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WITH MUSIC, HE'S LICKED THE BLUES // T.C. Carr makes his return to the blues stage

For 17 years T.C. Carr kept a tight grip on his harmonica, only todiscover that it was the other way around. Playing the blues had turned into living them. So Carr, a fixture with an array of popular local bands since the 1970s, disappeared two years ago from from the Tampa Bay music scene.

Now the St. Petersburg native is back on stage. And he's back, he says, "with a vengeance."

Carr prefers to downplay what he is trying to purge from his system with a return to the spotlight. But those who know him well talk about the death of his good friend and bandmate "Stormin" Norman Duzin due to alcohol abuse in 1989. They mention promising stints that eventually faded into oblivion, first with the Mad Beach Band in the late '70s, and then with Tom Gribbin and the Saltwater Cowboys in the early '80s.

The latter connection ended when Gribbin was convicted and jailed for trafficking in cocaine. Carr, whose own reputation is as clean as his harmonica licks, went on to form the rhythm-and-blues/rock-oriented T.C. and the Shooters, but that band reached the end of the road in 1988.

Carr himself will add that there have been "family problems" including the death of his mother and a serious heart ailment for his year-old son, Dylan. After nearly two decades as a top-flight musician on the local circuit, these distractions made the business of pounding out a living in bars too much of a grind.

"I needed to get out of it for all of those reasons and to clear my own head out, too," Carr said after a set with his new band, The Catch. "I just stayed away from music and the clubs, basically. I didn't want to talk about it or see it or hear it for awhile."

After working for nearly two years as a boat painter, Carr eventually came to terms with his tragedies. And in the past few months, music has become an outlet instead of an opponent.

"I knew it was in me; it's not just what I do, but who I am," Carr said. "I'm a musician. That's in my blood and my soul, and it has to come out. I have to say something through my harmonica, and it feels good doing it."

Carr quickly assembled a backing band dubbed The Catch because he said the members are "pickup musicianswhoever I can catch on the phone." He hustled up a regular blues night every Monday at the Big Apple at 4000 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. And he grabbed an opportunity to back up 88-year-old blues legend "Diamond Teeth" Mary McClain at Ringside Cafe this Tuesday - his first major public appearance since 1988.

"'When she sings it's the real thing," Carr said with a smile. "She says what she feels in her soul and her life. She talks about Jesus, she talks about ups and downs and she goes out and just croons it. She doesn't really sing with the band, we just follow her. It's the old jazz style; the singer's out front and we just do it."

When Carr steps out front himself, the results can be glorious. On a recent Sunday night at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa, listeners heard why he is considered one of the best harmonica players in a region renowned for expert harpists.

Carr was in control; blowing a mournful bellow, sucking a high-pitched squeal or spitting a staccato rhythm so fast he might hyperventilate. It was a masterful mixing of metal and wind; like a tornado ripping through a corrugated tin shed.

As a singer, Carr has the required gravel and grit in his voice and an urgent method of using it. While his band gamely kept pace, notes from Carr's harmonica latched onto the end of his words and continued the thought. This wasn't simply a performance, it was another passionate therapy session for a blues man who has felt his share of pain.

"Now I feel rejuvenated," Carr said with assurance. "Now I'm back and I do it with a vengeance and I feel real good about that.

It's not a job, it's a great thrill to go out and play, and that's how it should be. I'm playing the blues, and I'm not trying to please anybody but myself."

AT A GLANCE "Diamond Teeth" Mary McClain (photo, right) with T.C. Carr and The Catch and Blind Willie James at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20 at Ringside Cafe, 2742 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg. Call 894-8465 for information.