We had a wonderful time at the Connectictut Agricultural Fair on Friday. I went up to play a show with Pat Wictor, which was wonderful. Pat is a beautiful songwriter, singer and guitarist, and a joy to play with. Vocalist Mara Levine added superb harmonies, and Cheryl Prashker played sensitive and excellent percussion. It’s been a long time since I played amplified with a drummer, and with these musicians it was great fun. Pat is working on a new album; we did three of the songs at the show and it sounds like it’ll be at least as good as his last, Waiting For the Water, which has garnered him some great reviews as well as quite a bit of airplay.
What do I mean by amplified harmonica? I usually play harmonica acoustically, meaning I just hold the harp in my hands and play in front of a standard PA microphone, the same kind used for vocals. The result sounds just like playing harmonica without any amplification at all, only louder. At Pat’s gig I used an old crystal microphone (an Astatic T3, to be specific) and held it in my hands, clasped directly to the front of the harp with a tight seal around it. The mic was plugged into a vintage amplifer (a 1962 Fender Princeton). These microphones were originally designed as vocal microphones for speech (Danny DeVito’s character used a similar one in “Taxi”; so did the guy telling shoppers about the specials in the supermarket years ago), so they give a very compressed signal leaving out most highs and lows; combined with the old tube amp, it gives a hard metallic sound to the harp. This is the Chicago blues harp sound pioneered by Little Walter Jacobs.
But the fair itself was a blast. When we got there, the tractor pull was just beginning. This competition was specifically for antique tractors, some of them more than 50 years old. They lined up to pull a concrete block weighing about half a ton, and then in subsequent rounds the weight was increased until during our show, we could hear them in the background pulling 10,400 pounds. After one contestant ground his gears and nearly failed to make the required “full pull,” the announcer remarked, “Better rethink that second-gear strategy next time!”
We also took a tour through the livestock barns, where sheep milled around in pens underneath posters listing good recipes for lamb, and watched a sow lie exhausted while her brood had an extremely energetic dinner. The poultry barn was full of annoyed roosters crowing at each other, and posters explaining that hens and pullets (young hens) do not need a rooster to lay eggs. This should have been obvious, but it never occurred to me.
We wrapped up the evening at the library book sale tent, leaving with two cartons of books including a ten-volume science encyclopedia from 1959, with charmingly anachronistic color plates, as well as a book of essays about Viet Nam dating from 1965 (when the country’s name was spelled as two words), a children’s musical textbook from the 50s, and lots of other books, all for less than $10. Gotta love those library book sales!