Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers, a delta blues band out of Boston, MA features Erin’s finger-picking guitar and soulful vocals, backed by Jim Countryman (bass), Bob Nisi (drums/vocals) and Sonny Jim Clifford (slide guitar/harmonica). But this line up of musicians have alter-egos – Empress Erin on guitar, Juicy Jim on bass, Bob Weird on drums/backing vocals, and Pandaman on slide guitar as part of Lovewhip, a band which plays a mash up of all the world’s most danceable music. Both bands will be touring the Midwest this summer for the CD release of the new Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers album, “Love Whip Blues“.
Before Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers leave for their Midwest tour in a few weeks, LMNR caught up with them at a recent gig at the Gardner Ale House in Massachusetts. We asked Erin some questions about the bands, her history as a delta blues guitar player, and the tour.
You are touring with two different bands Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers and Lovewhip. What’s it like balancing two bands?
It’s fun. It’s always been great to have two different outlets for my creative output. I have so many different influences and styles of music I like, it’s hard to fit them all into one concept and one band. But logistically, it’s worked out great because we have to same members in both groups, so if we’re working every weekend it means we’re supporting all four of us!
It takes a bit of concentration, I have to get in a different mind frame to play a Lovewhip show vs. a Delta Swingers show, but there is a lot of crossover too. We have to practice twice as much! But it’s worth it. Both bands are so much fun!
Can you give a brief description of what Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers’ music is like? And I’ll ask the same question regarding Lovewhip’s sound?
We call the Delta Swingers’ music “Charles River Delta Blues”, and it’s an electrified delta blues band that veers into other genres like reggae, funk and soul, and is – just like Lovewhip – very danceable!
Lovewhip is a dance band that jams, a party-starting mix of psychedelic rock, dance-pop, and world music, the energy and presence of Lovewhip’s live shows is infectious, sexy, fun and over-the-top.
You have quite the wardrobe for these bands. Can you tell me your thoughts behind the fashion sense in terms of Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers’ wardrobe? What about the “costumes” you wear for Lovewhip?
I love playing dress-up, as you can see! In Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers, I take my inspiration from retro pin-up images and the 1920’s and 30’s. I’ve recently been called “The Betty Boop of the Blues”, and that’s my image, wearing vintage dresses and fishnet stockings.
For Lovewhip we go a little more over-the-top with our look. Lots of sparkles, tie dye, wigs, and a panda bear playing slide guitar, Pandaman. We are actually in our “Swedish Lovewhip” phase right now, an idea Tina Weymouth came up with (bassist for the Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club). She came to see us and suggested we all become blonde and reinvent ourselves as Swedish Lovewhip, so Empress Erin, Juicy Jim, and Bob Weird are blondes… and then there’s a panda…
How do you want people to react to Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers’ music and how is that similar and/or different to how you want the audience to experience Lovewhip?
Pretty much the same, we want them to dance!
How long do you think you’ll maintain two bands?
Well we did try to wind down Lovewhip thinking we would focus on Delta Swingers, but people wanted us to play, and we can’t disappoint the people! Our plan is to rotate releases of the two bands, and we don’t see any end in sight!
Did you always want to be a musician? What instruments did you play as a child?
I’ve tried other things like graphic design, but to be good at something you really have to focus on it, and I’m focused on music, whether it’s playing shows, recording, teaching workshops, or other projects, like a new DVD I’m working on teaching women the delta blues guitar!
As a child I started on mandolin. I would play open mikes with my dad strumming on the mandolin and singing. In school I took up the flute, and played that in high school. But then in my teens I started getting into guitar and never looked back, I’d found my instrument.
Read Vintage Guitar’s brief review of Love Whip Blues HERE
Can you tell us a little bit about your father, Neil Harpe, your personal relationship with him, and his influence on your development as a blues guitarist?
