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Dynamic Duo

After a stint in theater, Cephas & Wiggins return to Virginia and to their evocative blues.



For those not familiar with Cephas & Wiggins, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins are — quite simply — the finest acoustic blues duo in the world. Heralded masters of Piedmont blues, which Cephas grew up on at rural house parties, they are also the most powerful and evocative interpreters of the haunting Bentonia blues of Skip James.

The music of Skip James was included in two recent movies. The hugely successful soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou" offers a faithful cover version of James' "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues." In "Ghost World," a jaded and nonplussed teen-ager is snapped to attention by the riveting falsetto and utter misery of Skip James singing about a former love in "Devil Got My Woman." Cephas & Wiggins have developed their own spine-tingling version in recent years. One of the wonders of Cephas's sugar-cured baritone is that he can also easily navigate the otherworldly falsetto that James often inhabited. Wiggins's incredibly fluid harmonica playing — always a wonder — reaches deepest on tender cuts like this one.

Audiences can also rightfully expect to hear up-tempo Jimmy Reed blues, down and desolate Mississippi Delta blues, and even gospel. If a gospel number is called, it may be one brand new to their repertoire, inspired by the Blind Boys of Alabama. It's a sacred/secular mishmash whereby "Amazing Grace" and "House of the Rising Sun" morph together, and somehow — magically — it works.

To be fair, the real reason Cephas & Wiggins haven't performed a public concert in several months is more about Zora Neale Hurston than Cephas' health. Both men were cast in a revival of the little-known play of Hurston's, "Polk County," which just concluded a critically acclaimed and sold-out run in Washington, D.C. There are hopes that the play will rise again in greener pastures, possibly on Broadway, but for now Cephas and Wiggins are back to their first love, and Cephas is very pleased to be doing it in practically his own backyard.

While Cephas is excited to be performing an intimate show for friends, family and neighbors, Wiggins is excited to be performing again — period. "Doing the show was great," Wiggins explains. "It was a nice change. But I feel like a racehorse, ready to run. In the show we weren't able to stretch out. It will be fun to get back to the old thing and really stretch out and get cooking." S

Cephas & Wiggins play May 30 at 8 p.m. at Ashland Coffee & Tea, 100 N. Railroad Ave. Tickets cost $12. 798-1702

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