Archived Arts & Entertainment

For a swinging sound, look no further than downtown

By Chris Cooper

If you’ve wandered down Main Street in the early part of a summer evening over the years, you’ve probably paused mid-step to the sound of a lady singing the blues bouncing off the bricks. And there’s a good chance that the voice belonged to Karen Barnes, long the local purveyor of all things classy and vintage in blues and jazz.


For her latest offering, Barnes teamed with local multi-instrumentalist and engineer Dave Magill and slide guitar wiz Ron Smith, a guitarist with an uncanny ability to make the electric six string swoop and moan like a lap or pedal steel. With a big handful of original material and several smartly chosen covers that span an array of classic swing, country and blues, the feel of the album is fairly well summed up in the title. Barnes stays true to the mostly duo and trio format of her live performances, and maximizes the talents of her accompanists with well thought-out, straightforward arrangements. And though there’s never too much going on at any given moment, there’s also nothing lacking — the swinging pulse of Barnes’ rhythm guitar gives Magill’s piano room to comp and solo with an understated ease, as on the languid “Why Don’t You Do Right.”

There’s a quality to Barnes’ voice, especially on “Why Don’t You Do Right,” that not only conveys the feeling, but sets an entire mood — the arrangement lends an almost film noir character to the piece — it could as easily pop up in a Tarantino movie sequence as it might in the CD player of your truck. On the heartbroken country waltz of “So Hard To Love You” she again effortlessly delivers a tune that’s ageless and perfectly crafted, with Smith’s faux pedal shimmering between the syllables. His use of alternate tunings, tremolo bar and carefully timed volume swells is mind boggling in its complexity and overall musicality, and the only thing more amazing (and kind of humbling) than just hearing the things he can pull off is watching him do it live. More on that later.

Barnes shares vocal duties with Magill on a few tunes, layering some plush harmony around the chugging swing of the guitars and piano — and check out that spacey western swing lick they toss in near the end. The chiming open string arpeggios in “Smoky Mountain Emerald Bridge” offers a sample of Smith and Magill’s instrumental abilities, as well as Smith’s Dobro chops. He gets the last word here, with a sparkling arrangement of Bob Wills’ classic “San Antonio Rose” that sets up a series of traded solos quoting anything from Barnum and Bailey to “Satin Doll.”

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At times Karen Barnes can call to mind the likes of Etta James, KD Lang and Bonnie Raitt, the last one not so surprising in that Barnes has likely been working with the blues about as long as the red-haired slide queen herself. From a purely musical standpoint, there’s just quite a lot to like about Uptown & Down Home. And from a purely geographical standpoint, it’s awfully nice to be reminded of the truly amazing talent residing right here in town. I probably don’t need to say what a good idea it would be for you to attend her official CD release party at Soul Infusion April 6. Nor would you be caught anywhere near your guitar without one of her remarkable hand-made ceramic slides, right? Of course not.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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