Take the earnest, anguished delivery of Jonathan Richman, stir in a pinch of John Hiatt’s unearthly yowl, add the soul of Van Morrison, then back it with Lee Oskar-inspired harp, tossing in a few pages ripped from the Little Walter catalog. That’s the recipe for America: Assorted Tales and New Myth, the latest effort from Chapel Hill, N.C.-based harpist/vocalist/composer Paul Messinger.
Messinger’s message and delivery system has always been a bit off-kilter, in an endearing way. From his Chapel Hill pulpit, the harpist has presided over harmonica summits for years, showcasing the best reed-benders in the world. Messinger is right up there with the best of ’em, showcasing his talents in various local outfits including Climb Jacob’s Ladder, the name a tribute to his son Jacob who died on ’08.
Messinger delivers his material like he’s so excited to share it with you he can barely contain himself, lyrics bubbling gleefully out of him like a fountain with a busted shut off valve.
“A Little Faith” could have come from John Hiatt’s back catalog, imploring a left-behind lover to keep the faith while a soldier’s boots are on foreign soil.
Even though his theme is America, “Blameless” has a South African feel, mixed with a Zydeco flavor wafting in and out, courtesy of Messinger’s harmonica.
“Goin’ To a Party” has Messinger in a Richman mode, second-line-struttin’ through the French Quarter, looking for a good time, bluesy harp riffs nipping at his heels.
The title cut introduces itself with a handful of churchy chords before the harpist drops in a voice-over revealing how to discover America: go to the Waffle House at 4 a.m., when the madmen and the poets hold sway. After a bluesy harp solo, Messinger breaks out into galloping rockstar mode, invoking Richman channeling Mellencamp, changing tempos and mood once again at midpoint, taking it back to church — his version of America featuring “bohemian bebop hobos” wondering what hearth will warm them tonight.
It’s quirky, intriguing music, full of unexpected twists and turns, meandering through rock, blues, gospel, and folk without ever hanging around in any one genre for very long. Even if you’re a native, this is a trip worth taking.