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're walking on the fringes of the blues world, covering albums from Black Country Communion, guitarist Craig Chaquico, and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. Enjoy!
Black Country Communion – Afterglow
The classic rock "supergroup" Black Country Communion was always destined to break bigger in the U.K. and across Europe than in the United States – less trend-mongering, more respect for music traditions, and so on – but that hasn't stopped the band from steamrolling itself to notoriety and a modicum of stateside success. On the eve of the release of BCC's Afterglow, their third studio effort in as many years, apparent discord had begun to surface as singer, songwriter, and bassist Glenn Hughes (Trapeze, Deep Purple) fretted publically over the future of the band in light of guitarist Joe Bonamassa's crushing, never-ending solo roadwork. Hughes wants to be part of a touring band like ye olde Purple and other monsters of the '70s, while Bonamassa is satisfied with a few BCC side dates to compliment his busy schedule.
Soap opera drama aside, it's quite obvious from the eleven jams on Afterglow that something is amiss with the band's world-beating sound. Don't get me wrong – Hughes and Bonamassa, drummer Jason Bonham, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian, along with producer and unofficial "fifth man" Kevin "Caveman" Shirley, are still one of the biggest-sounding, blustery, and bad-ass outfits on the rock 'n' roll highway today. But Hughes shouldered the lion's share of the songwriting chores for this go-around while Bonamassa was traveling, and it shows in the final product. While Hughes may be an accomplished and skilled wordsmith in his own right, what made BCC so special in the first place was the creative tension between Hughes' hard rock, soul, and funk tendencies and Bonamassa's blues-infused rock 'n' roll fretburning.
As a result, Afterglow finds the material a slight bit fatigued, down a notch, perhaps, from the first two ground-breaking, earth-shaking albums. Not that you could tell from the all-in, full-blast instrumental assault here, BCC still delivering hurricane-strength thrills and chills for the listener who appreciates 1970s-era Sturm und Drang. There's always been an air of Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin in the BCC sound, mainly through Bonamassa's wiry fretwork and Bonham's propulsive percussion and Afterglow offers up plenty of the musical chemistry that made the outfit special in the first place, songs like "Big Train," with its staccato rhythmic intro and subsequent fluid groove atop which Hughes' vocals soar godlike astride Bonamassa's subtle six-string flourishes and Sherinian's underlying keyboards. "Confessor" neatly ties a bow on a the classic rock decade, evoking memories of Deep Purple, Judas Priest, Scorpions, and even a bit of former Hughes bandmate David Coverdale's Whitesnake.
The lone Bonamassa vocal here, on the growling, howling "Cry Freedom," mixes up some taut, Joe Walsh-styled guitar-wrangling (more James Gang than solo) with a measure of six-string stomp 'n' stammer reminiscent of Dust Bowl, while the album-closing "Crawl" is a sly bit of Zeppelinesque blues-funk with larger-than-life instrumentation and an overall impact like a sledge hammer to your medulla oblongata. Overall, with Afterglow, Black Country Communion delivers almost everything you could want from the band on a silver platter. Considering their haste at music-making and the fractured pace of the individual members' careers, however, maybe they should take 2013 off and come raging back in 2014 with new fire and commitment (and Joe, take a day off every now and then, will ya?!). Grade: B (J&R Adventures, released October 30, 2012)
Craig Chaquico – Fire Red Moon
Guitarist Craig Chaquico was a mere teenager when he first climbed aboard the Jefferson Starship as a passenger during the mid-1970s, but by the dawn of the 1980s he was sitting on the helm, helping guide the pop-rock phenomena to the upper reaches of the charts. Chaquico had musical tastes much loftier than his day job required, however, and his solo records evince a love of (and skill at playing) jazz and blues styles that were seldom utilized on songs like "Sara" or "We Built This City," regardless of their overwhelming commercial success.
Chaquico has been a somewhat prolific solo artist these past few years, plying a jazz-inflected instrumental sound that typically falls on the Adult Contemporary side of the fence, his most recent album, 2009's Follow The Sun, kind of a "smooth jazz" breakthrough yielding a minor hit with the Kenny G composition "Songbird." Considering his background, the guitarist would seem an ill fit with the blues 'n' roots mainstay Blind Pig Records, but here he is with Fire Red Moon, Chaquico's debut for the label and a decent enough effort to start with.
First, the bad news – Rolf Hartley, who sings the bulk of the non-instrumental tracks here, may be a longtime friend of the guitarist, but he's just not that great a voice. For example, on Chaquico's "Devil's Daughter," a bluesy tune that cries out for a dirty, gritty vocal instead offers up Hartley's lightweight, Don Henley-styled croon, making the song sound like an outtake from the Eagles' Hotel California. He has little presence on any of the songs that he appears on, and his vocals on Robert Johnson's masterpiece "Crossroads" are lackluster and overwrought to the point of almost overshadowing some of the excellent fretwork that Chaquico is laying down in the background. The best part of the performance here definitely belongs to Chaquico, who takes Eric Clapton's original blueprint for the song and pumps it full of life and vigor in spite of Hartley's duff vocals.
