An ageing rockstar once told a friend of mine how much he enjoyed listening to my friend's harmonica playing. ‘You’re great mate,’ the raddled one opined. ‘Oh,’ thought my pal, ‘perhaps its my phrasing? Maybe my tone, or my sense of dynamics? Even that oh so subtle touch of distortion that I have been working hard to perfect?’ He was brought brutally up to speed by the guitarist’s next comment. ‘Yeah, man,’ he slurred, ‘for a harp player you sure know when to shut up.’
Having played harmonica alongside one of country music’s major talents for over three decades that’s a skill Mickey Raphael has in bundles. He sure knows when to shut up. And theres no disrespect in the suggestion that Mickey is the living proof of that much quoted, but seldom practised, folk dictum ‘less is more.’
Fair enough, Willy Nelson, with all his raggedy edges and nuggets of warmth, is the show. Especially, as it turned out in the Cardiff International Arena on 25th January when Tony Cresci and I were lucky enough to get to see that show, his guitar playing. But good as he was he wasn't the top of our list. We'd gone there to hear the harpman, and if our luck stayed in, meet him afterwards.
Huddled in the centre of the stage the band looked as if they thought they were playing in a mean honky tonk, in a dusty one horse dorp in the middle of the back of any beyond. Perhaps they didn't feel they could rely on the monitors? Perhaps they just liked each other? Whatever, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of ego going on. They were there to accompany Nelson while he delivered a selection of his and others big songs. It was all pretty laid back. And that’s where Mickey Raphael so subtly and seemingly easily shone like a diamond.
Whether he had more than 10 solos all night I doubt. And nearly none of those lasted more than half a dozen bars. Yet although the flights of full throated harmonica warbling were kept to a minimum he continued to season the musical stew throughout the whole set. He’d blow a couple of notes here, in the intro to 'Blue Skies' for example, or some sensitive chording there, as in 'On the Road Again', before turning his tongue to rhythm chugging when the country bus got gently rolling.
Far from trying to grab the limelight he helped craft the groove by building on the dynamics of what was essentially a mature set of mature songs played by mature musicians to a mature-ish audience. (And before anybody out there gets sneery, maturity ain’t a crime. In fact it’s a damn site better than the alternative.) Mickey’s main strength seemed to me to be his awareness of the dynamics of the songs and of the band and how his touches of harmonica could contribute to pushing the whole thing forward.
He’s a neat player more than flash and the audience loved him. When his boss got a laugh from a bit of clowning around with the Welsh flag during one of Mickey’s solos they waited for the harp to finish before setting the record straight with a serious round of applause. He was one of the last to be released from autograph signing duty.
On stage he looks a youthful 35. And he's tall. Up close however, although still tall, he is more forgivably older than that and while you wouldn't say he has a face like a road map, you can tell he's clocked up a few miles. ‘Hey Mickey,’ I said as he rushed past us in the freezing backstage labyrinth, ‘we’re here to meet you.’
He was courtesy itself. We chatted about harps.
Now listen up, gear freaks, and remember you read it here first.
Mickey likes the Lee Oscar Natural minor tunings and uses Hohner Echo harps as a melodic pad on a lot of tunes. He plays Hohner Marine Band, the Deluxe, and the Special 20 and for his favorite solos like '
He likes Seydels too. He just got one in circular tuning which he's trying out on Amazing Grace. He also uses Suzuki's SCT 128 chromatic tremelo harp. He says, "I may sound like I'm all over the place on my choice of harps, but I have my favorites from all the companies. Playing with Willie, and working with many different artists, calls for a plethora of harps."
He certainly achieves a broad tonal spectrum and blows a great Tex Mex accordion sound, reminiscent of Ry Cooder's old mucker Flaco Jiminez, out of the tremelos. Neither Tony nor myself had come across this technique previously but agreed that it is a useful addition to the range of sounds in a harp man's grip. While much of his solo work is weighted towards blues he also has some of his harps tuned up to a major seventh in second position a la Charlie McCoy, for more traditional country phrazing.
The man came across as not being in love with technique for its own sake. He has no interest in overblows for example any more than he has in the Green Bullet pathway to harmonica excess. He goes for a deceptively simple and pure country sound. To achieve this he uses Beyer M 160 ribbon mikes, both in a stand and handheld, and routes the signal directly into the pa via a HHB Fatman tube preamp and compressor.
Next time he comes he told us we can show him around. He hadn’t had a chance to see anything outside his hotel and the venue. Next time he comes I would really recommend getting to hear him live. Some harp players sound better recorded but to my mind Mickey isn’t one of those. I mean he sounds fine on Willy Nelson albums, as he does with Emmylou Harries, but if he is musically courteous on stage he can seem to have been edited to oblivion by the time his work has left the studio.
Before the concert I checked some of the numbers he is credited with playing on in my own record collection. Of course there are the outstanding pieces such as Georgia but on other tracks where he gets a credit you might be able to make out a faint tinkling of reeds way back in the mix. When you think about what the guy can do it seems less than fair to use him as musical background. But such is the session man's lot. We can only hope he got a good fee. Which he probably did.
Yes get out and hear him. His playing is an education in harmonica as an accompanying instrument. Many of us can learn a lot from him. Or even get back in touch with stuff we once knew and have let slip. I'll definitely go and hear him again. But if I get the chance to talk to him next time I think I just might ask him what its like to play harp for thirty years with a guy like Willie Nelson. Now I bet thats a tale worth the telling.