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Tropical Heatwave 2010 spotlight: Jason Ricci and New Blood

(It’s time once again for Tampa’s biggest, most eclectic annual music festival,
WMNF's Tropical Heatwave. All week we’re getting to know some of the most interesting artists on this year’s lineup. Today: Jason Ricci and New Blood.)

Hometown: Nashville (via Portland, Maine)

Their sound: Harmonica-driven Chicago blues.

Check ’em out if you like: Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Their story: Blues fans know the story of Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, traded his soul to the devil for the ability to play the guitar like no other. Jason Ricci knows this story well.

“At some point, if you’re going to get into this music, you definitely need to make friends with the devil,” said the singer and harmonica player, who’s a devotee of the famed occultist Aleister Crowley. “That doesn’t mean you turn your back on God. It just means you’re willing to walk that path as well.”

Ricci’s religious beliefs aren’t the only thing that sets him apart in the blues world. He’s one of the only openly gay blues artists — and certainly the most prominent — in the country, giving him a unique perspective on the fine line between heartache and happiness on which the blues is based. The Portland, Maine native came out of the closet at age 28, after years of playing in clubs around the country, and he quickly noticed a difference in how his music was received.

“The years of me coming into my own as a performer have been exactly that — me just stripping away all that self-doubt and revealing who I am,” said Ricci, 36. “We have all these preconceptions of what is blues, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s soulful and what’s not. When we finally stop thinking about that, and just let whoever the hell we are inside come out, that’s the (performer) that everybody wants to imitate.”

He’s doing pretty well in his own skin. On May 6, Ricci picked up his first Blues Music Award (Best Harmonica Player) from the prestigious Memphis-based Blues Foundation, the latest sign that he’s been accepted by the conservative blues establishment.

Ricci, who handcrafts his own harmonicas in painstaking detail at home, was awed by the honor — but it hasn’t changed his dark outlook on life and the blues. “That’s what the whole thing is all about, is that tragic place between good and evil, between happiness and sadness, that bittersweet moment,” he said. Spoken like a real devil-may-care bluesman.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 3:19pm]


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