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Joe Asselin - Harmonica Player
And Much More
Although there may have been harsh consequences should he have been caught in the act – like facing the wrath of an angry older brother whose personal space he had just invaded – young Joe Asselin just couldn’t help himself.
Digging through the glove box of older sibling Mark’s pickup truck in search of new music to listen to, Joe Asselin instead found an object that was to soon have a profound impact on him.
For scattered among the cassette tapes of Black Sabbath, Metallica and Judas Priest that were stuffed into that glove box, was a harmonica.
A harmonica that quickly became inseparable from the hands of Joe Asselin.
Fast forward a few years and we find Asselin’s emotional and tasty harmonica licks all over the Kilborn Alley Blues Band’s first three compact discs, licks that serve as a sonic snapshot of his decade-long tenure in the band that is nominated in the Best Band category at this year’s Blues Music Awards (BMA).
But what many fans of Kilborn Alley may not have realized at the time, is that Asselin is as equally deadly with a six-string slung across his back as he is with a harmonica cupped between his hands.
One quick listen to the self-titled debut from Champaign, Illinois’ The Sugar Prophets reveals as much.
While those looking for a contemporary skip down the traditional blues path might be a bit disappointed, those that enter with ears wide open should be mightily rewarded after sliding The Sugar Prophets (Just One Teaspoon Records) into their CD player.
From the cover -emblazoned with a ripped-open packet of sugar with an ultra-hip shamanistic dude on it - to the 12 rippin’ cuts found on the disc itself, it’s easy to tell that The Sugar Prophets are not shackled in lock-step with your basic 12-bar blues.
“We are a blues-based band for sure, but we throw a lot of rock and jam influences in there, as well,” said Asselin. “The CD moves from Cajun, to country to rock, to dirty blues … so there are various styles on the disc. We really want to try and reach a diverse crowd. Like a younger group that’s into the jamband scene. Our goal is try and take things to the next level.”
Comprised of Josh Spence, lead vocals and harp; A.J. Williams, guitar and vocals; Al Chapman, bass; Vince “Fuzz” Elam, drums; Joe Asselin, guitar, vocals, harp, The Sugar Prophets may hail from a wide spectrum of musical influences, but when those individual pieces mesh together as a unit, the end result is sweeter than ice cream and pie.
The group’s album was recorded analog-style at Great Western Record Recorders in Tolono, Il., and then was transferred to the hallowed grounds of Memphis’ famed Ardent Studios, were it was mixed by the legendary Larry Nix, the go-to sound doctor at Stax Records throughout the 1970s.
Leaving an established band like Kilborn Alley, one that was on the precipice of making a splash nationally, might seem a bit un-nerving, but for Asselin, it was just a case of taking a much-needed breather from the record/tour/record/tour grind.
“Recording with Kilborn and being part of Kilborn was great. I love those guys and always will. We’re still good friends.” he said. “But I was getting tired of performing and was just kind of burnt out. I was going to take a big, long hiatus from Kilborn and maybe even call it quits in general.”
He didn’t completely retire from the music biz and before long Asselin found himself playing the occasional solo acoustic gig.
But when he decided his heart wasn’t fully wrapped around that direction either, he began to reconsider his membership in a band.
“The guitar player that was playing with Josh at that time, in 2009, was moving back to Nebraska or Arkansas, and so the door kind of opened up for another guitar player,” he said. “And I’ve been with Josh and The Sugar Prophets since.”
As a full-on, full-time guitar player?
“I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I can hold my own on either instrument. And I’d played harp for Kilborn for 10 years and have been playing harmonica since I was 16 years old. It was the first real instrument I learned,” Asselin said. “I guess at that point (leaving Kilborn) I was kind of burnt out as being known just as a harmonica player.”
However, that doesn’t mean that Asselin has packed up his massive harmonica collection and donated it to Goodwill.
Just ask the crowd at the 27th annual International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis this past February, where The Sugar Prophets made it all the way to the elite eight in the band competition.
“Josh and I were talking about the IBC finals and what we wanted to do to show the judges and the audience what kind of talent we have in the band,” said Asselin. “And since we have two harmonica players, we decided to showcase both with a dueling-harp kind of thing. And it worked out really well. Josh blows some amazing harp and I tried to throw in some of my own style in there, so it was really cool.”
