Michael Tracey and the Hi-Tones have won Best Contemporary Blues Band twice from Eugene's Rainy Day Blues Society. Tracey, shown with harp in hand, has won the blues society's Best Blues Vocalist three times. - Photo courtesy of Michael Tracey

Michael Tracey moves the blues forward

Blues artist Michael Tracey likes his music honest and without rules or boundaries. "Blues is emotional and rootsy," says the Eugene-based harmonica player. "I like to take the music and make it my own."

Some musicians will play 12-bar, blues chord progressions in the exact manner as the artists they're imitating, but Tracey says he doesn't like to be repetitive.

"I like to tinker with the chord progressions and play with the turnarounds," says Tracey. "Even when the band and I play covers, we do them our own way. I think creating something that is your own is a dividing line between artists and musicians.

"We don't always achieve that," he adds with a laugh. "Sometimes a song is just so great, there's no way to change it."

Tracey and his band, the Hi-Tones — with guitarist Steve Arriola, drummer Theo Halpert, bassist Sylvain DuPlant and keyboard player Almond Davis — will perform at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 25 and 26, at Roscoe's BBQ, 117 S. Main St., Phoenix.

Tracey's also passionate about vocals. While he's always presented himself as a harp player, it turns out he's a darn-good singer. He's won Best Blues Vocalist three years running from Eugene's Rainy Day Blues Society. His band has won RDB's Best Contemporary Blues Band twice.

"I grew up a shy person, but when I get onstage I'm able to lose all that," says Tracey. "I won't do a song unless I feel like I've lived it. If I'm singing about a broken heart or being in love, then I had better have had a broken heart or been in love."

Tracey has never felt confident about creating hype for his music. It goes back to his shyness as a kid. In fact, he took a 10-year hiatus from performing. Then in 2007, he picked up his harmonicas and began playing at Eugene's local blues jams.

"The blues jams were a great way to get my chops going again, get my confidence back and meet other players," says Tracey. "I think Eugene must be the blues-jam capital of the world. There's one happening almost every night of the week."

Now with the Hi-Tones, Tracey has a good following at venues such as Mac's at the Vet's Club and Diablo's. He and the band released a debut CD, titled "Got to Get Away," in early 2009. Another one is in the works to be released this summer.

In 2007, Tracey won first place in the Northwest Harmonica Championship held in Eugene. Later that year, he was a featured player in Bill Rhoades' Harmonica Blow-off at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland. He also won first place in the 2008 Eugene Music Festival songwriting contest.

"Blues will always be popular," says Tracey. "And musicians keep moving it forward. I think artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf would love to see that the music has evolved.

"All art should evolve. Our experience is different from that of a black, blues singer from the '50s, and our music is going to reflect our experiences here in the Northwest."

Tracey grew up listening to Oregon blues legend Paul deLay. He's also a big fan of Curtis Salgado.

"I don't know if deLay will ever be appreciated for the artist that he was," says Tracey. "He was a phenomenal songwriter and a monster harmonica player. He set the standard. And no one's singing moves like Salgado's does."

Cover for the show at Roscoe's is $3. Call 541-512-1046.

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