I’m pleased as punch to introduce you to my new favorite band, out of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers. They won me over with a sound that harkens back to the time of juke joints, with some modern funk and rock woven in. Erin Harpe’s got a righteous set of pipes and plays a mean guitar and the rest of the band has a whole lot of awesome going on.
Harpe and her stellar band have created their own sound on their debut album, “Love Whip Blues,” the title adopted from Harpe’s other band, the electro-funk dance outfit Lovewhip. The bluesy tunes are anchored by a 1930s Mississippi Delta vibe. There’s also soul, funk and even a bit of reggae spread throughout the four originals and six covers on the record.
The band includes Harpe on vocals and acoustic and electric guitars, Jim Countryman on electric bass, Richard Rosenblatt on harmonicas, Bob Nisi on drums and Sonny “Jim” Clifford on slide guitar. I rang up Harpe to declare my love for the record and to talk about her roots in music.
Harpe’s father, Neil Harpe, is a blues musician, and she grew up immersed in music but wasn’t interested as a girl in singing or learning guitar. She rebelled in earnest circa fourth grade and opted to learn to play the classical flute, which she played for about 10 years. So what made her get into the guitar? That’s easy: a boy.
The object of Harpe’s affection knew all the words to “Alice’s Restaurant.” She took that info and sprang into action. “I ran home and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to teach me how to play it.’ After that, I was hooked.” Harpe said she essentially learned guitar through osmosis. “I could pick it up really easily, so I said, ‘Screw the flute’ and learned finger-picking blues guitar.”
Bass player Countryman is glad that boy didn’t work out. He and Harpe have been married 14 years.
Harpe started playing folk festivals and coffeehouses in her 20s. She released two albums under her own name, the second including duets she recorded with her father. Both are on Spotify.
Originally from Greenbelt, Maryland, Harpe wound up in Boston, met Countryman and started Lovewhip in 1998. Lovewhip has since released four studio albums and a live one. That band is still going, largely due to its loyal fans.
“We tried to end Lovewhip but fans revolted.” Thankfully, Harpe said, many fans have crossed over into digging Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers.
“I used to have a bit of an identity crisis. We started doing Lovewhip tunes Delta blues style, and it was kind of confusing,” Harpe said. “There wasn’t much difference, besides my outfits and that Lovewhip has synths.” Harpe doesn’t worry about this much anymore.
Calling the Delta Swingers’ album “Love Whip Blues” further speaks to the blurred lines between the bands. Rosenblatt encouraged Harpe to do something that would clue people into the musicians’ other persona, via a song on the album by the name “Love Whip Blues,” a romp heavy with harmonica and a couple of well-placed hollers from Harpe.
The album’s opening track, “The Delta Swing,” is an original, and it sets the tone for the rest of the record with a polished yet funky blues groove: “They’re swingin’ it in Cambridge, they’re swingin’ in J.P., they’re swingin’ it in Memphis, way down in Tennessee.” And you’ll be swingin’ wherever you are when you hear the song.
The “Love Whip Blues” album marks the start of a relationship between the band and the Vizztone record label, which specializes in a wide range of blues-based music. Harpe said the power of a known label lends itself well to catching the attention of influential people. “We’re getting air play all over the world,” she said.
I’m fixated on a song on the album by an old blues man named Luke Jordan. Harpe said she first heard Geeshie Wiley’s version of “Pick Poor Robin Clean” when she was about 20, after her dad gave his entire collection of old blues records to her.
“I nicked it from my dad’s set list,” she said. “He always used to play it.”
Most would be afraid to touch a classic like “Angel from Montgomery,” written by John Prine and famously recorded by Bonnie Raitt. Not Harpe.
She and her band sped it up and made it something new.
“We like to get people to dance, and we kind of can’t help it,” she said. “I’m not a big ballad person.”
Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers recently won the Boston Blues Challenge and will head to Memphis in January to represent Boston in the International Blues Challenge against about 400 other blues acts from around the world competing for top honors. This will be the band’s third time in this competition. In 2013 they made it to the semifinals. The band launched an Indiegogo campaign to help the band cover the costs of the trip. For more information, go to indiegogo.com and search for Harpe’s name.
Hear what all the fuss is about in person by heading to the band’s CD release show in Portland on Saturday night. As a bonus, local trumpet player and longtime friend of Harpe, Marc Chillemi, will be playing with the band.
Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers with Eric Green Party. 8 p.m. Saturday. $10. One Longfellow Square, 181 State St., Portland. onelongfellowsquare.com. For band info: erinharpe.com