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  • Writer's pictureThe Sound Cafe

Blues & Roots Singer-Songwriter And Harmonica Master Chris O'Leary Signs With Alligator Records

By Stevie Connor.

Alligator Records has announced the signing of soulful vocalist, dynamic harmonica master and gifted songwriter Chris O'Leary. His label debut, The Hard Line, will be released on Friday, January 12, 2024. It will be available at all digital services, on CD and on translucent red vinyl LP.

O'Leary is among the blues and roots world’s most talented unsung heroes. The Marine veteran, ex-Federal police officer and former lead singer of The Barn Burners (featuring Levon Helm on drums) has walked a hard line from his upstate New York home to stages all over the world.

Between his large, athletic frame and his military-style “high and tight” haircut, O’Leary commands attention, singing his indelible original songs with pure, unadulterated soul and playing harmonica with urgent locomotive power. His keenly written songs come directly from his colorful and sometimes harrowing life experiences.A disciple and friend of both The Band’s legendary drummer/vocalist/songwriter Levon Helm and iconic blues harmonica giant James Cotton, O'Leary has been playing professionally since the 1990s, with five previous solo albums to his credit. O'Leary is beyond thrilled to be with Alligator. On The Hard Line, he set his sights high and created what he says is “the best work I’ve ever done. It’s the most focused, most to-the-point album I’ve ever made.”

Alligator Records founder and president Bruce Iglauer is happy to welcome O'Leary into the Alligator family. “What first struck me about Chris was his terrific songwriting, which ranged from hilarious tales to soul-deep personal stories. I love the passion he puts into every song. As a musician, he’s a world-class harmonica player (and a fine guitar and bass player) but his goal is not to show off his chops. He plays emotional solos that tell the story of the lyrics and heighten the impact of the song.”

The Hard Line, produced by O’Leary and featuring 12 striking originals, has many stories to tell. With over 30 newly-written, never-recorded songs to choose from (mostly written during the downtime of the pandemic) O’Leary and Iglauer carefully picked what Chris calls “the best of them all.” The wildly energetic original song Lost My Mind premieres today.

Born in Schenectady, New York in 1968, Chris O’Leary was raised in a house filled with music. “My dad played everything from Beethoven to Springsteen,” he recalls. Having seen his first live concert at age 10—The Band (with Levon on drums) — O'Leary was drawn to their famous triple album, The Last Waltz, which included, among other guests, Van Morrison, The Staple Singers and Muddy Waters. O’Leary was captivated by Muddy’s ferocious performance and needed to hear more. His dad got him Muddy’s Hard Again album, which featured the great James Cotton blowing some of the most forceful harmonica of his career. This was the first time O’Leary had heard Cotton, and he was hooked.

O'Leary acquired a Hohner Marine Band harmonica and taught himself to play the real Chicago blues, listening to nothing but the classics of the genre. In 1986, O’Leary joined the Marines, following a tradition of military service in his family. Deployed to the Middle East, he and his fellow infantrymen experienced life-threatening combat. The raw emotions left by this experience would soon find expression in his deeply personal songwriting.

After leaving the service in 1993, O'Leary headed to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he soon fell into the local music scene. Before long he was jamming with area musicians. Soon after, he formed his own band, quickly making a name for himself as the area’s foremost practitioner of authentic, classic Chicago blues. As luck would have it, an acquaintance who worked with Levon Helm gave Levon a tape of O’Leary’s band. Helm, who was still recovering from throat surgery at the time, liked what he heard, met up with O’Leary and recorded on some of O’Leary’s demos. He soon began showing up unannounced at many of O’Leary’s local gigs, often sitting in with the band and playing drums.

In 1997, Levon, out of the blue, asked Chris to pack his bags and move to New Orleans. He wanted Chris to front the house band—featuring Helm on drums and his talented daughter Amy sharing vocals—at his new club, Levon Helm’s Classic American Café, on Decatur Steet. For over a year, O’Leary and Helm performed five nights a week, often backing famous touring musicians, from Hubert Sumlin to Bobby Keys to O’Leary’s harmonica hero James Cotton, whom O’Leary befriended. While in New Orleans, O’Leary’s musical vision grew to include soul, jazz, country and straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll. With each performance, O’Leary was becoming a more fully formed artist.

When Helm’s club closed, Levon took the house band — The Barn Burners — on the road. For the next six years, they barnstormed across the U.S. and Canada. But then O’Leary experienced problems with his voice, and his doctors told him he needed to stop singing for a while. He all but quit music and took a job as a Federal police officer. But he couldn’t let go of the music, and began hitting the blues jams once again, putting together his own band. As he grew musically stronger, he became an internationally touring bluesman while still holding his police officer’s job. O’Leary would save, trade, and use his time off work to tour the world, playing as many as 100 nights a year. Eventually, old injuries sustained as a Marine made it impossible to work both jobs. It was time to concentrate on his music.

O’Leary made his recording debut playing harmonica on blues legend Hubert Sumlin’s About Them Shoes in 2003. The album was produced by Keith Richards and features, among others, Helm, Cotton and Eric Clapton. It also included O’Leary’s good friend, blues guitarist and Muddy Waters’ band alum Bob Margolin (who also appears on both The Last Waltz and on Hard Again and has a number of solo albums, including three on Alligator). In 2010, Margolin helped O’Leary release his first album, Mr. Used To Be, on the Vizztone label. The album was nominated for a Blues Music Award and won the Blues Blast Award for Best New Artist Debut. Four more solo albums followed—two on Vizztone and two on American Showplace—as O’Leary grew his audience one scorching performance at a time. O’Leary has always been a monster road warrior, playing hundreds of shows a year all over the world, personally connecting with his audience through his fervent, heartfelt performances. Outside of the U.S., he’s played in Canada, Ireland, Spain, France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Portugal.

With The Hard Line, Chris O’Leary is at the peak of his creative powers, delivering memorable, thought-provoking original songs informed by the complex road he’s traveled. “I’ve lived a life,” he says. “Going to war, playing with Levon, getting to know Cotton.” And now, at long last, O’Leary is set to take his place among the blues world’s most passionate and exciting blues and roots artists. His astonishingly honest material, fierce harmonica work and torrid vocals stun his listeners to attention and bring his live audiences to their feet, all while making a lasting, personal connection.



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