Alvin Youngblood Hart's real love is the blues

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When Alvin Youngblood Hart hooked up with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars and Jimbo Mathus from the Squirrel Nut Zippers to form the South Memphis String Band, it wasn’t just a mutual love of traditional American music that brought them together. It was also very handy.

“Proximity,” stresses Hart on the line from New Orleans, noting that the members reside within half an hour of each other in Memphis, where he’s lived for the last 14 years or so, dividing his time between there and the Big Easy. He’s known both Dickinson and Mathus for over a decade, and that closeness comes through sweet and clear on the SMSB’s debut disc, Home Sweet Home. The album—which boasts down-home arrangements of such traditional ditties as “Jesse James”, “Old Hen”, and “Deep Blue Sea”—was nominated for best acoustic album at last year’s Blues Music Awards.

As great as the music on Home Sweet Home sounds, Hart actually describes it as a “distraction”; his real love is the blues, as has been apparent since his ’96 debut album, Big Mama’s House, got him voted best new artist at the prestigious W.C. Handy Blues Awards. Ten years later, his skill at re-creating the sound of the Mississippi Delta earned him a job coaching Samuel L. Jackson for his role as a God-fearing bluesman in the gritty drama Black Snake Moan.

“He was very into what he had to do for the role,” recalls Hart, “and that made it fun. Basically for him it was more about posture—looking comfortable, like you really know what you’re doing with it.”

Hart watched the film for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and found it “enjoyable”, but he doesn’t spend too much time on the couch. He’s usually busy on tour, like the one that will bring him to Vancouver for the second offering in the Black Hen Music concert series, which features local roots maestro Steve Dawson and his band as both opening act and accompaniment to the night’s special guest.

Hart previously worked with Dawson on the latter’s Mississippi Sheiks project, which paid tribute to the influential guitar and fiddle group of the ’30s with a couple of star-studded shows in North Van. So what can local blues and roots fans expect to hear when the two talents converge again?

“A plethora,” replies Hart with a laugh. “A little bit of everything, you know. We’ve been talkin’ over a few tunes, and tryin’ to not forget something we all might know or might learn really quick. When I play with Steve—and it’s not even because of the Canadian connection—but somehow just Steve’s musicality in itself, it reminds me of the Band quite a bit. So he kinda puts me in that mindset when I’m playing with him.”

With the recent passing of Levon Helm, don’t be surprised if an uplifting Band tune or two work themselves into the set when Hart hits town. He’s been known to have a good time here.

“That’s where I was when I did my tutoring with Sam Jackson,” he explains. “He was makin’ Snakes on a Plane. And it so happened that that night they were havin’ an international fireworks competition, so that was a special Vancouver memory.”

Alvin Youngblood Hart plays Electric Owl on Sunday (April 29).

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