Jim Fitting's new Coots
Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano
"Rock-and-roll harmonica player" isn't a job description that turns up on a lot
of résumés. There's a tiny list of rock stars who are full-time
harpists -- John Popper, maybe Magic Dick, maybe that short guy who used to
play with Pete Townshend. And Mick Jagger had it down too. But when you're
thinking about local players who've been in a handful of influential bands and
who've explored a range of styles with the harmonica as their one and only ax,
the list begins and ends with Jim Fitting.
"There aren't a lot of harmonica gigs out there," Fitting notes over coffee at
Somerville's Panini coffeehouse. "It's like having a chip on your shoulder --
you play harmonica, you're the last guy the producer needs to hire. So that's
why I started my own band."
Actually, Fitting's choice of instrument isn't the only thing that's made him a
maverick. He's made a career out of joining bands who went against the local
grain. First there were the Sex Execs, who celebrated cocktail culture long
before its revival, back in the early '80s. (Best known for the funny local hit
"My Ex," the Sex Execs wound up with their biggest success in another line of
work: group members Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie opened Fort Apache Studios,
with Fitting kicking in three grand as one of the first investors).
Most famously there was Treat Her Right, the renegade blues band who saw
success in the '80s before begetting Morphine. Fitting is also likely the only
American blues disciple who's ever been part of a British art-pop band --
namely The The, whom he joined for a few years in the mid '90s (he played on
the band's Hank Williams tribute, Hanky Panky, in 1995). Now that he's
fronting his own outfit, the obvious move would be for him to grab some local
hotshots, play lots of long solos, and jump on the white-blues bandwagon. Which
of course is exactly what he hasn't done.
Instead he's formed the Coots, whose members (keyboardist Evan Harriman,
bassist Bill Kane, and drummer Phil Neighbors) are all folks he's played with,
off and on, for about two decades. The band have been looking for their groove
in the clubs over the past two years, and their just-released Message from
the 7th Dimension (Windjam) shows they've found it -- the kind of twisted
roots approach that seems to come naturally to players along the Treat Her
Right/Morphine axis, where purism matters less than intuition.
There's just enough straight blues here to prove the Coots can handle it --
notably on "Square," which comes from the Treat Her Right catalogue, and "I
Like Trains," which sounds as if it could have. But the best tracks have more
of a psychedelic jam feel. Driven by the retro-funk sound of Harriman's
electric piano, the title track lands somewhere between Los Lobos and Sun Ra.
And "Bake a Cake" jams further into the cosmos, with the regular line-up giving
way to bassist/producer Paul Kolderie and Morphine's Dana Colley and Billy
Conway. Here Fitting gets some spacy, atonal sounds from his harp without
falling into the Blues Traveler million-notes-a-minute trap.
The sound of the disc is also, uh, fitting. It sounds slightly spooky, as if
coming from a different time and place. Credit that to the way a number of the
tracks were done straight to cassette, and probably to the circumstances: a
chunk of the disc was recorded this past December 26 at Second Story, the
studio that the late Mark Sandman set up for Morphine. The Coots went with the
moment, throwing out much of their live repertoire and going with a few
unrehearsed jams. "Some of that stuff is loose," Fitting explains, "but it took
on a life of its own and we got a great record out of it. We don't have that
big a draw yet, and we could be slogging away in clubs forever and nobody
cares. So I just wanted to get something good down on tape."
Ask where he met his current bandmates and his voice drops to a conspiratorial
whisper for the only time during our conversation. "In college. We, uh, went to
Yale." Yes, this long-time blues demon is also a confirmed Ivy Leaguer. But he
did have a more romantic blues experience in younger days. Growing up in Los
Angeles, he spent a lot of summers on a ranch in Arizona. "I spent a lot of
time walking on dirt roads with my harmonica. I was pretty obsessed with Robert
Johnson when I was 18. And it was things I heard on the radio that got me --
like a little station that would do ads for pet adoption, but they'd have
Charlie McCoy records playing in the background."
That's one reason there's as much country as blues in Fitting's style. Another
is his desire to carve his own niche -- not easy to do when there's only one
obvious niche for your instrument. "The harmonica is blues, you can't escape
that. And that's the easiest thing to play, but I really hate the idea of white
blues bands. I always feel like I'm on a crusade for harmonica, trying to break
it out of its boundaries. I may not be the greatest player, but I think I have
a distinctive style."
Most of Fitting's real heroes are lesser-known players who skirt the
country/blues axis. As for his taste in modern music . . . well,
there's a reason his band is called the Coots. "Don't even get me started on
modern dance music. To me, the real ultimate would be somebody like Bob Wills,
because he's such a cool amalgam of things -- rootsy and weird at the same
Those last seven words pretty much sum up the focus of Fitting's career. Treat
Her Right were a band on a crusade, though the boundaries were hard to define
-- but it was largely about finding their own way into the blues tradition.
"I'd say it was more of a crusade against white blues -- like we were saying,
`This music is beautiful but it's not a dead form, it can grow.' Mark [Sandman]
and [co-frontman] Dave [Champagne] were using those forms and tones, but with
the modern æsthetics of songwriting."
Although they had a successful run with two major-label albums, Treat Her Right
went over the audience's head more than once. "I remember doing a benefit at
Boston Garden once where we were sandwiched in between Boston and [local '80s
mainstream rockers] Farrenheit. Someone had the idea of me opening with a solo,
so I came out and did this Sonny Terry-type thing. And man, that was rough. We
almost didn't make it to the rest of the set."
Fitting's memories of Sandman are affectionate but tinged by the way they often
butted heads as bandmates. "He was definitely adamant about certain aspects of
the band, and he deserves the credit. There were things he didn't want to
compromise on -- like, he didn't want us to tour with bigger bands, and that
wound up making sense. But he was infuriating -- you could fight him tooth and
nail about something you thought was stupid. And then three years later you'd
think, `Jesus, the asshole was right.' "
One big tour that Treat Her Right did take was opening for Bonnie Raitt, and
jamming with her is one of Fitting's fonder memories. "The first time she saw
us, she came up to me and said, `You're great,' and that absolutely floored me.
Because I know how good her taste in harmonica players is."
Getting used to strong personalities likely prepared Fitting for his next gig,
as a member of The The. And as he's fond of pointing out, he was part of their
least-popular album, Hanky Panky (Sony), which they made when frontman
Matt Johnson was under the spell of Hank Williams. But if it was weird to play
country songs with an English art band, it was weirder to do it as Depeche
Mode's opening act. "We did 52 dates with them, which isn't exactly fertile
ground for a harmonica player. I think the Hank project was partly a stalling
move for Matt Johnson, because he was going through writer's block and needed
to put something out. The Depeche Mode guys didn't know what to think of me,
but I got along beautifully with The The. And I got to take Matt to a baseball
game and got to hear him say, [here he affects a dour English accent] `Ah, this
is boring.' But I think he enjoyed it a little."
Fitting admits that he's something of a reluctant frontman who decided to form
the Coots only after "the phone didn't ring like I thought it would after The
The." But Message from the 7th Dimension proves that fate works in
strange ways -- in this case allowing him to explore territory he probably
wouldn't get to as a sideman. And it offers proof that Bonnie Raitt knew what
she was talking about.
The Coots celebrate the release of their new CD this Saturday, September 9,
at the Lizard Lounge. Special guests will include Dennis Brennan along with
surviving Morphine and Treat Her Right members David Champagne and his band the
Haygoods, Billy Conway, Dana Colley, and drummer Jerome Deupree. Call
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