By David Daniel
This live performance recording showcases the Boston-based singer/pianist Kemp Harris’s merrily eclectic approach — it is a thought-stirring and animated musical excursion.
Kemp Harris, Live at The Bird SF (Bird Records)
Kemp Harris’s Live at the Bird SF is an infectiously listenable hybrid mix of traditions and styles. Recorded last year on the quadrennial (February 29), shortly before COVID shut down San Francisco’s live music performances, the album showcases the Boston-based Harris’s merrily eclectic approach. Over the course of 14 tracks, the singer/pianist and a crew of Bay Area session musicians cook up some blues, soul, R&B, gospel, jazz, and rock, occasionally stirring in a little boogie-woogie and a dash of rockabilly. The result is a tangy stew that has something for just about every taste.
North Carolina–born Harris brought music with him when he moved to New England in his youth. It was in the Boston-Cambridge scene that he developed his songwriting chops and shaped his energetic yet intimate performance style. In his own songs, and in his interpretations of others’ work, he brings to mind Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon, Taj Mahal, and Gil Scott-Heron. He has shared the stage with the latter two artists.
This 70-minute set opens with little introductory fanfare, kicking off with the invitational “Get Here,” a plea to a long absent friend or lover to show up. It takes the plaintive yearning of Dave Loggins’s “Please Come to Boston” and adds a musical tease to it, enumerating the possible ways said lover should try to make it — railway, Trailway bus, caravan, balloon, magic carpet — “Just get here … if you can.” The listener is invited into the performance space — Harris wants to make the show a shared experience.
From there the music flows with minimal stage patter. Harris, at his piano perch, keeps the moods changing, the energies sparking. He goes from the lively blues of “The Rain Came Down,” the catchy rhythm of “Wiggle” (“I wiggle my way through the nightlife”), and “Sweet Weepin’ Jesus” and “Swing Down Chariot,” the latter achieving the cooking temperature of a revival service. Harris’s tune “Going Down” rocks, and he covers Elton John’s “Didn’t It Rain” and Dylan’s iconic “I Shall Be Released,” with James Nash supplying a tasteful guitar solo.
“Medley for MLK,” at seven-and-a-half minutes, is the set’s longest piece. But it needs the time given how it transitions moods and vocal delivery, from an a cappella “America the Beautiful” into “Border Song,” “Ooh Child” ( “…some day when the world gets much brighter”), “New World Coming,” “Up Where We Belong,” and circling back to “America the Beautiful.” The piece deftly draws on a succession of responses — the sincere, the celebratory, and the ironic — but it ultimately aches with longing for the too-long-deferred dream to be made real.
The set closes on Harris’s mournfully hopeful love song to the country, “Goodnight America.” Though this was recorded a year ago, it feels like a perfect song to make the changeover from the helter-skelter hot mess of Trump’s presidency to the tentative optimism of new leadership.
Even when he’s trafficking in funky licks and kick-down-the-door jams, Harris threads social consciousness throughout his performance. It’s subtle, never in your face: a call for understanding, enhanced awareness, for cultivating a fundamental sense of respect for others and decency, rather than a call to arms.
He looks at the insidiousness of racism in a song titled after his own provocatively named hometown, “Edenton” (NC). He recalls his childhood in the Jim Crow South, where “everybody knew their place, everyone had a smile on their face”— this becomes a chant-like refrain and the irony becomes more powerful with each repetition.
“Ruthie’s” makes an oblique run at homophobia: people quoting scripture to argue for bigotry, people with “family values, but they don’t value people like me.” “Invisible” invokes Ralph Ellison’s protagonist: Harris claims the experience as his own, and expands it outward, musing that anyone can be made to feel that they are unseen and unheard.
Arriving in San Francisco late last February, he met the musicians, only one of whom he’d worked with before. There was only time for a single rehearsal before the club date. The lineup is Harris on piano and vocals, Nash on guitar, Jose Saravia on bass, and Jim Lucchese on drums, with guest vocals by Hanne Tidnam and Margaret Blodgett. The limited rehearsal time doesn’t seem to have hampered any members of the band; the group is tight and turns in an efficient live performance.
The CD package would benefit from a lyrics sheet — though, alas, that seems to be a fossil of the days of LPs. Also, the mic levels on the intro and the occasional stage patter make them hard to make out (especially for old ears). But these are minor flaws — this is a thought-stirring, animated (and animating) album.
Simultaneous with his growing recognition as a musical artist, Harris is a storyteller and an educator. He has taught in Boston public schools for over 30 years. He has composed original music for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and established a songwriting residency at the Wang Theater. In 2018, Harris delivered a series of master classes at Berklee on the subject of Artists as Activists, alongside Chad Stokes of the band Dispatch and members of the dance troupe Urban Bush Women.
Given all of this admirable activity, musical and nonmusical, you can imagine a little John Lewis twinkle of mischief in Harris’s eyes when he says during the performance, “At the end of the day, I’m an old Black man telling stories and spreading the love.”
David Daniel is the author of more than a dozen books, including four entries in the prize-winning Alex Rasmussen mystery series. His most recent book is Inflections & Innuendos, a collection of flash fiction. He is on the faculty at UMass, Lowell and blogs regularly @Richardhowe.com.