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Monday, April 12, 2010

Harmonica Fest

Lil’ Rev Throws a Party

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As Lil’ Rev grew up, music wasn’t a distant sound coming from the radio but something he could shape with his own hands and voice. The prolific Milwaukee recording artist and touring act grew up in a musical household. One of his stronger childhood memories concerns his grandfather, who entertained himself and anyone nearby with renditions of Tin Pan Alley on the harmonica. “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” and “ Beer Barrel Polka” were among the familiar melodies Rev heard on the mouth organ.

“All of my grandfather’s songs are in this book,” he says, speaking of his newest musical manual for publishing giant Hal Leonard, Play Harmonica Today! A Complete Guide to the Basics. The booklet comes with a demonstration CD. Hal Leonard has also released the project as a DVD.

Lil’ Rev marks the release of his latest book and DVD with a musical party, 2-4 p.m. Sunday, April 18 at Comedy Sportz, 420 S. 1st St. The lineup will feature Rev in tandem with one of Milwaukee harmonica giants, Jim Liban, along with accompaniment by Will Branch, Dave Fox and other area musicians. A donation of $5-$10 is requested.

Although Rev came to attention as a guitar player steeped in folkloric Americana and has gained attention in recent years for his efforts on behalf of the Milwaukee Ukulele Club and last year’s successful Milwaukee Ukulele Festival, the harmonica has seldom been a stranger to Rev’s repertoire. He took lessons from Liban and is especially pleased to share the stage with the master. “When someone you learn from has faith in you, it’s a great honor,” he says.

Discovering Chicago style blues harmonica as a teenager through the recordings of Led Zeppelin was only the first step. The amplified harmonica of Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson led Rev back to pre-World War II musicians who played harmonica cupped in their hands, without the aid of electricity. “I never got comfortable with a microphone in my hands,” he explains. “Why would you do that when you can shape the sound of the harmonica with your right hand? It’s almost like Louis Armstrong with his trumpet mute.”

Blues, in any event, has been only one signpost on Rev’s tireless journey across the history of American music, pre-rock’n’roll. The contributions of the Irish, the Jews and other immigrants will be heard on Sunday. Like the ukulele, the harmonica is an instrument for everyone, a democratic instrument if you will, a musical vehicle for the unschooled. Rev’s book, like his workshops around the country, is crafted to teach a few tunes to absolute beginners in one easy lesson.

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