My dad taught me the fingerpicking style guitar I play in the Delta Swingers. He’s a really great guitar player, interpreter, and scholar of the delta blues and the guitars played in the genre. He’s also an expert on vintage guitars, specifically Stella guitars, which he’s written a book about. We did an album together that features some of the songs we perform together and that he taught me. When I was a kid he had a delta blues based band, two guitars and drums with two vocals, Franklin, Harpe and Usilton (listen to their album “Hokum Blues” on Spotify), and they are a big influence on Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers.
I’ve actually always done solo acoustic delta blues throughout my life, and during the time that Lovewhip was developing. My first delta blues album “Blues Roots” came out in 2002, and my second one “Delta Blues Duets”, featuring duets with my dad, in 2008. But I didn’t think about starting a band around that music until we went to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest in 2008. We were doing a showcase as Lovewhip but someone down there found out about my blues recordings and asked me to play some blues shows while we were in town. I went down the next few years and the response I got from the community of blues/roots/Americana fans, DJ’s, and others from all around the world got me thinking, “maybe I should start a band!”. We started the band after returning from SXSW in 2010, entered and won the Boston Blues Challenge that year, and traveled down to Memphis for the International Blues Challenge in early 2011. This is the world’s biggest blues showcase, where we got our first exposure to the international blues scene.
Love Whip Blues is the debut CD from Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers, can you tell me how this whole project came about?
We had a busy start to the band, preparing for Memphis the first year, and doing lots of shows. It was hard to find time to record, we had a few early demos and live recordings for the first couple years but in 2014 we decided we were ready to go into the studio. The album was recorded at three different studios. First we did the basics at our harmonica player Richard Rosenblatt’s VizzTone Studios. Most of the songs had already been written and we’d been playing them live for a while. But Good Luck Baby was actually written right in the studio. After we got the basics down, I worked on my vocals at my own home studio, which was great. It was the first album I’ve done where I really got to devote lots of time to getting the vocals right. I also recorded the vocal harmonies, electric guitar, our drummer Bob Nisi’s backup vocals, and some slide guitar parts by Sonny Jim Clifford at my studio. Then our producer Dave Gross recorded the final touches at his Fat Rabbit Studios in Montclair NJ, including adding a smokin’ slide guitar part on M&O Blues by x-Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin.
Charles River Delta Blues refers to the Charles River which runs through Boston, how does living in the Boston area influence your style of delta blues music?
Living in Boston exposed me to a melting pot of music from around the world, and turned me on to lots of different styles of music, everything from African music and reggae to underground rock. We don’t play strictly blues or delta blues, we mix in a lot of the influences that I found when I moved to Boston.
If you had one original song to choose for new listeners to get into your delta blues style, what would it be? Why?
Probably the title track of our debut album “Love Whip Blues”, it’s got a real energetic vibe that gets across our natural tendency to get people to dance and the lyrics are sassy!
Do you have a favorite musician or band that you like to cover? How do you make the covers more your own style?
The covers we do and that are on the new album are some of my favorite old 1930’s delta blues songs, that I’ve been playing for years since before the band got together. Willie Brown’s Future Blues, Lucille Bogan’s I Hate that Train Called the M&O, William Moore’s One Way Man. I first heard Geeshie Wiley’s version of Luke Jordan’s Pick Poor Robin Clean, a song my dad did with his friend Eleanor Ellis, and I’ve always loved it (here they are playing it https://play.spotify.com/album/5fcn4bk0Mn08auhc2rytrK). And I’m a big Bonnie Raitt fan so the John Prine song Angel From Montgomery has always been a favorite of mine. It tends to be a bit controversial because we sped it up, but the band’s signature “Charles River Delta Blues” sound, which melds together delta blues, country, Americana, soul and even reggae and world music, tends to be upbeat and danceable.
Who are some of your favorite delta blues players? New or old?
