Paul Geremia drives a 1971 Chevy Nova with 250,000 miles on the broken odometer. On a recent Friday, Geremia piloted the Nova from his home in Rhode Island to play at the Rosendale Cafe, a tiny coffeehouse-restaurant in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains. The crowd numbered around 40, and everybody was encouraged to put five bucks in the hat. Although most were happy to oblige, you don’t get rich being one of the best finger-style blues guitarists in the world.
Geremia’s show was not unlike the one captured on “Live From Uncle Sam’s Backyard,” the recently released recording of his 1991 concert. If your idea of a solo singer-guitarist is an earnest guitar-strumming folkie or a rocker trading in his Les Paul for a plugged-in Ovation on MTV’s “Unplugged,” your ears will be opened by the musical intricacy of Geremia’s performance. His playing exemplifies the musical wisdom of the late Rev. Gary Davis, who taught his students to think of the guitar as if it were a piano, with the thumb of their picking hand plucking the bass notes like a pianist’s left hand, and the other fingers playing the melodies of the right hand. When Paul Geremia plays guitar, he’s sitting at one grand piano.
Geremia has immersed himself in various styles of country blues since the mid-’60s, when he was inspired by performances and personal contact with the seminal bluesmen rediscovered by amateur gumshoes during the decade’s blues revival. Geremia was particularly drawn to the driving, Piedmont style that joined thumping bass lines to swinging ragtime melodies, but he’s equally adept at the deeply emotional Delta blues. “Live From Uncle Sam’s Backyard” places tunes by Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson and Skip James alongside Geremia originals that subtly draw upon the styles of these and other master bluesmen.
Plenty of acoustic blues players draw upon the repertoire of legends like Johnson and McTell, but Geremia goes far beyond simply recreating the sound of these performers; instead, he’s developed a style that is every bit as idiosyncratic as that of the musicians he’s studied. You hear Geremia’s stamp in the way his guitar doesn’t just accompany his Randy Newman-ish voice, but adds dramatic counterpoint through the use of rhythmic flourishes and stunning single-line runs. As if this weren’t difficult enough, he’s also quick to blow a zippy harmonica solo over his complex finger picking. Geremia has recorded eight albums over the years, and while he’s never been less than accomplished, this live album and his previous two releases on Red House (“Gamblin’ Woman Blues” and “Self Portrait in Blues”) capture the kind of casual artistry that can only come from decades of practice, and miles of hard traveling.
In a music world drunk on pop-star dreams, it’s tempting to romanticize Paul Geremia as a bluesy Segovia in a beat-up Chevy. But Geremia doesn’t go for self-pity, and knows that a small club is Carnegie Hall compared to the medicine shows and street corners where Blind Willie McTell used to play. After his performance in Rosendale, Geremia sold a few compact discs and packed up his equipment. A musician friend in the audience offered him a couch for the night. And the next morning, he’d head for his next gig in a car that had forgotten how to count the miles.
John Milward is a New York freelance writer. More John Milward.
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