Having devoted his adult life to blues, harmonica player R.J. Mischo can speak of the genre with a certain professional detachment.
He did just that in an interview with me a few years back, offering insider analysis on everything from record-industry economics to the accelerating decline in live venues. Throw in the fact that the genre's giants are rapidly passing from the scene and it added up to a blues tale of woe. It was all Mischo could do to temper his pessimism about blues' future.
It is, however, the practitioners' passion that ultimately matters and Mischo retains his. For proof, look no further than his fanlike reaction the moment the conversation turned to William Clarke.
"I'm so glad you brought him up – Clarke, to me, was the heaviest of everybody," Mischo said of the Southern California harmonica player who enjoyed a brief, belated career before dying in 1996 at age 45. "He was like actually one those guys who come along ... a couple times a century. He was a big influence on me."
Indeed, much of the power and full-throated vocals that mark such Clarke releases as "Blowin' Like Hell" (1990) and "The Hard Way" (1996) are echoed on Mischo discs like "Meet Me on the Coast" (2003), “King of a Mighty Good Time” (2008) and “Knowledge You Can’t Get in College” (2010).
Audiences can expect much the same on Halloween night as Mischo and his band headline Biscuit and Blues in San Francisco. That’s followed by shows in San Jose (November 1), Sacramento (November 2), Half Moon Bay (November 3), Aptos (November 5), Redwood City (November 6) and Fremont (November 9).
The Wisconsin native has been around long enough to know the challenges involved in playing blues in the 21st century. If you're not a household name on the scale of B.B. King or Charlie Musselwhite being a bluesman means working hard and making your own breaks. Mischo spoke to me in that interview about spending three months on the phone trying to line up four weeks of work.
"I've got a good following overseas,” he said. “I was doing really well in Europe and getting cocky and making money. Then I'd come back over here and say, 'What's this?' I hate to admit it, but live gigs are just getting farther and fewer in between all the time. America loves mediocrity, man."
Part of the problem is simply a lack of exposure to blues. That was certainly the key for Mischo, who can recall the exact moment he became a blues fan.
"I saw Muddy (Waters) when I was 16 years old," he said. "I just turned into a stone blues freak."
When it came time to start playing, Mischo quickly found the harmonica suited his needs, both creatively and economically.
"It's probably its price," he said. "It's relatively inexpensive, although I spend a thousand dollars a year on harmonicas.
“Also you can bend the harmonica sound and get more of a vocal tone out of it. You can express
a feeling with the harmonica that is consistent with the human voice. You can cry and wail."
Playing blues is a career that Mischo has found fulfilling though hardly secure. Has he ever considered another line of work?
"Yes, but then I realized that if people like me quit, then it's really going to die," Mischo said. "This is what I do. It will never die."
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