Mark Lavoie Visits Tazday Twilight Blues

lavoie Inerview by Rose Powell. Photo by Jim Lockridge.

A wave of heavy summer air sank into me as I walked into the dimly lit studio. Illuminated by strands of red Christmas lights was a man with a brief case full harmonicas (40 to be precise), his name, Mark Lavoie. He placed his water bottle on the stool, selected a harmonica from the case and began to play. “Built for Comfort,” by Willie Dixon infused the air with Lavoie’s rich and sturdy sound. His breaths ebbed and flowed between sections of soulful singing and the rich melodies of air passing through brass reeds. Though he often plays with other blues musicians, Mark puts on a captivating solo performance.

It is hard to believe that the first time this blues great picked up a harmonica at 16, he just could not figure it out. Growing up in rural Bristol, Vermont during the 50’s, he didn’t gain much exposure to the blues until 1965.  He says of his first experience, “It happened the same way it does when people share music nowadays. I was with two brothers and they were playin’ Bo Diddly, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.” The raw emotion of their music ignited what would soon become a lifelong passion for Lavoie. A passion he shares with us today both through his brilliant improvisational style, and his commitment to keeping the harmonica alive through instructional workshops.

“I been snake bitten for 40 years,” Lavoie tells us, and when ya been snake bitten by the blues you never stop playing, and so began his musical journey. In 1975, at the age of 25, Lavoie had begun to play his music locally. Soon after, he decided to take a trip down south, where he met Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee at the Exit Inn, a Nashville nightclub. It was the beginning of a friendship that would gain Lavoie exposure to the blues industry, and the chance to perform along side legendary Sonny Terry. A year later it was the summer of 76’ and Lavoie had become Sonny Terry’s driver, going all over the US on tours, all the while honing his own personal technique.

Mark is self-taught. Using records by his favorite artists he tried to emulate what he calls the “two haul drawl.” Though he successfully ear-trained himself how to play, he could never really copy their styles, and found himself continually going off on improvisational tangents. Lavoie says of his proclivity, “I am always in the moment and never the same,” and this attribute has not been detrimental to his acclaim as a blues musician. In fact it is something he is admired for, and has earned him a record deal on Delta Groove with fellow musician Bill Sims Jr.

Lavoie not only plays songs by late great blues artists, he also writes his own. The blues is an extremely oppression-centric genre, one whose lyrics stem from overcoming hard times, and tend to be a form of emotional release. When I asked Lavoie what lends emotional relevance to his music he told me, “I was picked on a lot as a kid, and you know, I still feel that a lot today. There is also the guilt that comes along with being a part of the catholic faith.” Luckily, he is able to find relief in his performances, “When I am onstage playing I never feel tired.”

When he is not performing he works to promote and preserve the harmonica as an inexpensive and accessible instrument. He gives lessons in small private schools, high schools and colleges. He is also a Honer representative, which enables him to get the instrument for lower group rate prices. This has also allowed him to perfect his craftsmanship on the harmonica. By building his own he is able to create new sonic textures, which cannot be achieved by factory made products.

This weekend Mark will be playing at the Ripton Coffee house, in Ripton Vermont. The show starts at 7:30 with an open mic, then Bill Simms Jr, and Mark Lavoie will be going on at 8pm. In September he will be playing the Sunbanks Musicfest in Washington. He is also excited to be performing at the sold out Blues Cruise this year with legends like the Taj Mahal and Tommy Castro. You can check him out on YouTube, Myspace, iTunes, as well as his label Delta Groove. To get involved with his classes I suggest going on his Myspace, or just looking him up in the phone book, he is local after all!