It couldn’t be more fitting that Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers are slated to play Strathmore’s Shades of Blues Festival, taking the stage at the Mansion on March 31. The blues-meets-roots rock band is among a talented lineup of musicians connected with the festival, a “musical exploration of the great American art form and international language known as the blues.” We caught up with the frontwoman of this Boston-based band before their upcoming show in the DMV.
On Tap: Is it true that you spent a decade playing the flute before picking up the guitar, under the influence of a beau who knew all the lyrics to “Alice’s Restaurant”? Is there more to that story?
Erin Harpe: [Laughs] Yes, I don’t know where you heard that story! I joined the music program in elementary school, playing flute from fourth grade through high school. Maybe this was my way of rebelling, playing classical music – my dad being a blues musician. In high school, I was always on the periphery of the artsy/acting kids, but I was way too shy to ever be in one of their productions. I was however, able to impress an actor I liked, James, who knew all the words to “Alice’s Restaurant.” I knew my dad played that song, so I went home and asked him to teach it to me. He said it was a pretty hard fingerpicking song, but I ended up learning it in one week! Let’s just say my interest in playing guitar has far outlasted that relationship, but it did get things started.
OT: How would you say your sound has evolved over the years, from your solo work and duets with your dad, to Lovewhip and now The Delta Swingers?
EH: I started out playing solo or at open mics when I first came to Boston. After I met Jim [Countryman, her husband], we started Lovewhip. It started out as a bigger seven or eight-piece band, playing original dance-based music. First Afro-pop and ska/reggae, then we got into electro and disco, funk and hip-hop, and at this point we’re kind of a psychedelic jam band. Lovewhip has toured all over the country for years, but when I’d have a chance, I’d get together with my dad and do some blues. We did one album together, and he also helped me prepare for the DVD I recently recorded for Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop on Women of the Country Blues. Meanwhile, I started Erin Harpe & the Delta Swingers, wanting to build on the sound of my first two acoustic blues albums by adding bass, drums and harmonica. Since then, the sound has evolved, and there’s actually a lot of crossover with Lovewhip. In fact, one of our fan favorites is a Lovewhip song reinterpreted, “Gimme That,” which will be on our new album! We’ve also been writing more originals, and I’ve become the lead guitar player.
OT: What’s it like to form and play in two bands with your husband?
EH: It works for us! Jim is basically our manager and deals with all the business, and I’m the art and music director. He road manages and I drive. It works well, for the most part. Best aspect: being able to spend all our time together. Most challenging: having to spend all our time together!
OT: How would you describe the band’s style? What about your onstage presence?
EH: Our style matches our quirky retro sounds. Lately, I’ve become known for wearing fishnets, but I dress them down with short shorts or a leather biker jacket. Jim brings his punk-rockabilly boogie aesthetic on bass; Matt, our harmonica player, frequents thrift stores, and like Macklemore he wears your grandad’s clothes and looks incredible [laughs], and our drummer Kendall looks like Frank Zappa if he was the lead in A Clockwork Orange. The show is both lively and interactive, with lots of dancing, stick twirling, even some whip wielding – plenty of dance music to get people moving. I play kazoo during the show, and fans can get their own kazoos at the merch table and play along! And we do have at least one sing-along!
OT: What about your personal style?
EH: I’ve always gravitated towards the 1920s/30s and 1970s/80s. Having two bands gives me the musical outlet that provides a place to play both those parts. I’m a very visual person, and in both bands, we try to be visually stimulating! It’s fun to dress up at shows and transport the audience to somewhere fabulous outside their normal lives.
OT: As a Maryland native, how do you think it will feel playing Strathmore?
EH: It’s a huge honor to play at Strathmore! My family is very excited, too. It’s a great venue, and it will be great to be able to show everyone what we’ve been working on. We’ve been touring so much lately – we just got back from the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, where we made it to the semifinals. And we’ve got new music. We’ve been working on our new album and we’re just excited to share it with family and friends!
OT: Will you play songs mostly from Love Whip Blues, or incorporate some newer work in there as well? Any favorite covers to perform live?
EH: We’ll be playing songs from Love Whip Blues, as well as songs from our upcoming album – we’re in the studio working on our sophomore album right now. We’ll be starting the recording tomorrow [at Verdant Studio in Vermont]. So we’ll be playing all the tracks from our upcoming album, which will be out by the end of the summer. Our favorite well-known cover is Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” (The Rolling Stones did it too). It’s a really fun song. A fan recently told me that part of our set was “a religious experience” for him.
OT: What can fans expect from your new album?
EH: It’s going to highlight our electric side, featuring my electric guitar, backed up by the live band, getting a very live sound. It’s going to be less of a blues album and more of a rock album with blues elements. ZZ Top meets the Black Keys at a Canned Heat concert!
OT: Although retro sounds are definitely in, blues and roots rock sometimes appeal to an older audience. Why would you encourage younger music lovers to check you guys out? What makes your sound relatable to millennials?
EH: Blues does tend to appeal to an older audience, but we’re doing something fresh, not just recycling the same old sounds. We tend to appeal to the people who are looking for something fun and different. Our mix of influences is pretty diverse, and our next album is going to show that off. We aren’t just retro blues and Americana. We have some really fun original songs that aren’t blues at all, but more rock, even psychedelic, and very funky! It’s gonna be a fun time, come on down! And we have at least two millennials in the band, too.
Catch Erin Harpe & The Delta Swingers at the Mansion at Strathmore on Friday, March 31 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Learn more about the band here.
The Mansion at Strathmore: 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5100; www.strathmore.org