Of all modern blues instruments, the harmonica may be the easiest to play. Yet being a successful contemporary harpist is a daunting challenge. The four great geniuses of the modern style–John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Big Walter Horton, Rice Miller (“Sonny Boy Williamson no. 2”), and Little Walter Jacobs–defined the limits of the instrument so thoroughly that few since have been able to come up with anything that’s not a repetition of their ideas.

Even the finest harpists in what’s usually considered the golden age of Chicago blues harmonica–from the 1940s through the early ’60s–limited themselves primarily to finding new ways to use riffs, tone, and harmonic structures that had been developed by one of the big four. And a dedicated core of fans consider this the extent of legitimate blues-harmonica creativity.

Yet there have been some new developments within that framework. Carey Bell’s whoops and upper-register flurries have become tiresome cliches in recent years, but they represented real advances in imagination and technique when he first unveiled them. The late George “Harmonica” Smith developed a unique proficiency on the chromatic harp, especially his tonal approach and his arresting use of octaves–playing two notes an octave apart at the same time, in the manner of jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.

More recently, young turks such as Sugar Blue have radically expanded the possibilities of the instrument. He’s been called a modern-day Charlie Parker of the harp, but a more apt comparison might be with James Joyce. Sugar Blue’s fierce tonal and technical onslaughts on proscribed blues boundaries represent a virtual deconstruction of the existing canon. He has attempted to forge a new vocabulary for the instrument, in a genre many thought had been pushed to its limits years before.

Rather than trying to go even further, William Clarke, the young west-coast harpist, has chosen to confine himself almost entirely to ideas dating from John Lee Williamson’s mid-30s to late-40s Chicago style to the era that ended when George Smith died in 1982. Clarke’s attempting to breathe new life into vintage techniques without becoming either a slavish imitator or a museum piece, an act of genuine courage. Aside from Charlie Musselwhite, who’s been around so long that he’s flirting with elder-statesman status himself, not many harpists since the 60s have been able to forge careers for themselves this way.

Clarke’s role models include the usual postwar Chicago harp masters: Junior Wells (a disciple of Little Walter Jacobs), James Cotton (taught by Rice Miller), and Big Walter Horton. But his closest compatriot during his formative years was George Smith, who by the late 60s had left the Muddy Waters band and was living in Clarke’s native Los Angeles. Clarke has quoted Smith teaching him what might be the most important (and frequently forgotten) lesson for a young bluesman: “If you use less notes, it’ll make more sense. Make your notes count.”

Clarke learned his lesson well. Appearing at Rosa’s Lounge last Thursday and Friday, he not only laid down some of the most honest, unpretentious blues harp I’ve heard from a young musician in a long time, but also brought with him a band as dedicated to straight-ahead blues as he is. They incorporated blues influences ranging from postwar Memphis guitar rawness to the elegant Texas-California sound pioneered by T-Bone Walker to the twanging, tub-thumping exuberance of the early rockabilly pioneers. And they managed to entertain the audience thoroughly with original compositions and seldom-heard classics.

The instrumentation is the first thing you notice–a stand-up bass (played by Buddy Clark), an acoustic guitar with a pickup (Rick Holmstrom), then the usual electric guitar (Zach Zunis) and drums (Eddie Clark). A few bands use the string bass, and acoustic guitars make an occasional appearance, but I can’t think of anyone this side of Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women, primarily a folk-blues act, audacious enough to do an entire club set with this type of traditional instrumentation. Yet Clarke’s persona and musical delivery make for a rowdy, good-time evening that most folks associate these days with electric instrumentation.

Clarke comports himself in the classic white-hipster manner–dark glasses, black jacket, a kind of soft-edged detachment from his onstage environment. But there’s no ego-tripping. He’s on the bandstand from the first, setting the musical tone for the evening.

The band kicked off with a Chicago-style shuffle instrumental. Clarke’s influences were immediately apparent, but so was his ingenuity in crafting a unique musical style. With Buddy Clark thumping away and Eddie Clark laying down a classic 50s shuffle behind him, Clarke gradually modulated his tone from the swooping, hornlike clarity of Little Walter to a broader sound, harsh around the edges, like Rice Miller’s. Meanwhile Holmstrom chorded with the unmistakable raucous tone–jazzy chords played with a roadhouse rocker’s aggressiveness–of the Memphis session men who forged the sound that eventually evolved into the slick big-band blues of B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland. When Zunis came in, he contributed a T-Bone Walker-style solo, precise with subtle bluesy bends and a clear timbre that contrasted effectively with the rawer sound of the others.

Clarke slowly pulled open his bag of tricks. Mindful of George Smith’s admonition, he always sounds as if he’s holding something in reserve. He’ll toss off a few high-register skitters, approaching the tubular tone pioneered by Carey Bell and taken to new heights by Sugar Blue and his contemporaries, then pull back and break into a workmanlike solo consisting entirely of octaves.

Clarke gets an uncanny sound when he plays this way–like a zydeco accordion that can magically bend notes. It’s one of the few totally unique harmonica effects I’ve heard since Big Walter muted his harp with a drinking glass. Some of the wailing intensity of the blues is lost when Clarke does this, and he does tend to overuse the effect; but it’s immediately impressive, and the crowd at Rosa’s never tired of it.

If the Rosa’s gig is any indication, Clarke succeeds in live performance in a way that’s rare for a musician who consciously avoids flamboyance. At first listening, it’s difficult to say exactly why. There are the obvious factors–musicianship, the obligatory encyclopedic knowledge of the harmonic and melodic traditions of the blues, enthusiasm, and showmanship. But plenty of musicians have these and don’t put them together as well as Clarke and his men.

One clue could be found in the way the Rosa’s audience responded–they cheered lustily after every song and several got up and danced. But there was a low-key happiness to the club that I’ve seldom experienced–for all the joy that emanated from the bandstand, even during the tough Bo Diddley strut on Clarke’s original “You’re Gonna Lose Your Life,” the atmosphere was almost entirely devoid of the forced, boozy “boogie till you puke” intensity that so often characterizes blues performances outside south- or west-side neighborhoods.

That reaction was due, I believe, to the unforced nature of the music. There’s an affability to Clarke’s onstage person–somewhat belied by his appearance–that resonates through his playing. Clarke’s interpretations of Rice Miller, for instance, got Miller’s subtle complexities of rhythm and phrasing down perfectly, and he affected Miller’s wide, harsh tone with admirable aplomb. But the undercurrent of cynicism that permeated Miller’s delivery was absent. Some might suggest that this strips the music of its identity, but I think Clarke has found a formula to pay tribute to a master while giving the music his own stamp.

It’s a rare artist, especially a young one, who’s confident enough to let the music speak for itself that way. Ironically, it would seem that either Clarke or his publicists aren’t sure that approach will sell. His press material emphasizes the blazing high energy his playing often attains, and his latest LP on Alligator is called Blowin’ Like Hell. Clarke does blow like hell. His tone warbles beneath the harsh distortion of the amplification like water gurgling beneath ice, and the band supports him with a rare, understated drive that moves the feet but doesn’t obliterate the senses.

Yet listeners who come to a Clarke performance expecting to be blown away will be surprised. He and his band have forged a sound that’s at once traditional and radical. With a confidence born of musicianship and love for the musical heritage they’ve adopted, they play with a kind of quiet strength that few contemporary young bands can equal. In their hands the music speaks for itself eloquently.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.