The Reverend receives a lot of worthwhile CD releases here at the About.com Blues HQ, but there sadly just aren't enough hours in the day to pen lengthy reviews on all of them. Some of these albums are just too good to ignore, thus "Blues Bites," a monthly round-up of records that we hope will get you as excited about them as we are! This month we take a look at albums from talented guitar guys like Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Bart Walker, and Eric Gales, all of whom play in varying shades of the blues. Enjoy!
Bart Walker – Waiting On Daylight
Nashville bluesman Bart Walker made quite a splash at the 2012 International Blues Challenge, winning the coveted "Gibson Guitarist Award" while he and his band took second place in the band category. On the strength of that performance in Memphis, along with the accolades heaped on Who I Am, his self-produced debut album, Walker was offered a deal with respected blues label Ruf Records, which released Waiting On Daylight in early March 2013.
I'd say that label head Thomas Ruf got a steal of a deal, because Waiting On Daylight fulfills all the promise Walker showed while competing at the IBC, the album offering up eleven accomplished and mature performances that showcase the guitarist's amazing six-string skills and soulful vocal growl, which is somewhat of a mix of Gregg Allman, Ronnie Van Zandt, and Van Morrison. The material on Waiting On Daylight is an invigorating blend of Southern rock, Memphis soul, swamp-blues, and twangy roots-rock that evokes memories of Duane Allman and John Campbell.
Although tunes like the mid-tempo, power-blues of "Black Clouds" sit comfortably within the realm of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Walker is no mere SRV clone, displaying a wide stylistic range and fluid technique, whether on the self-effacing and humorous "Took It Like A Man," the best song that Lynyrd Skynrd never made, or on the blues-rock wildfire "Gotta Be You," which layers locomotive percussion beneath Walker's anguished vocals and tortured fretwork. The title track is a heartfelt ballad that evokes Jeff Healey with both its emotional vocals and nuanced guitarplay.
A red-hot cover of the Allman Brothers' gem "Whippin Post" breathes new life and fresh musical ideas into the old warhorse while retaining the song's original spirit, Walker's arrangement infusing the blues-drenched original with jazzy flourishes and soulful piano licks that capably support his hypnotizing solos. Bart Walker is one of the up and coming talents in the blues world, Waiting On Daylight a fine introduction to the artist's talents and an impressive major league debut. Grade: A- (Ruf Records, released March 12, 2013)
Duke Robillard Band – Independently Blue
Guitarist Duke Robillard is the "Old Faithful" of the blues these days, a jack of all trades and an undeniable master of them all. He releases a new album nearly every year like clockwork, recorded, presumably, when he's not off touring or in the studio producing another artist's new CD. Really, Duke is a serious workaholic, or maybe he's just hopelessly bitten by the muse of the blues, but either way a new Robillard album is a thing of pure joy, and Independently Blue is no exception.
The follow-up to Low Down and Tore Up, the guitarist's 2011 covers album, Independently Blue offers up mostly new material, penned either by Robillard or his former Roomful of Blues bandmate Al Basile, with a pair of songs written by guest guitarist "Monster" Mike Welch. The resulting slate of songs is a blues lover's smorgasbord of styles and sounds, beginning with the album's opening "I Wouldn't-a Done That." With Robillard's gruff vocals and subtle fretwork, Bruce Bear's tinkling piano, and a shuffling beat, the song is a delightful throwback to the Chicago blues of the 1950s.
The rest of Independently Blue romps across a varied blues landscape, from Welch's rocking instrumental "Stapled To The Chicken's Back," which pits the two talented fretburners against each other above a reckless groove, to the 1920s-era New Orleans blues-jazz vamp "Patrol Wagon Blues," which features Bears' piano and Doug Woolverton's period-perfect trumpet sounding Red Allen's spry original. The swinging "Laurene" gives off an energetic rockabilly vibe while Robillard's original instrumental "Strollin With Lowell and B.B." does an impressive job of capturing the spirit of both R&B legend Lowell Fulsom and the great guitarist B.B. King.
In the hands of a less talented musician, bandleader, and arranger, the wide swath of material displayed on Independently Blue would come out of the oven a tasteless mess of notes. Robillard is a traditionalist, however, a skilled instrumental stylist with a deep knowledge of, and respect for the history of the blues. As such, the performances throughout Independently Blue are inspired, wired, and more entertaining than just about any blues album you'll hear this year. Grade: A+ (Stony Plain Records, released April 9, 2013)
Eric Gales – Live
The career of Memphis-born and raised guitarist Eric Gales has long suffered from the inevitable Jimi Hendrix comparisons, especially following the release of 2001's otherwise excellent That's What I Am album under the aegis of the Experience Hendrix family trust. Unfair or not, Gales has tried to live down the Hendrix albatross ever since, a situation not helped a lick by a series of psychedelic-drenched early 2000s album releases like Crystal Vision and Psychedelic Underground for Mike Varney's Blues Bureau label.
