Take a ride with Mojo Rodeo on Sunday at the Bull Run
from the Fitchburg (MA) Sentinel & Enterprise, February 11, 2016
SHIRLEY -- Paul Rishell and Annie Raines will bring their band, Mojo Rodeo, to the Bull Run stage Saturday at 8 p.m. The duo started playing together in 1992, and they've been a working team since then, playing country blues, Chicago blues, southern gospel, as well as their own compositions, at festivals, concert halls and clubs all over the world.
On Monday afternoon, I reached Raines and Rishell by phone at their rehearsal studio in their home in Newton.
Best Bets: Please share a childhood story that most people don't know that shows the budding musician/singer.
Raines: I started taking piano lessons when I was 8 years old from an elderly, papery-skinned lady named Elsie Foss, whose teacher was taught by Franz Liszt -- that's how old she was --- and on my way to school, I would practice piano in the air by holding my hands out in front of me and imagining my fingers on the keys. One time, an old guy stopped me on the street and said, "What are you doing?" And when I told him that I was practicing playing piano, he got teary-eyed. It was very sweet.
Paul: In 1960, I was 10 years old and living in England with my family, and we went skiing in Austria. We were staying in a hotel and every night, a trio would play for the dinner audience, and each musician doubled, played more than one instrument -- the drummer played guitar, the bass player played trombone, and I noticed the guitar player played drums.
I didn't have a guitar or had ever seen one -- and he'd play with brushes on the snare drum.
I watched him a couple nights and I walked up to him and I said to him, "Can I play your drums?" And I said this to him as a boy who was being earnest, not meaning to offend him. He asked if I could play the drums, and I said, "I don't know but I can do what you're doing." He was the guitar player who didn't want to play the drums, so he gave me the brushes, and I kept time perfectly. I had never played before. He told the other guys in the band later on, and I was asked to play with the band for the rest of our vacation. I felt at that time I was born to be a musician.
BB: Annie, you picked up the blues harp at 17 and made your stage debut at the 1369 Jazz Club in Cambridge months before your high-school graduation. Why the blues harp? What was it about the instrument that spoke to you then and still does?
Annie: I really began playing by accident. It was my birthday, and I was looking for a book called "Juggling for the Complete Klutz." It was my idea that I would spend the summer learning. The bookstore was out of that book, so instead I got a similar looking book called "Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless." It came with a harmonica, which I started playing immediately and never stopped. I was never the kind of person who stuck with things, but this stuck with me.
I sang in junior-high-school chorus. I wanted to sing but had no confidence. I took a few voice lessons, but nothing seemed to help. I finally got the chance to sing with Paul when we recorded "Got to Fly" on our first duo album, "I Want You to Know." Since then, I've gotten a little better, mostly from listening to Paul all these years.
BB: Annie, you were enthralled by the recordings of Muddy Waters, Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton and Sonny Boy Williamson, and you became a sort of fixture at Boston-area blues jams. Those greats were influences, but who were your mentors?
Annie: I learned the "Got to Fly" bit from watching Sonny Boy -- that is part of his style of playing where he moves back and forth from the instrument to singing. It's actually easier because on the harmonica you breathe in half the time. All the greats play as if the harmonica is a voice, and the voice is an instrument.
My first major mentor was Jerry Portnoy. He played with Muddy Waters for about six years. Well, I heard him on the Muddy Waters record, and I thought he was an old, dead guy, but he was alive and well and living in Waltham. So I called him and took a couple of lessons from him when I was 18, before I left for college. After I dropped out, I joined a band in Cambridge called Some Blues by Butch, and the bandleader, Butch McClendon, really schooled me in the art of playing the blues. We played together for four years -- it would have been for longer but he died tragically at the age of 40 in 1992. I've been lucky to have many mentors and influences over the years.
BB: Annie, you began working with Paul, a country-blues master, in 1992. You two seem to have this front-porch, organic chemistry that makes it all seem so incredibly effortless. How did the two of you meet?
Annie: The first time was at a little pub in Boston. I wasn't 21 yet -- I bribed my way in and sat in with Paul and his band. It wasn't an amazing night, musically, but Paul's wife, who was his manager, told him we should play together. He was trying to go solo and didn't want a harmonica player. But she'd remind him now and again, and when we finally played a show together, he realized that his wife was right. She managed both of us until her death from breast cancer in 1996.
Paul: Since I had put bands together, I had put up with people who had played the harmonica. I had a sort of a prejudice against harmonica players, and at that point my wife, Leslie, had seen and heard something in Annie that I didn't because the bands were so loud, and I didn't like that sound. I was thinking of going it alone, acoustically, and that's when I realized we could play acoustically together and we could also be bringing the music that I loved and she loved as well, and it was for an audience that was a little more cerebral in terms of the history of music.
BB: Paul, in 1975 you dedicated your professional time to playing acoustic solo. Talk about your mentors along the way.
Paul: In 1960, my parents bought me a snare and a high-hat -- my mom was afraid I'd make too much noise with a full drum set. I finally got a full drum set, and I did make too much noise. I played surf music in bands -- real garage bands that practiced in garages. We played at school auditoriums and country clubs and even had uniforms. There weren't a lot of good surf drummers to listen to, so I listened to jazz musicians, like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, and drummers like Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Gene Krupa, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Big Sid Catlett. I was learning a lot of jazz, specifically jazz by African-American musicians. In 1962, a friend gave me a copy of Eddie "Son" House's 1941 Library of Congress recordings, recorded by Alan Lomax.
Even though I was playing drums in bands, I watched the guitar players, and I began to listen to "Son" House's Delta style and realized the guitar-playing is like drumming. So I began to play that music, and I liked it and felt it needed someone to like it, even though some of my friends tuned it out. It only reinforced my own dedication to it.
I moved to Cambridge in 1971. The next year I had a chance to play with "Son" House for three days. "Son" was a mentor for me. At one point, he was the most important figure in my life, and when I met him, I had a chance to talk to him about things I was wondering about. I wanted to know what it was like to be at the mercy of people. I'd ask him about the police, did it bother him, and how was it to be African-American in the '20s and '30s. All I'd seen -- the civil-rights struggle -- I'd left America at 8 years old and knew nothing about it, and I was upset when I came home in 1960 and saw the reports on TV. I'm still upset by it. I asked him about what it was like to be a musician. I found the more I learned, the more I respected them. No one told them what to do. It's very organic, to use your word.
BB: Annie, you briefly attended Antioch College and in 1988 interned in Washington, D.C., at a homeless shelter with rights activist Mitch Snyder, who persuaded you to drop out of school to pursue your musical career. Was that a difficult choice?
Annie: No, I kind of let it happen. I was doing various jobs as part of an internship for the shelter organization. This was 1988, the year the Redskins won the Super Bowl, and it was a very cold winter in D.C. One bitterly cold night, Mayor Marion Barry opened up City Hall as emergency shelter space. Mitch Snyder came around asking for volunteers to help spread the word to people sleeping on the streets that they could come indoors for the night so they wouldn't freeze to death. It was a life-changing experience to talk with people who were down and out in the seat of power of the Western world.
And talking to Mitch opened up my eyes as well. He had a lot of "radical" ideas, at least to a person from Newton. You know the movie "Good Will Hunting," where Will tells the Harvard dude he can get the same education for a few dollars of library fines? That's almost exactly what Mitch said to me. But, really, it gave me the confidence to do something that I wanted to do anyway.
BB: Annie, you are one of the few female blues harmonica players in the country. You played the New England club circuit with local bands and traveled to Chicago, where you played with many of your musical idols, including Pinetop Perkins, Louis Myers and James Cotton. Did they accept you right away? What were the challenges as a woman, and what were some of the advantages?
Annie: Musicians like Cotton were 100 percent great to me. They never were interested in my gender. If you had something to play, they'd say, "Play it!" They never made a fuss over me or excluded me for being female. There were a few people who were less open-minded, would shut me out, but most people on the local scene encouraged me. Shirley Lewis hired me to play in her band and took me under her wing for a while.
BB: As a featured soloist in the Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra, you enjoyed yearlong stints with the Tarbox Ramblers and the Susan Tedeschi Band, going on to perform on Susan's first three albums. Was that when you honed your style and sass?
Annie: I am still honing my style and sass! (Laughs) No, I started out playing exclusively in the Chicago blues style, but then Paul, he introduced me to the music of country-blues artists like Tommy Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Their music is so much more rhythmically complex than Chicago blues. It started giving me a clue to what was inside all the music I loved, so when I played with Paul, it fleshed out my style quite a lot. Paul had given guitar lessons to both Susan Tedeschi and Michael Tarbox, and I learned a lot from playing in their bands as well.
BB: What drives Annie Raines and Paul Rishell?
Annie: I love the harmonica more than any other instrument, but I like to think of myself as a musician who plays the harmonica. Since playing with Paul, I have picked up mandolin, guitar, bass, keyboards and occasional tap-dance.
Paul: The story of American music -- that's the story we like to tell.
BB: Annie, you've authored a harmonica instructional video, "Blues Harmonica Blueprint," available at Truefire.com. How many players do you think you've influenced over the years? How are you a mentor?
Annie: I've been teaching harmonica since I was 19 and right now, I teach an ensemble class to play like the Cambridge Harmonica Orchestra at The Passim School of Music in Cambridge. I do a night class there every Monday. I like passing on the things I like on to my students, and I guess by now there are a couple students who do sound like me. It's nice to be thought of as a mentor. And it is incentive to do the right thing.
BB: Some in the music world have called you the "queen of the blues harmonica." You also sing and play mandolin and piano. How do you want to be remembered?
Annie: I'd like to leave a musical legacy, something that enriches people's lives the way blues has enriched mine. I don't think I've gotten close to doing that yet, so I hope I have more time to work on it.
BB: And, Paul, you've dedicated your life to bringing American roots music to the stage. Is that how you want to make your musical mark?
Paul: I want to be remembered as someone who loved music and did something about it.
BB: Next to Session America's Jim Fitting, Jed Gottlieb wrote in the Boston Herald in 2015 that "Raines is maybe the best harmonica player" he'd ever met. What can audiences expect at the Bull Run?
Annie: You ask us about mentoring. Paul and I teach country blues at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Brad Bensko was Paul's first student there, and they struck up a great rapport on their first meeting. Brad is a great singer with a really high voice, and he can play bass like Paul McCartney and sing like McCartney, too. So we started getting together and playing Beatles songs and singing harmonies, as well as playing lots of blues and country music he'd never heard before.
After Brad graduated, he joined our band, Mojo Rodeo. His versatility is what makes this project possible. We used to just play Chicago blues, and now we're adding in country, soul, oldies and more of our original songs. One of our current students, Kathleen Parks, is a whiz on fiddle and mandolin. She has great ears and is coming up with great parts to go with the songs we're playing.
Working at Berklee has not only helped us to have great experiences teaching, it's helping to open us up musically as well, to draw inspiration from young musicians who love vintage music.
Paul: I'll be picking a range of antique guitars, including a National Steel guitar called a resonator, made of metal, as well as playing acoustic guitar, electric guitar and pedal steel. The resonator guitar is like a cross between a banjo and a guitar. It has a metal cone inside that vibrates to amplify the sound. It was invented in the '20s before there were electric guitars.
Annie: I will be playing the iconic classic, a Hohner Marine Band harmonica. The show will start with Brad and Kathleen playing as a duo, then the Paul and Annie duo, and then we'll gradually incorporate everyone in the band until it's the full thing. Paul and I both grew up listening to radio shows that mixed up blues, country, soul and rock 'n' roll. It was never divided by genre. We're doing that with Mojo Rodeo, just having fun playing all kinds of American vernacular music.
Paul: Our job is to play the music with integrity, and if you play the parts right -- by feeling them -- then they have integrity. And if we build something together, we play the parts and the parts play us.
A Night in Woodstock
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's "Blue Notes" November 4, 2008
Paul Rishell and Annie Raines are two of my favorite country blues artists, and they don't release new albums often enough to satisfy my Rishell-Raines jones. And they don't show up locally often enough either, the last time being in February of ought six.
But they have one now, out a couple of weeks ago. "A Night in Woodstock" is their first live album, recorded at a little club in Woodstock, N.Y. (yes, that Woodstock), in 2005 as part of a documentary being filmed on jug band music. They work with a fine and funky little band, featuring guests John Sebastian on harp and Bruce Katz on keyboards. This is the first album on the label they formed to release it, Mojo Rodeo Records. They work out of Boston.
I should back up, I guess. Rishell is one of the best country-style acoustic guitar players around, and Raines plays harp. They've been working together for about 16 years, and they've got this country, old-timey blues thing down cold. To say that Rishell plays guitar and Raines plays harp is a serious understatement. They've inhaled these old blues styles, let them fill their heads, then exhale them with considerable style and enthusiasm.
They can turn in a stunning acoustic gem like Tommy Johnson's gritty "Canned Heat Blues" or a slow-burning rocker with crackling keyboards like "Blue Shadows." In between are lyrical efforts like the original "Blues on a Holiday," a softly elegant interplay between guitar and harp behind Rishell's warm vocals.
Yes, I Iike these guys. They are poilshed, but with just enough rough edges. They're down and dirty and smooth as silk. They're very good. They'd sound just right in an intimate setting like the Club Cafe on the South Side. Is anybody listening?
By the way, read Annie's blog. It's almosty as much fun as her music. Maybe she'd like to be BlueNotes' summer replacement.
From the Boston Blues Society website
"The high-energy, fast moving set of acoustic and electric mostly blues tunes, was recorded, and filmed, in 2005 in Woodstock, N.Y. The 13-song disc features Rishell sounding his usual fantastic self on acoustic, electric and National Steel guitars, and Raines retaining her queen of the harp crown. " --BOSTONBLUES.COM
Press Quotes & Reviews
"There must be some physical explanation for the sheer joy they bring to the blues...lots of heat but also plenty of subtle variation under the theme."
-Chuck Young, ATLANTIC MONTHLY
“I have an album called Moving to the Country by Paul Rishell & Annie Raines. Lyle Lovett recommended it to me and it‘s just sensational.”
-- Comedian/Director DAVID STEINBERG (quoted in the National Post, Canada)
"Their new Goin’ Home (Tone-Cool) is the finest release in their 11-year collaboration, with a breadth of styles and sounds focused on graceful playing and singing — the kind of beatific performances that transcend style to reach a place in the human heart."
-- Ted Drozdowski, BOSTON PHOENIX
"Here's a little piece of rootsy paradise."
"Paul Rishell's second album features expertly ordered and nuanced updates of acoustic blues songs - he makes the masters like Son House and Robert Johnson speak to us across time." (***1/2)
---Frank-John Hadley, DOWNBEAT
"Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Paul Rishell and Annie Raines at Johnny D's in Somerville, MA (outside Boston). All I can say is WOW!! I believe Annie might be the best harmonica player I've ever seen. She was like Little Walter and Big Walter and Sonny Terry and Sonny Boy Williamsons I and II all rolled into one. Her control, her versatility, everything was just perfect. I've seen many of the greats -- e.g., James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Rod Piazza, Jerry Portnoy, Carey Bell -- but I believe last night Annie was better than any of them."
-- http://blogs.iona.com/vinoski/ [weblog of Steve Vinoski]
"She plays so good it hurts!”
-- Blues legend PINETOP PERKINS
“W.C. Handy Award-winners Rishell & Raines are rousing interpreters of country blues, the original acoustic style that gave birth to electric blues, R&B, and rock. While their guitar, harmonica, and vocals are roiling, muscular, and masterful, their shows are down home-friendly and fun-loving.”
--Scott Alarik, BOSTON GLOBE
“The Boston-based duo covers the spectrum in ``Goin' Home,'' its first studio release in five years, and adds a full band and even some amplification on a few songs. In classic covers of Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey, Rishell is masterful as usual on guitar. On songs such as Patton's ``Some of These Days,'' he astounds with what has be one of the most underrated voices in blues today.”
-- Dan Gewertz, BOSTON HERALD
“…Paul Rishell and Annie Raines in stratospheric form, which means that some of the most satisfying blues around these days are wafting down on your head and into your being, courtesy of a partnership the theologically inclined may suspect to have been conceived in heaven…”
-- Jerome Clark, rambles.net
“Rishell’s song writing is top notch, and Annie’s harmonica oozes the blues with every note.”
-- SINGER & MUSICIAN MAGAZINE
“Goin’ Home is as complete a CD as you’ll find – don’t be surprised if you see it nominated for a Handy or a Grammy – it IS that good!”
-- MUSIC CITY BLUESLETTER
“Rishell's ability to convey the essence of acoustic Delta Blues is shocking. His guitar playing is tremendous. His vocals are exceptional...”
---SKYLAND BLUES NEWS
"...they have a musicianly rapport and a wide embrace of styles, from Delta heartache to Chicago drive, that make for world-class blues. Their new I Want You To Know (Tone-Cool,* * * * *) has some of the best recorded performances of the year."
--Ted Drozdowski, PULSE!
"Raines is the perfect foil for Rishell. Both are sincere lovers of the older masters, and though they have chops to spare, they keep their playing straight and simple, going to the heart of the material...atmospheric late-night music, played with real grit and soul.”
--Elijah Wald, BOSTON GLOBE
"...both are strong vocalists, Rishell's guitar work is first-rate, and Raines's harmonica is note-perfect." -amazon.com
Goin' Home Reviews
Listen to the simmering joy these two bring to the blues and you can almost see the mystical line that separates the timeless from the merely old. They clearly adore the vintage charms of early blues masters like Charley Patton, Ma Rainey, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, but there is nothing archival about the sweet muscle and urban sass they bring to their arrangements. Rishell is a wonderfully convincing singer - and such a hot guitarist that he taught both Susan Tedeschi and Michael Tarbox. Raines plays the harmonica like she was born with one in her mouth. On their undulating whoop of a new album, "Goin' Home," they wear classic blues tunes like a second skin, and their own songs feel right at home beside them.
-- Scott Alarik, October 4, 2007
These two are so good that any release from them serves to remind us humans that while, true, life tends to suck, it does, on the other hand, have its moments. Goin' Home -- OK, so you might think the title is only blandly generic, but you would be wrong -- is Paul Rishell and Annie Raines in stratospheric form, which means that some of the most satisfying blues around these days are wafting down on your head and into your being, courtesy of a partnership the theologically inclined may suspect to have been conceived in heaven -- or, short of that, in some profoundly desirable terrestrial state accessible only by proximity to their voices and instruments.
I like everything they've recorded so far (this is their third as a duo), but this one somehow, however improbably, manages to surpass the previous two.
What strikes one about their approach is that while it's all based in blues (about which they know as much as any two humans' brains can contain without exploding), Rishell and Raines remind us that "blues" is not a single thing but multiple things: a variety of sounds and approaches, starting with a bewildering assortment of elemental Southern African-American folk wails, laments, jokes, accusations and threats, moving into big-city but country-based jug bands to the downhome uptown post-war roars of the Muddy Waters/Howlin' Wolf post-war generation to the bluesy jumps and jitters to the rock 'n' rolled and rhythm 'n' blued and smoothly souled.
Remarkably, these are all blues languages in whose accents Rishell and Raines sing, play and perform, albeit in varying degrees of allusion and echo. Always in harmony, virtual and literal, that seems so perfect as to feel almost, for want of a better word, preordained, the two speak fluently in those tongues. Even so, the music they borrow, reinvent and coax out of American memory comes, first and last, from and to a single place.
No matter where their muse takes them, ultimately Rishell and Raines -- he with acoustic and electric guitars, she with (mostly) harmonica, sometimes backed by a precision-tooled, steady-rockin' band -- are about pushing the country blues of decades ago into the present century without betraying either the artists' or the music's integrity in the slightest. They are who they are -- white, middle-class New Englanders -- and the music is both eternally what it was and exactly what they have made of it. There is no audible distinction. The fit amounts at once to perfection in art and miracle of nature. Wherever they roam, they are always goin' home.
-- Jerome Clark, for Rambles.net, published 2 July 2005
Singing guitarist Paul Rishell and his harmonica-blowing partner Annie Raines have fashioned a mighty fine career for themselves through their refreshing rearrangements of vintage blues, mostly of the rural sort. Goin' Home, the Boston duo's latest release, is typically rife with variety and virtuosity.
