"Keith Harden's Motto: Have Guitar, Will Play"
by Don Gerard
Urbana - When Keith Harden shows up for work he never punches a time clock and the job site changes regularly. He spends countless hours working overtime to hone his job skills. He brings his own tools: a few guitars, harmonicas and a dobro. He is one of a few local musicians who make a living just playing music.
"I've had a few part-time jobs from time to time, teaching guitar, moving pianos, odd jobs, but I don't do that anymore," Harden says. "It just takes too much away from music. I really don't have time for anything else."
Just how busy is he? Next week's schedule is typical: Harden plies his trade Saturday night at Huber's, 1312 W. Church St., C; Tuesday night at the Embassy Tavern, 114 S. Race St., U; and Wednesday evening at Les's Lounge, 403 N. Coler Ave., U.
Harden has been a familiar fixture in the local and regional scene for the better part of the past two decades. For a while he found his greatest audience performing a dead-on tribute to the late Texas blues guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan.
For the past several years he is primarily noted for his solo performances featuring a mix of his own acoustic folk and blues as well as covers. His repertoire is a virtual encyclopedia of popular music.
"I have no problem playing to the audience. Some nights when I'm doing a (duet) performance with (Paul) Sabuco we might end up playing the Beatles for two hours," Hardens says.
For his new CD, "What The Blues Are For," his first all acoustic and most pure blues recording to date, Harden embarked upon an intensive research project.
"(The album) came out of some recordings I made after
taking several trips in 1994 an '95 through Memphis and into the heart of the Delta where the blues were born. I felt like I could read about it, study it, listen to recordings, but it wasn't enough," Harden says.
"I really had to go down there and get to the source. It was a whole different thing, being in places where Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell lived and played, than just reading about it in a book."
During that period Harden also represented the Champaign-Urbana Jazz and Blues Association at the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Miss., where he found himself as much as a fan as a performer.
"It was really incredible to see these guys like Honeyboy Edwards who were there in the beginning," he adds.
The result is an astonishing tribute which, while it consists of 10 Harden originals recorded with modern-day equipment, is almost eerie in it's dead-on recreation of the style and sound of early blues masters. In the lone contemporary reference, "Tribute to Stevie," Harden acknowledges an admiring to Vaughan.
"Each song was written with a specific artist in mind," Harden says. "The title track is in the style of Sun House, 'Clementine' is Blind Willie McTell, 'Silly Little Blues Song' is Jimmy Reed, and so on."
Harden is a master craftsman when it comes to recreating the intricate picking and slide guitar techniques created by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Big Bill Broonzy and their peers. He has also established a firm mastery of the vocal styles including a hoarse falsetto in the manner of Howlin' Wolf.
"The falsetto thing I picked up as a kid from John Lennon listening to old Beatles records. Later on it evolved into the bluesy Howlin' Wolf style," Harden notes.
Harden professes a deep love for blues music, but openly acknowledges he hasn't experienced similar hardships the original creators faced. " I really wouldn't say I make a 'comfortable' living playing music, but it is all I do. I've always kind of been living on the edge. "Fortunately, it's a very rounded edge, but still an edge," he says.
According to Harden, "What The Blues Are For," will probably be his only pure acoustic blues album. "(Several) different artists really put their stamp on me and (the album) was my direct tribute to them. As far as my next album, it will be more pop. I still have those influences, but I'm ready to move on."
This article was written by local writer Don Gerard, and originally published in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette "Etc!" weekend supplement, February 25, 2000. Thanks to Don for his permission to use the article.
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