Nélida Nassar 08.07.2013
Drawing on a lifetime of adventures, tracking down beautiful sound, the Libyan-Lebanese, guitarist Otis Grand appeared at the closing concert of Zouk Mikael’s 2013 international festival. Grand, raised in California and based in England, has long been a favorite on the blues’ scene, and has been admired by such icons as BB King, Ike Turner, and Luther Allison. He appeared with a number of prominent Boston-based performers: Sugar Ray Norcia, vocals and harmonica; Anthony Geraci, keyboards; Neil Gouvin, drums; Michael Ward, bass; a powerful horn section consisting of John Peter LoBello, on trumpet; Carl Querfurth, on slide trombone; and the three saxophone players Greg Piccolo, Doug James, and Paul Maffi.
The concert was a celebration of the sounds that influenced Grand since his adolescence and included excerpts from his latest album, Blues’65. The show began with a rousing double blast: a swinging romp through Pretend, once a hit for Nat King Cole, Carl Mann, and even Alvin Stardust, followed by Charlie Rich’s song, Who Will The Next Fool Be. Both pieces were full of glorious horns, piercing guitar work, and Norcia’s smooth vocals, guttural but somehow still velvet.
In Bad News On TV, a slow blues number, the horn section accompanied Grand, who was firing off and bends that is, pushing the strings up to reach a higher pitch, as if emulating a human cry. The song also featured Norcia’s beautiful singing and Geraci’s delightful piano work. Rumba Conga Twist, backed with the punchy horns, showcased Grand’s virtuosic vibrato – subtly shaking a note as if it were “crying” – and hammering-ons and pull-offs. Both of these techniques involve sounding a note with the fretting hand without picking the string, and Grand is a master at them.
The band continued with I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water, a Johnny Rivers’s hit that was also recorded by Elvis Presley, featuring some sweet harmonica playing from Norcia. It was followed by Charlie Rich’s Midnight Blues, with Norcia’s soulful vocal, and by Please Don’t Leave, which had a definite New Orleans feel to it, and the benefit of strong support from the horns. The Shag Shuffle and Monsters are beautiful instrumental pieces in which Welch and Geraci play a duet. Co-written by Norcia and Grand, Warning Blues, with Norcia on the harmonica, achieved a strong reverb-soaked vibrato, and also made effective use of string bending, hammer-ons and triplets.
Played mostly on a Gibson ES-355, which adds an authentic feel to the performance, Grand’s “slow blues” style relies on his great skill in phrasing, shaping notes, and delivery. His ability to control each note and make it meaningful is remarkable. Played with a “clean” tone – with no distortion or pyrotechnics – the first 12 bars referenced the great
Technically impressive and astonishingly versatile, Grand’s playing offered spectators a melange of soul, country, rock, funk, and blues. The fine group of musicians delivered beautiful music in an authentic Blues style with simplicity, feeling, lyricism, and a convincing rhythmic attack. The songs, ranging from stomping to delicately acoustic, encompassed furiously rapid-fire, rock instrumentals and sturdy vocal work, as well as impressive harmonica playing by Norcia that conveyed great thoughtfulness.
Grand ignited the audience with his incendiary guitar playing, which, combined with his amiable personality, positive attitude and creative storytelling, offered the audience a truly memorable musical experience. Two hours after the concert ended, he bid the audience farewell, and left to applause from spectators who are long-time fans and claimed him as their own. They are already impatiently waiting for him to return to the amphitheater next season.