Truth is, Eric Gales is a bluesman born and bred – his musician grandfather played with folks like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and his older brothers Eugene and Manuel (a/k/a Little Jimmy King) began teaching young Eric the basics of blues guitar when he was a mere four years old. By the time he was 11, Eric was winning music competitions with his talents, and he signed his first major label deal at the tender age of 15, releasing The Eric Gales Band, his 1991 debut, with brother Eugene on bass. A number of albums have since followed, and if you listen in between the lines, you'll hear elements of Albert King's Delta dirt and B.B. King's jazzier influences mixed with the inevitable Hendrix licks and more than a little of Gales' own original vision.
It's surprising that, with ten albums under his belt, Gales hadn't previously released a live disc, a situation rectified with Blues Bureau's two-disc CD/DVD set Live. A twelve-song performance of original material penned by Gales and producer Varney, recorded at an unspecified venue, Gales leads his trio of bassist Steve Evans and Aaron Haggerty through their paces. The result is extremely satisfying, Gales leaning on the bluesier side of his talents, songs like "Freedom From My Demons" displaying both the personalized nature of his songwriting but also a fluid guitar technique that jumps from smooth jazz to roadhouse blues in a heartbeat.
The 1960s-styled "Me And My Guitar" hits hard and fast with a rapidfire rhythm and a rockabilly heartbeat, while "Wings of Rock and Roll" is a heady ballad that shows so much heart and soul in its shifting stylistic cues that it shakes off the Hendrix mimicry for once and for all. Live closes out with the muscular blues-rock rager "Retribution," which allows Gales to flex like his guitar heroes with a seriously badass performance and plenty of high-flying guitar. All told, Gales' Live is a great showcase for the often-underrated guitarist's immense skills, and this special two-disc set offers a DVD of the performance along with the audio CD. Grade: B+ (Blues Bureau Records, released October 2, 2012)
Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters – Just For Today
While guitarist Ronnie Earl's enormous talents are certainly well-regarded in the blues world, he remains one step behind friends and contemporaries like Duke Robillard or Jimmie Vaughan in the respect department. It could be because Earl doesn't sing and typically plays complex, intricately-constructed instrumentals, bringing in an outside vocalist only occasionally. While these vocal experiments usually work out quite well – check out soul man Dave Keller wailing away on a handful of songs on Earl's 2009 album Living In The Light – the fact remains that better than a quarter-century into his career, Earl's talents are still too-often overshadowed by younger, flashier players with a fraction of his talent.
While Just For Today is unlikely to win many converts to Earl's subtle charms, for the hardcore faithful, it's another treasure from the virtuoso guitarist. Recorded live in a handful of venues in Earl's home state of Massachusetts, Just For Today features the guitarist's longest-lived Broadcasters line-up, featuring keyboardist Dave Limina, bassist Jim Mouradian, and drummer Lorne Entress as the band celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. And what a celebration it is! The album offers up thirteen red-hot performances, a mix of Earl's thoughtful originals and a brace of inspired covers, delivered with all the power and passion that have made Earl a popular concert draw.
Earl is capable of packing more emotion into a few notes than a lot of singers can muster during an entire performance, and his instrumentals are always exciting, exhilarating artistic expressions. Witness the emotional "Miracle," which opens with a swell of Limina's keyboards, Earl's wiry fretwork, and washes of bass and drums. Earl speaks through his instrument and the notes paint pictures of heartbreak, hope, and fulfillment in a way that few musicians could achieve. The jaunty "Rush Hour" is a tribute to Chicago blues legend Otis Rush, the song's walking bass line joined by lively keyboards that would make Otis Spann grin. But it's Earl's livewire picking that evokes the spirit of Rush's South Side blues style.
"Blues for Hubert Sumlin" is a tribute to an equally esteemed, but often overlooked Chicago blues giant. While "Rush Hour" was electric and raucous – befitting a 10:00 or 11:00 PM club vibe – Earl's tribute to Mr. Sumlin is pure late-night blues, measured and intense with a nuance and emotion directly opposite of "Rush Hour." The band tackles jazz legend John Coltrane's "Equinox" with equal aplomb, and it serves, as sorts, as an extension of "Blues for Hubert Sumlin," taking the instrumentation into jazzy, dark-hued territory that announces that it's definitely closing time. Singer Diane Blue acquits herself well on an emotional cover of Etta James' classic "I'd Rather Go Blind," showing what Earl and the band can do behind a good singer.
Just For Today is an excellent representation of the underrated, but never under-achieving talents of Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters. The live setting allows the band to shine, and provides the perfect showcase for Earl's six-string mastery as the crew romps across a set list that includes blues, boogie, and a taste of jazz. Just For Today will please longtime fans and serves as a stepping stone for the adventurous and uninitiated. The Rev says "check it out!" Grade: A (Stony Plain Records, released April 9, 2013)
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