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Harping on the blues

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If you're looking to make a rep for yourself in the blues world, the fastest way is to grab a guitar. But according to up-and-coming West Coast harpist John Nemeth, it's the harmonica handlers that are keeping traditional blues and its shuffle alive. His theory is that traditional blues lends itself to harmonica more than rock 'n' roll blues does, with guitarists chasing down the ghosts of Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Nemeth got his start in the blues-starved hamlet of Boise, Idaho. But Garth Brooks and Nirvana, popular with his high school peers, didn't speak to him. The first time he heard blues, he knew he had found his music. "It was so unusual, so different, and had so much soul compared to some of the other stuff that was popular on the radio," he remembers. "I just really fell in love with it."

After putting together one of his first bands in 1993, Nemeth lucked out with a last-minute fill-in gig for a jam band that canceled: "All those Grateful Dead listeners put two and two together and realized that a lot of the music that we were playing was similar to Dead music they were listening to, so we latched on to that crowd. It's been working full-time."

Nemeth has an uncanny ability to mimic vocal styles. He writes and performs original tunes that sound as though Fats Domino, Little Richard and B.B. King were performing obscure jewels from their own catalogue.

Nemeth, who now makes his home in San Francisco, tours with fellow harpists R.J. Mischo and Richmond's Li'l Ronnie & the Grand Dukes, competing in coastal harp competitions. They represent vastly different styles. Tour organizer and elder Ronnie Owens is more of a traditionalist, covering territory from Chicago to Mississippi to Texas, and mixing in material from California as well. Mischo grew up in Minneapolis and lives in California, specializing in South Side of Chicago blues.

But the wild card is Nemeth , mixing old school R&B with eclectic blues. He even dabbles in a bit of Tex-Mex, covering "Careless Love" in a Western soul vocal style that sounds like Johnny Rodriguez. He says he draws from everywhere but won't pin down any one guy on any one song: "What you listen to is like 'You are what you eat.' Whatever you're listening to, you're digesting, and you're incorporating it into your style."

The East Coast vs. West Coast Blues Harmonica All-Dance Party takes place Saturday, July 22 from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Loafers Beach Club, 3914 Atlantic Ave., in Raleigh. Tickets are $20. For info, call 872-5335 or visit www.loafersbeachclub.com.

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