Guitarist John Cephas and harpist Phil Wiggins hail from Washington, D.C., but they grew up immersed in rural traditions. Cephas learned the blues from a guitar-playing aunt, and his grandfather taught him the folklore of eastern Virginia, where his ancestors had toiled as slaves. Wiggins spent his childhood summers at his grandmother’s home in Alabama, where he listened to old-time hymns sung in church in the traditional call-and-response style. The two met in 1976 at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where Cephas was playing in the band of pianist Big Chief Ellis and Wiggins was accompanying gospel singer-guitarist Flora Melton. They’ve since earned a reputation as the leading modern purveyors of the venerable Piedmont blues style, which emphasizes dexterity and polyrhythmic interplay–between the guitarist’s alternating bass lines and feathery, fingerpicked treble overlays, and also between the dual voices of guitar and harmonica–instead of the declamatory individual statements usually associated with Delta blues. They sometimes sound as if they’re taking it too easy: on their current disc, Somebody Told the Truth (Alligator), Cephas’s filigrees interlace elegantly with Wiggins’s vocalesque tones, but his singing is oddly dispassionate, even when he recounts details like Stagger Lee’s ferocious fighting technique (“He shot him in his head / He bit him and he gnawed him / Wanted that po’ boy dead”). But Wiggins’s harp lines ache with sorrow and longing as he skitters through the octaves with split-second timing, inserting tonal modulations, occasional extended squalls, and wah-wah for both urgency and playfulness. Live, the pair can be impish, but they’re also capable of deep-hearted honesty, as on “Reno Factory,” where Cephas’s trembling vibrato and melismatic abandon suggest despair, and he fires off even his wispiest fretboard patterns with intensity and drive. Saturday, January 11, 7 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin.