Hunting The Blues Whale

The scream of a harmonica really gets me going.

A rustic and wild soul lives inside every mouth harp, which is something they are sometimes called. They’re also sometimes called “harpoons”, which is pretty cool, and makes sense; the sound of a harmonica is kind of like the call of a whale after it’s been filtered through that thick mustache of baleen.

So I guess the “Harpoonist” then, is Shawn Hall, the harmonica slinger and whiskeyed singer of two-piece blues group, The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer.

So that leaves the “Axe Murderer”, who isn’t actually as scary as he sounds. It’s actually just Matthew Rogers, and he’s just a bit misunderstood. See, he murders axes – axes like his guitar, and he does so lovingly. He also has this little kick drum attached to one foot, and a snare drum on the other, and he performs some kind of voodoo with them that caused my feet to start stomping without my consent. Which, after I gave it some time, I found was exactly the right thing to do.

The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer are a blues group from Vancouver, and it’s always good to see a band play in their hometown, to a floor of friends and fans. At The Cobalt on Thursday, that’s easily what most of the crowd was made up of. It was like being part of a big barn social where everybody knows everyone and they all dance together. Once the voices started singing and the microphones started listening, everyone was up, dancing, and having a great time.

There’s not much to say about the blues that hasn’t already been said, sung, or written. The timeless chord progression has been played to oblivion and back, and there’s not a lot left to really do with it that’s going to knock anyone out of their seat. And yet, the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer are young, talented, and have circumvented that problem by simply removing the seat. Their music forces you to rise and take part in it. It’s a performance of the eternal blues, not a rewriting of it.

Harmonica has never before been so absolutely captivating. Shawn has earned his title, in fact, he should probably be called the Harp Murderer, if only that word would roll off the tongue a little better. When he peels into a harmonica solo, it’s like being inside the whale, whose every mammoth breath is the squeeze and release of song. His voice is another instrument entirely, an even more primal substitute that is somehow running off the same lungs but is never short of air.

Matt is the beating heart who leads the listener with his feet, commanding them to react with a kick and a snare. His guitar is oddly enough, the last thing I would label as “murdered” – it is for the most part played softly and is only really used as a background canvas for the voice and harmonica to draw upon.

There was never a break in the energy at the show – despite the relatively small crowd. But it didn’t take much to have fun with these guys. The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer knew how to squeeze the most out of their audience, and did so by leading them.

It might be easy to think that blues music has one foot in the grave already – I certainly might have – but these two musicians have shown that perhaps, you don’t need to reinvent a genre to convince it to come outside again. You just need to give it a harpoon.