There’s a lot of history in the blues harp. From the late nineteenth century when the instrument first became widely available and through the southern jug bands and honky-tonk howlers that gave sharp and vivid voice to every syllable just beyond the human voice’s reach.
It’s not clear how much of the instrument’s history Katie Bradley has actively studied or how much she simply absorbed by listening to her beloved Little Walter and James Cotton records as a child. But you’d have a hard time finding a contemporary blues harpist/vocalist who better embodies the bold new directions of the genre.
For a soul-rattling testimony of Bradley’s ability to channel the blues’ awe-inspiring past and transport it to the future, give a listen to Bradley and her band’s live rendition of Little by Little.
The song races out of the gate, forcefully sending listeners back to Memphis in the early sixties. But when Katie’s tsunami I of a voice rips through the speakers, we know we’re not hearing Booker T and the MGs, but a brash new voice in the blues world. From the first second of her entrance, the stage belongs to Katie Bradley and nobody else. And she doesn’t give it back until the tune’s final note.
Her soaring soprano floats angelically above the rest of the song, but she somehow keeps both feet firmly planted. Bradley has clearly learned from the best that all blues greats are part angel and part devil. And as usual, you can guess which part has the most fun.
Katie Bradley with the Chris Corcoran Trio playing Ain't Nothin' But... London
Most striking is her lovely harmonica work. It doesn’t so much serve as a counterpoint to her vocals so much as it provides a hauntingly rich harmony. When she blows into the harp, she is speaking a language that features no words, a language that needs no words. She is howling and laughing, flirting, mocking, damning and praising, often at different points of the same breath. This is the language of the mouth organ and Katie Bradley speaks it with jaw-dropping articulation.
Like most ‘newcomers’ in the world of the blues Katie Bradley is not new at all. She’s spent a lifetime cultivating the kind of voice, talent and untiring determination required for a successful career in the ever-shifting music industry.
“A Blues woman is a strong woman but firstly a musician. If you are a great musician that happens to be a woman than you have cracked it. I look at great Blues women such as Big Mama Thornton who famously played and recorded with The Muddy Waters Band.
Big Mama had a great voice and a great attitude, surrounded by the best musicians of her time and possibly all time. If music is what you were put here to do – you better do it.”
In other words, if you’ve got the blues in you, all that matters is your ability to let it out and share it with the world. With that in mind, Katie Bradley is very much poised to shake up the blues world. For if there is any voice that demands to be shared with the world it is this UK native’s voice, whether coming direction from her vocal chords or filtered through the harp. Watch out, blues fans, Katie Bradley’s coming –and she won’t be taking any prisoners!