Wooden Eye unveils its debut disc
The Wire 7/16/2008 by Matt Kanner
The collective members of Wooden Eye have enough blues in their bones to paint the Seacoast sapphire. Guitarist and vocalist Bob Halperin has played with an almost countless number of area bands, and so has harmonica master Mike "Bullfrog" Rogers. Bullfrog's son Joe Rogers brings some younger blood to the drum set, while Dan MacLellan, a relative newcomer to the scene, rounds out the group on bass and vocals. The powerhouse quartet combines for a rootsy, Americana sound that deftly welds their amassed experience.
Wooden Eye took the spotlight at the Portsmouth VFW Post on July 12 to unveil its long-awaited debut disc, "Don't Ask." Wearing dark sunglasses under a wide rimmed hat and a belt that holstered up to nine harmonicas, Mike Rogers firmly commanded center stage. To his right stood Halperin, who harbored his own arsenal of axes just offstage, alternating between electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin and other assorted things with strings.
The veteran chemistry between Halperin and Rogers sent off magnesium sparks that lit up the VFW and eventually coaxed a roomful of fans to their feet. Rogers thumped the drums and MacLellan strummed a bright blue six-string bass while the guitarist and harpist exchanged solos with mounting intensity.
As the evening progressed, the band got looser and the music got tighter, culminating in a sound that melded old-style blues with zydeco, country and ragtime. Wooden Eye's style perhaps best captured on the new CD's first track, "I Got Wise," which closed the first set at the VFW. Written and sung by Halperin, the song echoes American roots music with an easygoing twang that reminisces of The Band.
Wooden Eye began as a recording project but unexpectedly evolved into a gigging band. Most of the CD's 12 tracks were written by either Halperin or Mike Rogers, with a few traditionals and covers thrown into the mix, and one tune written by the entire band. The album was produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by Joe Rogers, who Halperin called "the instigator of this whole thing." It was recorded at Tillie B's Studio in Berwick, Maine, and published by Dirt Road Music.
The distinct influence of Mike and Joe Rogers is easy to sequester on the CD. The father-son team also collaborates in Maine based blues band Roundhouse, and the elder harpist has been playing blues harmonica since the 1960s, also contributing to the folk group Salt River. MacLellan's steady bass work and lead and backing vocals easily complement the Rogers style, and Halperin's guitar work adds a whole new facet to the sound.
Halperin, who released a collective retrospective of his work earlier this year, has performed regularly on the Seacoast for decades, sometimes as a solo act and sometimes as a member of such bands as the Bob Halperin Trio, Homeless Bob and the Living Room Gypsies and Li'l Anne and Hot Cayenne. Known most famously for his bottleneck slide guitar style, he is capable of blistering blues and soft, finger-picking folk.
A sign of Halperin's abilities came during a cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood," a tune that should only be attempted by true professionals, and Halperin delivered. "Flood" was one of several covers that Wooden Eye executed at the VFW. Another cover came in the form of a Rod Stewart song, written before Stewart was abducted by aliens and transformed into a much lamer incarnation of his former self, Halperin explained.
The band also played some covers that appear on the new disc, including "Bootleg Rum Dum Blues," by Arthur "Bliind Blake" Phelps. As Halperin (jokingly) explained, bootleg whiskey has a lot in common with crack cocaine. Both, he said, are highly illegal, dangerous and fun. "When I have one drink, sometimes I act like a fool. When I have two more drinks, I get up and I kick like a mule, " he sang. Halperin also composed a localized tribute to Blind Blake called "Seacoast Rag."
The mix of original and traditional tunes on "Don't Ask" is effective, transitioning smoothly from the deep and gritty "John The Revelator" to the pleasantly lazy "Green Green Rocky Road." Throughout the songs, Bullfrog's expert harmonica joyfully decorates the tunes, whether accompanying on rhythm or blowing an exberant solo. One of the highlights of the CD release show came when Halperin picked up a harmonica of his own and sidled up to Rogers for an impromptu harp duet.