Curtis Salgado responds with a wry laugh when asked whether his music is a good fit for a New Year’s Eve party. Yes, Salgado, a singer and harmonica player, is nominally characterized as a blues musician. And the blues, to most minds, suggests a melancholy strain, not necessarily a backdrop that goes with the confetti, countdowns and optimistic kisses that accompany the first moment of the new year.
But Salgado, who is set to headline the Speakeasy Gala Tuesday night at the St. Regis Aspen, knows how to get a crowd in an upbeat mood. “Have you ever heard us play?” he said. “This is hard-core R&B, funk, soul, rock, blues. We’re butt-rocking music — perfect for a New Year’s Eve party.”
Salgado then backs up. He probably knows that even his own promotional materials start with the description “blues-harmonica icon Curtis Salgado.” And he is aware that most people won’t associate that phrase with “OK, time to get wild.”
“Blues has got a bad name,” he said by from Spokane, Wash.. “Blues gets a jacket that it’s sad music, it’s the old black man who lived a hard life in the South.”
The 59-year-old Salgado has been performing since his teenage years in Oregon, long enough to know that the blues has a wider range than that. His latest album, “Soul Sho,t” features upbeat tracks including “What You Gonna Do?” and “He Played His Harmonica,” tunes that aren’t intended to leave you crying in your whiskey.
“Blues is about life. It’s happy and sad,” Salgado said. “It’s the woman who went and did you wrong, and the woman you love, who treats you right. It’s picking cotton, and it’s a good day at the office.”
In the 1920s, when music played by black musicians was known as “race music” and was starting to become commercially viable, record companies trying to find a better marketing niche came up with the blues. Much of the music then was coming out of a tough experience — African-American life in the South — and the association was made between the blues and hard times, hard themes and sad sounds.
“Blues was becoming the popular music of the time. And in order to sell your product, you had to label it,” Salgado said. “They’d say, ‘Here’s a blues’ — so you kind of knew what you were going to get.”
But Salgado says the emotional tone known as the blues didn’t start with ’20s artists like Ma Rainey, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. It goes back not decades but centuries.
“You can hear the blues in Beethoven,” he said. “That music he was writing for those five women in his life, his students — you can’t tell me that’s not the blues. There’s longing on there.”
As a kid in Eugene, Ore., Salgado heard his father sing opera arias and listen to records by Ray Charles and jazz pianists Fats Waller and Earl “Fatha” Hines. He also heard his mother play “wicked stride piano.” He identified his own sweet spot easily in the more blues-oriented sounds.
“It’s what hit my auditory nerve,” he said. “It tickled my nerve center, my heart. It fascinated me.”
Salgado started with guitar lessons but found his teacher evil.
“He kicked me if I didn’t get my lesson right. Kicked hard,” he said.
So his mother bought him a blues harmonica, right around the time that a wave of young Americans was rediscovering the African-American blues artists from a few decades earlier. Among that new generation of kids messing with the blues was Paul Butterfield, a harmonica player who led an enormously talented band. Salgado got hooked on harmonica through Butterfield, but it was another harmonica player, Little Walter, who demonstrated a deeper level of the blues.
“He was the Charlie Parker of the blues diatonic harmonica,” he said.
When Salgado was 15, his sister bought him the Little Walter album “Hate to See You Go,” and Salgado said “it changed my life. Paul Butterfield — good stuff. Little Walter — it was a slap in the face. The real deal.” Salgado added that harmonicas cost 50 cents before Little Walter came along; after the emergence of Little Walter, harmonicas jumped to $3.
The best blues, to Salgado, isn’t about technique but something more all-encompassing.
“It’s to make people believe you’ve been there, convincing them you know the part,” he said. “What does it take to reach people? You should be able to evoke a feeling.”
Salgado might have hit a personal high point with “Soul Shot.” The album, released last year, earned the Soul Blues Album of the Year honors at the Blues Music Awards and a complimentary notice in The New Yorker. Salgado gives much of the credit to the band that backed him, a collective of studio musicians who go by the name the Phantom Blues Band.
“But they’re not a blues band,” Salgado said. “They’ve recorded with Paul Simon, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty. They are the top L.A. studio musicians.”