The Boston Phoenix
September 7 - 14, 2000

[Music Reviews]

| clubs by night | bands in town | club directory | pop concerts | classical concerts | reviews | hot links |

Blowing it

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 time."

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 547-0759.

The Cellars by Starlight archive

[Music Footer]