From the classic 1920’s and 30’s period I love Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Geeshie Wiley, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Lonnie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, there are so many I can’t name them all but those are a few. More recent delta blues artists I like are Bonnie Raitt’s early 70’s stuff, Rory Block, Eleanor Ellis who plays with my dad, and some other great musicians I grew up with in the DC area – Warner Williams and John Cephas and Phil Wiggins.
What are you guys doing to prepare for the tour?
Basically we’re packing up both bands, ready to rock the nation! There’s tons of behind the scenes planning that we’re working on, promoting the shows and getting out posters to the clubs, booking hotel rooms, making sure the van is ready for driving 12,000+ miles. Packing. We’ve also made a bunch of awesome new merch! For the Delta Swingers we have the new debut album, plus other new merch – hats, t-shirts, girly t’s, lighters, beer openers, stickers and tote bags PLUS brand new summer merch: Blues Brothers-style SUNGLASSES and KOOZIES! For Lovewhip we just got brand new T-shirts and Koozies also, and we’ll have our CD’s with us as well!
Any particular shows you are looking forward to playing? Why?
We’re really looking forward to Groovefest and the Utah Arts Fest in Utah, two great outdoor events, in incredible settings, and in a part of the country we’ve never seen before. Also, I’m looking forward to playing at the Blues City Deli in St. Louis, MO, I’ve wanted to play there for a while, a lot of our friends in the blues play there and we met the owner, Vinny, through the International Blues Challenge in Memphis! Speaking of Memphis we’re looking forward to returning to the “Home of the Blues” playing at Huey’s and the Rum Boogie. We’re also looking forward to going back at the Evangeline Cafe in Austin, TX. The rest of the shows are in places we’ve never been before and we’re really looking forward to every show.
Do you have any rituals you do to prepare for a show? Anything in particular you do while on the road to a show?
It may not be exciting, but really it’s just getting to the gig in plenty of time to be able to do everything we have to do – eat something, set up our equipment, sound check, and get dressed and ready. With the number of gigs and distances we have to drive, all in one van with just the band members and no crew, that’s going to be the most important thing!
How do you think people across the country will react to your music?
Our music, for both bands, is really a breath of fresh air for people who love having fun and dancing. I hope/think they will love it!
What are you hoping to gain from this tour?
The main reason for this tour is to release Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers’ debut album “Love Whip Blues” to a national audience, and of course it would be great to sell some records! After our positive experience touring the UK last year, we’re pretty sure touring the US is going to help us spread the word about our music and grow our fan base. With Lovewhip also along for the ride!
Any last thoughts you’d like to add?
Thanks for chatting with us and I hope the tour is a rousing success!
Summer 2015 Tour Dates for Erin Harpe and the Delta Swingers and Lovewhip
|Hideaway Saloon, Louisville KY
|Blues City Deli, St Louis MO
|Parlor City, Cedar Rapids IA
|Zoo Bar, Lincoln NE
Bushwacker’s Saloon, Denver CO
|Justice Snow’s, Aspen CO
|Eddie McStiff’s, Moab UT
|Utah Arts Festival, Salt Lake City UT
|Groovefest, Cedar City UT
|Gracie’s, Salt Lake City UT
|Ketchum Alive, Ketchum ID
|Pengilly’s, Boise ID
|Yellowstone Community Concert Series, Yellowstone MT
|Knotty Pine Supper Club, Victor ID
|Winter Park Pub, Winter Park CO
|Lion’s Lair Lounge, Denver CO
|Tall City Blues Festival, Midland TX
|Evangeline Cafe, Austin TX
|The Red Eyed Fly, Austin TX
|Red Eyed Fly, Austin TX
|BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soups, St Louis MO
|Beer Garden at Navy Pier, Chicago IL
|Beer Garden at Navy Pier, Chicago IL
|Huey’s, Memphis TN
|Beachland Concert Series, Cleveland OH
|The Dock, Ithaca NY
|BSP – An Arts and Entertainment Complex, Kingston NY
|Jumpin’ in July concert series, Plattsburgh NY
|Mine Oyster, Boothbay Harbor ME