Rishell plays all the guitar parts himself, often overdubbing acoustic and electric, slide, fingerpicked, and flat-picked parts. The material ranges from bare-boned country blues numbers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson's Black Horse Blues and Charley Patton's Some of These Days (I'll Be Gone) to It Ain't Right, an original Rishell soul-flavored blues that sports full rhythm and horn sections. Among the disc's other outstanding tracks are reinventions of Patton's I'm Goin' Home, Charlie Jordan's Hunkie Tunkie Blues, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell's Memphis Town, Ma Rainey's Black Eye Blues, Blind Boy Fuller's Custard Pie, and Magic Sam's Lookin' Good. The latter instrumental is rendered, unexpectedly, not in a band arrangement but as an unrelenting downhome romp with just Rishell's cranked-up guitar and Raines' amplified Sonny Terry- inspired harmonica.
The biggest surprise of the bunch is the duo's rendition of the pop ballad Candy, with which Big Maybelle scored a hit in 1959. Here it becomes an instrumental showcase for Raines' prowess on chromatic harmonica, and her sweet, graceful reading of the melody suggests she's been checking out Toots Thielemans.
The ringer of the set, however, is a haunting rendition of I Had a Good Mother and Father, a religious tune originally recorded in the late 1920s by Washington Phillips. The itinerant Texas preacher played it on a strange stringed instrument known alternately as a Dulceola or a Celestaphone, the construction of which is a complete mystery. Rishell and Raines manage to capture the ethereal ringing quality of that instrument by layering their parts, Rishell on a Koa wood acoustic guitar and Raines on a Hawaiian Mandolin Harp (not a harmonica). Rishell's heartfelt vocals further drive home the song's simple sincerity.
"When the Blues Foundation's members convene to nominate the best albums and artists of the genre next year, the Cambridge-based duo Paul Rishell and Annie Raines are a shoo-in. Their new Goin' Home (Tone-Cool) is the finest release in their 11-year collaboration, with a breadth of styles and sounds focused on graceful playing and singing - the kind of beatific performances that transcend style to reach a place in the human heart.
They've already won one of the foundation's W.C. Handy Awards, the Acoustic Blues Album of the Year prize for 2000's Moving to the Country (Tone-Cool). But with songs as poignantly played and sung as their performances of Washington Phillips's "I Had a Good Mother and Father" and Charley Patton's "Some of These Days (I'll Be Gone)," they're due again. That was apparent from their October 12 CD-release concert at Scullers. They opened as a duo, with Raines pulling full, rich tones from both standard and chromatic harmonicas and Rishell hunched over his resonator guitar plucking out angelic chords and melodies. "Some of These Days" was an especially wistful expression of heartache that stilled the room as Rishell's voice deftly and sweetly negotiated the melody he'd created for this arrangement. And Raines doubled on mandolin for the Phillips number, adding her own bright, ringing lines.
Both artists have both grown as vocalists since 2000's Moving to the Country. For Raines, it's a matter of development. As she's sung more and more of their repertoire, she's honed her vibrato and pitch; you could hear the difference on Ma Rainey's "Black Eye Blues," a highlight of both the new disc and their Scullers show. As for Rishell, prosthetic surgery in one of his ears has restored to him his full range as a singer, and he's now superbly emotive.
For the finale of their first set, Rishell and Raines brought out their full electric band with guest pianist David Maxwell. "Kansas City Blues" and "It Ain't Right," the latter a romping funk-blues from their new CD, pumped up the volume and the energy, but by then Rishell and Raines had displayed a winning mix of charisma and virtuosity all their own." ---Ted Drozdowski
Discriminating fans of roots music in southern New England have known it for years. At long last, the rest of the world is catching on to the fact that guitarist Paul Rishell and harmonica player Annie Raines are among the most earnest and entertaining blues artists active today. Ending a two-year hiatus from the studio with this fourth collaborative album, the pair gives ample proof of their gift for granting new life to old neglected blues and gospel numbers--with a band or without. Deep feeling combines with stellar musicianship on pre-World War II classics like Sonny Terry's risque "Custard Pie" and Leroy Carr's "Memphis Town," while the two tradition-bound originals hold up as well. There's a new depth to Rishell's vocals here and Raines adds creditable singing and mandolin playing as this talented duo continues to surprise.---Frank-John Hadley