[PROGRESSIVE BLUES] It took me a while to really hear Joe McMurrian. I tried listening as early as 2001; I heard a deft young guitarist with a smoke-gray voice playing acoustic blues—and instantly wrote him off as a too-conscious retread of Portland's Kelly Joe Phelps, whose widespread recognition was then still new.

But gradually, I noticed that McMurrian didn't just sing in those smoky tones that reminded me of Phelps—he talked that way, too (so, duh, it must be his natural voice). While Phelps was certainly one artist who pointed the way for McMurrian, he pointed him both backward and forward: back to the rich, muddy Delta bottom of blues sources, and onward past the limitations of the form to a more progressive sound, one open to original material as relevant as that of any contemporary, folk-based singer-songwriter.

I'm glad that penny finally dropped. Because the bluesman's two recent releases—last year's studio effort, Rain of Days , and the brand-new Live at the White Eagle— are both truly rewarding listens. Rain 's a quiet, contemplative hour of songs treading through dense emotional territory. McMurrian's shown impressive growth as a songwriter; his words have become as musical as his guitar playing is lyrical. And there's an encouraging sense of reach, as though he's struggling to express something just beyond his language, suggesting more growth to come.

Several tunes are reprised on Live , but the emphasis there, of course, is more on performance. McMurrian's bassist, Jason Honl, who also masterfully recorded the studio disc, is one of the most inventive four-stringers I've heard in ages, capable of Jaco-esque flights and Jack Bruce-like rocking as well as evocative bowing. Both albums are also showcases for harmonica whiz David Lipkind, who's subtle and restrained in the studio and, live, wails like he's been let out of his cage.

The most obvious difference in the new disc's sound is powerhouse drummer Jimi Bott. Bott's years in the Fabulous Thunderbirds (and in Portland-based projects since) proved he knew how to rock the hard blues, but his tasteful work on Live shows he can also pull back when the music demands while still driving the beat forward. Some expansive moments here recall early Fairport Convention at its most atmospheric—even Kelly Joe never did that .

McMurrian celebrates the release of

Live at the White Eagle

Saturday, Sept. 1, with James Low at the White Eagle. 9:30 pm. $6. 21+.