Boston Blues Society Review
7/18/2008 by Rachel Lee
Portsmouth N.H.’s Wooden Eye originally started out as a recording project but has since become a live band. It consists of Bob Halperin on guitars, mandolin, vocals and diddley bow, joined by Dan Maclellan on bass, as well as the father-son team of Mike “Bullfrog” Rogers on harp and vocals and Joe Rogers on drums. Bob, who wrote many of the band’s songs, is a former student of the Reverend Gary Davis, who influenced artists such as Dave Van Ronk, Stefan Grossman and Jorma Kaukonen among others. He’s a music veteran of more than 30 years and has played with various blues, jug as well as zydeco bands. Bullfrog, who is heavily influenced by harmonica great Sonny Terry, has been a professional musician most of his life. He started his career at the side of Poet Laureate John Perrault in 1968. His son Joe, who has played blues since the 80s, engineered and produced this recording in Maine.
Don't Ask, recorded in the summer of 2008, is an impressive debut. Americana is what they describe themselves as and that is indeed what they are; a skillfully played blend of country, folk gospel, blues, jug band and other roots music. With a deep respect for American musical tradition, Wooden Eye even lists a historical consultant in the credits.
The first cut, “I Got Wise,” starts out with some slide and harmonica one hears the unmistakable influence of the Band.
Next is “Rock Island 4005.” Years before train conductors were texting their sweeties and causing mayhem, there were train accidents. “Rock Island 4005” tells a story about hoboes, trains and death accompanied by a truck-driving rhythm and bluesy harmonica.
The songs “Breakfast in Bed, “American Dream,” “Downtown Girl,” and “Bootleg Rundown Blues” all have an old-timey jug band feel to them that is somewhat reminiscent of the Loving Spoonful. Later, things get a bit more serious on the gospel spiritual “John the Revelator.” There are several versions of this song and these lyrics are the ones used by Son House. The slide and harmonica are prominent on this for a country blues sound.
The other spiritual on this recording is “Joshua” a.k.a. “Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho.” This song had earlier been recorded by Mahalia Jackson, and I like what they have done here. They slowed down it down to a dirge and added slide and harmonica, but it still retains its gospel feel.
“Green Green Rocky Road,” the folksiest number on the recording, conjures up country hills and lemonade with its acoustic guitar and a laid back harmonica.
The most intriguing song on the recording is the instrumental “Take 73” an earthy Delta-style stomper with a locomotive beat. It features the diddley bow, an American stringed instrument of African origin which is played like a slide guitar and noted for having been played by many early Mississippi bluesmen. Bob related that in this case the diddley bow was a two-stringed instrument that was given to him several years ago by a friend in Cambridge who makes them.
If you are looking for more of that pure blues feel, then the thudding beat, gravelly vocals and acrobatic slide of “Down in the Alley” should hit the spot. The recording ends with the vaudevillian “Seacoast Rag” featuring some pretty nifty harmonica tricks from Bullfrog.
These accomplished veterans have taken us to a time when “back to the future” meant living though the Great Depression.
So for these tough times, if all that new-fangled stuff on the radio is not what you’re looking for, then set your sights on Wooden Eye, relax and enjoy.