and Todd Edmunds on bass) is rock solid and you'd pay to go see Shawn Starski play guitar with anyone.

I asked myself: What makes you go back to see a band the second night? It's the virtuoso playing, for sure. But I decided it was this:

Relentless passion.

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