“Really cool” might also sum up The Sugar Prophets’ time spent in Memphis, slugging it out in order to separate themselves from the rest of the IBC field.
“It was great, the opportunity to go down there with this band,” Asselin said. “I’ve gone once before as a solo act and then went with Andy (Duncanson, from Kilborn Alley) as a duo, and this was my third time with a band. The crowd really loved us - every night was just a great time. And that’s why we went. We wanted everyone to have a good time and to show everyone what we love doing. And the great thing was that we made it to the finals and are very blessed for that.”
Even hanging out for a few minutes in the mystic clutch of Memphis, Tenn., can be a life-changing experience, and Asselin thinks The Sugar Prophets are a stronger, more cohesive unit after their recent time spent in the Bluff City.
“I think we brought back a lot of confidence with us,” he said. “Just a confidence in us being on the right path. It really just increased our belief in what we’re doing. Our shows since then seem to have more power and more energy … more umph. It was kind of like the cherry on the pie.”
Riding that wave of momentum is the next step for The Sugar Prophets, one that could help the group break away from the crowded pack clamoring for space in today’s blues scene.
“I can see us being on the road for the next 12 months,” said Asselin. “With the way that Josh pushes and markets this band – he’s really dedicated and does an excellent job in promoting us – I could see us possibly being on a nice tour in the upcoming months. And we’d also like to get nominated for (BMA) Best Debut Artist. That’s one of our big goals. And then on down the line, who knows what happens? The way I’m looking at music right now is just to play and have fun.”
That fun playing the blues started during Asselin’s formative years in Maine, where he was the youngest of four brothers.
“All my older brothers were into music. Mostly all heavy metal, so I’d go through their stuff and find music to listen to. And I was 16 when I found that harmonica in Mark’s truck. I was like ‘Ooh, cool.’ So I started playing it along to my brother’s AC/DC tapes and other stuff that I could find,” he said. “So really, AC/DC was like my first influence that had some sort of blues to it. Especially their 70s stuff. And then I kind of ventured out and a friend of mine growing up got me into Muddy Waters. And then when I got a little older, I bought a tape called “Harmonica Classics” that had a bunch of different harp players on it. And from there, I just kept on buying different blues albums to see how other cats were doing it”
Quickly recognized for his God-given abilities on the harp, young Joe Asselin was assailed with requests to blow a bit of harp everywhere he went around town.
While this attention had to be cool, it also began to wear on him a little.So at 17, he set the harp aside and began to concentrate on playing the guitar.
And just as he did when he first fished that harp out of Mark’s glovebox, Asselin took to guitar playing like a fish takes to water.
Asselin moved from his stomping grounds in Maine to Illinois in 1999 and found himself without two important things – a job and money.
Upon hearing about a harmonica and guitar contest, with the top-prize of $50 on the line, Asselin returned to his first true love, the harmonica, in an effort to put some groceries on the table.
Not only did the contest at Blues Creation in Champaign give Asselin a chance to put some much-needed dough in his empty pockets, it also introduced him to a couple of future bandmates.
“It was neat. That’s how I first met Andy (Duncanson) and Josh Spence. I met some really, really great friends and I guess you could say, from there the rocket ship went up,” said Asselin.
And from the evidence presented so far, that rocket ship appears to be headed out of the stratosphere at warp speed, something that Asselin seems still amazed by.
“To have three CDs (with Kilborn Alley) that are distributed worldwide, and now with the Sugar Prophets disc … it’s nice to have that on your plate,” he said. “Even if you don’t make a lot of money off it, it’s still nice to think that somewhere down the line, maybe 10 or 15 years, that you’ll run across a kid who’ll say, ‘Hey man, I bought the first Kilborn Alley CD, or the first Sugar Prophets CD and that’s why I play.’ Things like that are worth more than $100,000. Just to know you inspired somebody.”
And who knows?
Maybe someday a youngster will pluck a harp and The Sugar Prophets CD out of his older brother’s stash and the entire circle will repeat itself.
That would be sweet, indeed.
Writer Terry Mullins is a professional journalist from Arkansas where he has been a Blues fan for more than 20 years.
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