Duo plays the blues: Bristol’s Lavoie draws big name to town

MIDDLEBURY — When Bill Sims Jr. and Mark LaVoie perform at Middlebury College and the Art House in the Marble Works this Thursday and Friday, it won’t be their first time playing together. Since Sims, a guitarist and vocalist from New York City, first met Bristol native and harmonica virtuoso LaVoie at a blues festival in Burlington back in 1992, their mutual interest in folk music and the blues has blossomed into a 17-year friendship and collaboration.
In that time, each has gone his separate way. Sims has risen to an acclaimed musician on the New York scene, playing with a number of bands and accompanying blues legends. He’s also done composing and musical direction for theater and film.
LaVoie has developed his own presence in Vermont, teaching lessons, building harmonicas and playing shows all over the state.
But over the years, Sims always found time to come back to Vermont. His first performance with LaVoie was at the former Amigo’s restaurant in Middlebury, and since then they have played the blues at any number of area venues. To Mary Swanson, owner of the Art House gallery and performance space, that collaboration is a great strength of the art community close to home.
“I love that Mark is local, and that his connection with the outside world is bringing people into Vermont,” she said.
To Swanson, the two musicians — both at the top of their fields — are the perfect kind of group to bring into the community.
“This is the caliber and the type of musician I want at the Art House,” she said. “I’m quite sure that this show is going to bring a great sense of joy to everyone who comes.”
When Swanson met LaVoie for the first time, she told him that he could use the space “at a moment’s notice” if he was ever planning a performance.
Sims and LaVoie have been busy recently — they played in Paris this past November, and they have plans to play a blues festival in Mississippi later this year. Blues recording label Delta Groove Productions picked them up, releasing their album “American Blues Roots Duo” last year.
But luckily for Swanson, their busy agenda isn’t preventing them from returning to their old stomping ground — as they have in the past, they will perform three Vermont shows this February to honor Black History Month.
Blues music developed in the Deep South in the late 1800s, a hybrid of African spirituals, work songs and gospel music. At its inception it was a predominantly African-American musical style, but as it spread north and west, it picked up other forms, styles and musicians of all races. Today blues varies widely, incorporating characteristics of folk, rock and jazz, and runs the gamut from acoustic to electric.
But at the heart of it all is the lyrics, which tell stories of struggle and melancholy.
“(Blues is) a venue for telling stories,” said Sims. “In any folk music, it’s about the storytelling.”
Asked why he plays the blues, Sims responded simply:
“I was born black in America,” adding, “The music of segregation is the blues.”
There’s a longer answer, too. Sims’s father, a preacher, had brought his family from Georgia to the small town of Marion, Ohio, in 1946, bringing with him the blues tradition.
“There was always singing in the house,” Sims recalled. “We’d just get together in the evenings. My aunts would be picking beans, and friends would come with guitars. My father would get up and dance.”
His early interactions with music inspired Sims to learn the piano and later the guitar. After he graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in music, he realized that Ohio held few options for him as a musician, so he and his wife packed up and moved to the musical hotspot of New York City.
Meanwhile, growing up in the predominantly white state of Vermont, LaVoie’s exposure to the blues came mostly from the television and radio. He remembered the moment when he truly connected with the music: watching a performance by Ray Charles on television.
“That expression and soulfulness just touched my soul,” he said.
So after graduating from Mount Abraham Union High School in 1969, LaVoie picked up the harmonica, left Bristol and traveled to Tennessee. After spending some time working as a driver for legendary blind harmonica player Sonny Terry, he broke onto the music scene there, performing and traveling with Terry’s duo.
To Sims, LaVoie brings something rare to a field where electric harmonicas have become the norm.
“Mark is one of the best harmonica players in the world,” he said. “Not many people play (the acoustic harmonica) anymore.”
And for LaVoie, meeting and playing with Sims has been transformative. Though he had never heard of Sims when they met, it all came together the first time they played together.
“The magic was there,” LaVoie said. “We’ve never had a rehearsal. We just start playing and it happens.”
When they play, that enthusiasm is infectious, observed Peter Hamlin, chair of the Music Department at Middlebury College.
“They interact beautifully,” Hamlin said in an e-mail. “Each has a lot of personality as a creative individual, and hearing their spontaneous musical conversation is great fun.”
Now Sims and LaVoie are ready to concentrate on getting the music they perform together out to a wider audience.
“Our focus is to get this duo performing more,” said Lavoie. “The blues is our American art form, and we need for the younger demographic to be exposed to it.”
Sims agreed. Asked how long the two would continue to collaborate, he was emphatic.
“Until death do us part,” he said.
Sims and LaVoie will perform three shows in Vermont this week, at the Middlebury College Gamut Room in Gifford Hall at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 11; the Art House on at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 12; and Big Picture Theater and Cafè in Waitsfield on at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 13.

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