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OUTSIDE THE BOX
BLUES INSPIRATION FUELS POWERFUL PERFORMANCES FROM TARBOX RAMBLERS

The need for transcendence is what drives our passion for music. The exuberance in being lifted to another place through song is both invigorating and addictive -- all it takes is an open mind and a little imagination. In the case of the Tarbox Ramblers, which visits Mohawk Place on Sunday, it's really only a matter of closing your eyes.

Blaring from the Mohawk speakers will be the visceral sounds of the Mississippi Delta -- a percussive guitar with a muddy, ominous tone and a desperate, screaming slide, alongside dark themes and stirring field chants sung in a guttural growl. Delivering them will be Michael Tarbox, a white guy from Boston with an unassuming appearance and a pleasant disposition.

But this is no cotton-gin cover band -- what makes the Tarbox Ramblers' sound so authentic is the same thing that keeps it fresh. Tarbox's weary tales of an honest spirit battling a cruel world, the urgency in his fluid slide guitar, and the rhythmic wallop of upright bassist/percussionist Scott McEwen and drummer/percussionist Rob Hulsman, all strike deep with bone-chilling, primal power, both onstage and captured brilliantly on last year's sophomore album, "A Fix Back East" (Rounder). And in mastering the art of tension and release, many of the band's songs find lyrics tiptoeing into a destructive climax.

That power is what persuaded Tarbox into his genre.

"There's so much room for violence and delicacy in the same song in the blues," he said by phone from his home in Cambridge, Mass.

After playing in various rock, noise, and blues/gospel bands around Boston, a revisit to his mother's old record collection inspired Tarbox's Delta blues destiny.

"My mom had a lot of blues records, so I always heard the blues growing up, but the first record to really get me playing traditional music was Charlie Patton," he said.

"I couldn't believe it when I put it on -- it was shocking, like a transmission from another planet, some crazy shortwave making its way to us," he recalled with amazement. "It seemed so alien."

Though Patton's name may be alien to many, the seminal Delta bluesman preceded and heavily influenced many of the more heralded figures in blues history. Patton's coarse yet cathartic vocals and guitar playing are vivid in Tarbox's own style, even as the band's current condensed lineup -- its most recent local show, last summer in Nietzsche's, featured a five-piece group -- forces him to branch out.

"I'm at a different place with the guitar than a year ago," he noted. "My approach was always as a rhythm guitar that would occasionally step out. Now I have to be more innovative, and experiment with different sounds and ranges."

One of the band's most entertaining new ventures is McEwen's drumming during their many field chants, when he uses mallets to ferociously attack his drum with a fire in his eyes as if he were exerting revenge on a bully who stole his lunch money.

"It's funny, because he's such an easygoing guy," Tarbox laughed. "But after seeing him play that drum, it's clear he has some demons."

That thrill of release is the raw beauty of Delta blues, which is more strongly conveyed with the Ramblers' smaller lineup. "We have a lot more freedom, and it's definitely a more raw, bare-bones sound," Tarbox said. "But I find that pleasing."

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