When blues harpist Ernie Pinata was a student at Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts, he assembled a band as a class project. Designed to showcase the development of the blues, the group remained together after the semester’s end, going on to play with many of the artists whose work they celebrated. The band would go on to record seven albums; their 2000 debut Live in San Francisco and 2018’s Born in Oakland are held in particularly high regard. Delta Wires was recognized in 2008 as International Blues Challenge finalists.
The latest release from the Oakland blues octet, If Somebody Told Me… is a collection of ten tracks, a mix of original and classic material. The band is supremely tight as it works its way through a solid set. A group original, “Can’t Win for Losin’” opens the album with a (presumably) first-person lyric about the band’s adventures. Pinata spars with the strong horn section, and then everyone steps out of the way for a powerhouse guitar solo courtesy of Richard Healy. That’s followed by a soulful extended harp solo form the bandleader himself.
The title track – another original cut – mines a smokier, much more understated vibe. The song’s arrangement is reminiscent of Boz Scaggs’ reading of Fenton Robinson’s “Loan Me a Dime”: it starts out in simmering fashion, building in intensity and volume as it goes along.
A pair of Sonny Boy Williamson songs from the core of the album. “Sloppy Drunk” was first waxed by its original composer, Lucille Bogan, in 1931; Williamson’s recording was released a decade later. Delta Wires makes the most of its instrumental firepower, adorning the song with a sprightly brass arrangement that offers responses to Pinata’s vocal calls. Oddly, his voice on the track is redolent of The Clash’s Joe Strummer circa “Rock the Casbah.”
The band slows the beat down to a crawl for the languorous blues of “Hand Outta My Pocket.” The arrangement is a showcase for Pinata’s wailing harp; toward the second half, the horns offer supple support as Pinata continues his superb work.
Next, John Lee Hooker’s “Dimples” gets the Delta Wires treatment; rock-focused listeners will recognize the guitar figures from ZZ Top’s Hooker homage, “La Grange.” Here the horns hold back until the second half; at that point they let loose, engaging in hearty back-and-forth with lead guitarist Healy, then ceding the spotlight completely to him.
Again making the most of the versatility that a three-man horn section can offer, If Somebody Told Me… concludes with a cover of Count Basie’s 1958 number “Blues in Hoss’ Flat.” The arrangement leans more toward jazz, but there’s a solid blues foundation to the cut. The appealing instrumental underscores the fact that Pinata and his band can capture and communicate the essence of the many forms and styles of blues. And If Somebody Told Me… presents the group in the best possible light.