With Brighton Heights resident Bill Weiner on guitar and Beaver native Charlie Barath on harmonica, the Bill Weiner and Charlie Barath Duo play authentic pre-war blues with a few gems of their own. Video taken at a concert at the Borders on McKnight Road Aug. 20, 2010. (Video/Kelly Thomas)
At the root of popular American music, buried deep in decades of covers and re-covers, evolving music styles and technological changes, is the blues.
Blues guitarist and Brighton Heights resident Bill Weiner, part of the Bill Weiner and Charlie Barath Duo, is one of few musicians in Pittsburgh who studies and plays America’s “root” music.
“The majority of people in this town don’t have a grasp on what the true blues is,” Weiner said. “This town is more labeled a jazz town, and it is.”
After World War II, the blues evolved and sub-genres like Chicago blues developed, and that is often what people think of when they hear the phrase “the blues.”
But when Weiner talks about the blues, he talks about pre-war blues: porch blues, plantation blues, artists who wrote songs and played for themselves or small groups of people, songs that never would have been recorded if not for folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s work to chronicle, record and share them with the world.
Along with harmonica player Charlie Barath, Weiner hopes to introduce people to pre-war blues and create a niche of fellow pre-war blues lovers within the Pittsburgh music scene.
Weiner said the idea of people loving it motivates him to perform, and Barath agreed.
Both musicians are self-taught. Weiner said his “epiphany” came shortly after high school when he saw heard troubled blues musician Leadbelly on a record in 1962.
Weiner bought a Martin guitar in 1963 (which he still plays), but rather than taking lessons or learning chords, he chose his own path.
“I just went into trying to figure out how to play [Leadbelly’s] songs,” he said.
Since then, Weiner has accumulated half a dozen guitars, an enormous collection of blues CDs and an impressive musical repertoire that constantly expands.
“I know I’ll never listen to all of this,” he said, pointing to a wall full of the 800 discs of the 5,000 Series of blues that was compiled in the 1990s from private record collections across the country.
When listening to the songs, Weiner said he’ll find “little gems” that stick with him.
Then, he’ll listen to that song over and over again until he figures out how to play it, or if he gets stuck, he’ll ask one of his musically inclined friends to help—he has a companion volume to the 5,000 Series that includes all the lyrics to the collection’s 20,000 songs.
Barath’s musical journey took a similar path to Weiner’s. At 17, he bought an $8 harmonica and taught himself to play. Eventually, he said, he ran into a wall, and in order to take his music to the next level, he studied with well known harmonica players.
“I try to play everything on it,” Barath said. “It’s helped me to learn the instrument.”
Although Barath’s taste in music is wide-ranging, he prefers to play traditional music, and blues in particular, because it’s more fun.
“Love the feel, love the groove, love the soul of it,” he said whimsically.
When Barath first heard harmonicas in the blues, he was convinced it was a different instrument, because of the range of sound he heard.
Now, he can make his harmonica sound like a bag pipe and uses multiple harmonicas made from anything to plastic to metal to bamboo, as well as a tin can to create effects and moods.
“It was a bean soup [can], and it was delicious,” Barath said with a laugh. “Not that bean soup sounds better than corn chowder.”
The duo recorded a demo CD at the end of August. Although neither musician is looking to make it big or get a record deal, they want to have something solid to show for their efforts.
Barath said one of the duo’s challenges has been to secure gigs, and he hopes that having a demo will open more doors since people will be able to hear the music before booking the duo.
They play regularly at the Borders on McKnight Road in the North Hills, and have played at the Park House on East Ohio Street, among other bars and restaurants.
The duo prefers quieter venues like the book store since they play acoustically and it can be difficult to cut through loud noise. Not only do they enjoy the audience participation at quieter shows, but it allows the subtleties of their playing to shine through.
Weiner, for instance, never uses a pick. “There’s the sound of the flesh against the string that sounds different,” he said.
Weiner and Barath might not have a specific plan for increasing awareness of their music, but they trust that the blues has the power to captivate those who hear it, and they’ll keep playing as long as someone’s there to listen.
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On Sept. 1 this article was updated to reflect the following correction: Bill Weiner heard a Leadbelly record in 1962, as the musician passed away prior to that time.