Just Me and My Friend(s)
Singer/harmonica player Charlie Barath is a bit of a pragmatist. Early on in his professional evolution, he realized that if wanted to make a living as a harmonica player, he'd need to cast a net beyond the blues. You can see how well the work paid off on Just Me and My Friend(s), Barath's debut LP.
Barath, who works out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is an interesting person. He left construction to open a drink-and-paint franchise. When that enterprise went under, Barath transitioned into becoming a full-time musician. When Covid shut the world down, he battled back with a livestream, "Car-Tunes with Charlie Barath," which originates from his car. Just Me and My Friend(s), which features 17 tracks and 19 musicians, not counting Barath, is just as expansive as his personal life. The album covers everything from folk, to country, to western swing, to, of course, blues.
The album's most captivating elements are Barath's vocals, which have an unvarnished beauty, and his harmonica playing, which is commanding and ever-present without being overwhelming. The tracks vary in styles, but the underpinning is always Barath. It also helps that he's fluent and comfortable in so many different genres, making the tunes feel personal and not like karaoke.
The straight-ahead blues tracks are good. "The Forgotten Man," an original, has a classic sound, Barath's harmonica buzzing beneath his vocals, the only other accompaniment some train whistles and the sound of a hammer hitting an anvil, Barath calling out "Let my people go," like a Moses who might part the Mississippi rather than the Red Sea.
"Highball and a Covered Dish," another Barath original, is a slow blues, Barath tapping into a vintage, distorted Chicago harp sound, singing about his grandmother, who used the titular—and apparently versatile—combination for everything from weddings to funerals. The sound is classic and the lyrics are evocative. And funny.
The album's western moments also shine. "She Drives Me to Drink" is fast country with wonderful pedal steel, courtesy of Pete Freeman. Barath's vocals thrive in the country setting, with a sincere twang. "Little Turtle Nightlight," also captures a timeless country sound, this time using fiddle in addition to pedal steel. The country moments go deep and feel like Barath wrote and recorded them decades ago.
Coming in at 17 tracks, Barath covers a lot of ground. Tunes even veer into rhythm and blues and Celtic sounds. So perhaps he covers too much ground. It's a lot to process and with so many styles, it's hard to remember the album's special moments. Artists sometimes err on the side of giving listeners more, but often the kinder path is tighter sequencing around fewer themes. I suspect Barath has plenty left for future albums, though, and I'm curious to hear what other styles he explores, although I'd be pretty happy if he stuck with blues and country forever.