Much better is the effort of singer Noah Hunt – Kenny Wayne Shepherd's longtime frontman – who guests on Chaquico's original "Lie To Me" and brings a bluesy, emotional gravitas to the performance that Hartley sorely lacks. Next time around, Chaquico should rope Hunt into the studio for a few more tunes. Another guest vocalist, Eric E. Golbach, makes what appears to be his big league debut on "Bad Woman" and it isn't half-bad, Golbach and his gravelly vocals displaying a real sense of heartbreak on the lyrics, the performance bolstered by Chaquico's melancholy guitarplay dancing in the background.
As for the good news about Fire Red Moon, the album offers several fine showcases for the guitarist's underrated skills, an instrumental take on Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" perfectly capturing the song's freewheeling locomotive vibe, while the album's title track mixes blues and jazz together like B.B. King, displaying great tone and texture in equal and entertaining measures. The hauntingly beautiful "Blue On Blue" is a gentler, more ethereal sort of "Little Wing," i.e. Jimi Hendrix channeled through Stevie Ray Vaughan and filtered through Ronnie Montrose before emerging from the fingertips of Craig Chaquico with his own unique flourishes. While Fire Red Moon isn't as bluesy (or even blues-rock) as many of us may like, Chaquico is an exceptional musician who, should he decide to walk further down this path (maybe with Hunt in tow), could have a bright future with this thing we call the blues. Grade: B- (Blind Pig Records, released October 16, 2012)
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes – Cadillac Jacks Number One Son
Best-known as a longtime buddy of both Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven Van Zandt, "Southside" Johnny Lyon and the Asbury Jukes enjoyed a couple of minor hits in the late 1970s and early 1980s before sinking below the pop culture radar. It hasn't stopped the crew from cranking out new music, however, and save for a few years during the 1990s sitting on the sidelines in Nashville (recharging his batteries), Southside and his gang of rhythm and blues true believers have continued to deliver Memphis soul, Chicago blues, and old-school rock 'n' roll with the fervor of a traveling R&B revue, the band just as likely to kick up some dust with a vintage Willie Dixon number as they are to belt out a custom-fit Springsteen song.
Exhibit 'A' for the defense is this nifty lil' two-disc import set Cadillac Jacks Number One Son, brought to our attention by our friends at Secret Records in the U.K. and containing a red-hot 22-song performance from a sold-out November 2002 show at The Opera House in Newcastle upon Tyne in jolly ole England. Originally released on DVD back in the early-oughts, as well as on CD as From Southside to Tyneside four years ago, its subsequent re-birth on compact disc is a boon for we original Jukes fanatics, and if you've ever loved Southside Johnny's soulful howl of a voice, you're going to want to beg, borrow, or steal a copy of Cadillac Jacks Number One Son for yourself. It has just about everything you could ask for from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes on a live disc, an exciting mix of old and new, rhythm and blues, and all the blue-eyed soul your hungry ears can handle.
Cadillac Jacks Number One Son finds the band performing with a renewed vigor thanks to the addition of longtime New Jersey cohort Bobby Bandiera on guitar and keyboardist Jeff Kazee. The set includes a handful of tunes from the band's then-current release, 2000's Messin' With The Blues, Lyon's deepest sojourn onto blues turf on record, and songs like the horn-driven big-band rave-up "Baby Don't Lie" or the Albert King doppelganger "Living With The Blues" (which offers up some incredible Southside vox and meaty Bandiera solos reminiscent of you-know-who) are barely-controlled wildfires. A cover of Tom Waits' "Gin Soaked Boy" is cranked-up-and-tight like a Little Walter joint, with greasy git licks from Bobby B and flaming harp tones from Lyon's capable hands.
The performance doesn't eschew the old crowd favorites though, and several of the best and brightest from the Jukes' 1970s-era releases shine famously in this new light. The Little Steven-penned "This Time Baby's Gone For Good" (from 1978's Hearts of Stone) is a lush heartbreaker worthy of Otis Redding while the bittersweet "Some Things Just Don't Change" (from 1977's This Time It's For Real) is simply, eternally divine. Southside has probably performed the title track to his 1976 debut, "I Don't Want To Go Home," literally thousands of times, but he refuses to phone it in, imbuing the song with the same lonesome heartache that he did some 25 years earlier, while the romance-gone-bad finality of "Hearts of Stone" will induce tears from all but the most emotionally-choked listener. Van Zandt's blissfully wonderful "All I Needed Was You" (from 1991's comeback LP Better Days) is reminiscent of everything you ever loved about 1950s-and-60s-era rock 'n' soul music, while the band's lively cover of the Willie Dixon-penned, Sonny Boy Williamson gem "Help Me" is a slice of blues heaven.
Altogether, getting a promotional copy of Cadillac Jacks Number One Son in my mailbox was like getting an early Christmas present...it's just that damn good! If you love rhythm and blues and want to hear it from one of the funkiest, tightest, blue-eyed soul bands that's ever been, you owe it to yourself to track down Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes' overlooked but perfectly-cooked Cadillac Jacks Number One Son and have your bad self a house party! Grade: A (Secret Records U.K., released September 13, 2012)
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