Chances are that you've never heard of the Outlaw Blues Band, although you may have run across the band's music a time or two. An obscure outfit with great appeal to crate-diggers and certain adventuresome club DJs, the Outlaw Blues Band's two lone 1960s-era albums have taken on a certain underground cachet since their release, and OBB songs have been sampled in tracks by such hip-hop artisans as De La Soul and Cyprus Hill, among others, and have shown up in various movie soundtracks.
Formed in Los Angeles in the early 1960s by drummer Victor Aleman, bassist Joe Francis Gonzalez, and guitarist Phillip John Diaz, the Outlaw Blues Band was as equally influenced by blues and R&B artists like Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, and Johnny "Guitar" Watson as they were by British Invasion acts like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. After building a strong reputation on the basis of their dynamic live shows, the Outlaw Blues Band was signed to ABC/Bluesway Records by legendary producer Bob Thiele, releasing The Outlaw Blues Band And The People album in 1968, and Breaking In a year later.
The Outlaw Blues Band And The People
The Outlaw Blues Band kicks off its debut disc with a particularly funky take on the old John D. Loudermilk greasy-blues treasure "Tobacco Road." While the rhythm section cranks out a deep groove, a blaring horn riff pushes the song forward. Guitarist Diaz's solos are vibrant, rich in tone, and loud enough to joust with Joe Whiteman's tenor sax. Diaz's scattershot vocals, the band's backing harmonies, and the song's circular soundtrack blend together, making for a hypnotic listening experience. The band sinks deep into the blues with its original "Tried To Be A Good Boy," the song a musical dichotomy that sets Whiteman's jazzy sax and flute notes against Diaz's emotional vocals and wiry leads, the band's unique arrangement taking the song into an entirely different direction.
The up-tempo "How Bad Love Can Be" is a rollicking soul-blues rave-up with Diaz's raucous vocals matched by his scrappy rhythm guitar, Whiteman's icy blasts of sax, and a fluid rhythm section that brings a slippery feel to every beat. Again, Diaz's leads are dynamic, jumping right out of your speakers and demanding your attention, the energy crackling like ball lightning around your ears. Drummer Aleman smacks the cans with a fierce percussive attitude. The blistering emotion of "Lost In The Blues" is bolstered by Diaz's tortured vocals and scorching guitarplay, while Whiteman's use of a vibraharp is interesting for the textures it brings to the otherwise period-perfect blues-rock jam.
Death Dog Of Doom
The album's highlight is "Death Dog Of Doom," a chaotic eight-minute instrumental showcase that masterfully blends blues, rock, jazz, funk, and soul with a heavy Latin influence that reminds of Santana but with a wilder edge. While Gonzalez's throbbing bass and Aleman's subtle drumming builds a rhythmic foundation, Diaz stirs in swirling layers of psychedelic-blues guitar, Whiteman throws in scraps of flute and vibes, and several band members bang out various percussive rhythms behind Jimmy Colford's dominant Congas. The song is a welcome reminder of the kind of musical experimentation that a band could get away with during the swinging 1960s, a free-spirited jam that blows away preconceptions and breaks down barriers, opening the door for future musical ideas.
The Outlaw Blues Band comes back to earth with a smoldering cover of B.B. King's classic "Sweet Sixteen." Diaz sounds more like a traditional blues vocalist here, all silky and smoky while Leon Rubenhold's harmonica playing finally has a chance to rise and shine. Often lost in the mix of other songs, Rubenhold's harp style evokes that of Little Walter, and provides a fine counterpoint to Diaz's imaginative fretboard runs. Larry Gentile's organ provides a bit of warmth to the performance, and Aleman's nuanced drumming reminds of the great Sam Lay. The album closes out with the cacophonic "Two 'Tranes Running," a free-form instrumental jam inspired by John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and a little too improv for my tastes, tho' jazzheads might dig it.
The Outlaw Blues Band's Breaking In
The Outlaw Blues Band And The People brought the band a certain amount of acclaim, and they would score high-profile gigs playing with artists as diverse as Canned Heat, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Spirit, Taj Mahal, the Jefferson Airplane, and others. The truth is, however, that the album didn't sell especially well. The long delay between its recording and release (over a year) had found the band evolving towards an even more eclectic sound, while rifts caused by poor management would change the band's musical chemistry as members left and new ones didn't quite fit in the same way.
Remarkably, ABC/Bluesway Records requested a second record from the OBB, the label insisting on a much more blues-oriented set of material. Recorded over a mere two days, by the time of its release a year later in 1969, Breaking In was supported by a band that included only Aleman and Whiteman from the original line-up. Still, since the band had cut its teeth on the blues, the performances on Breaking In are fresh, original, and masterful while still bringing the trademark OBB eclecticism to the material. New OBB bassist Lawrence "Slim" Dickens does a fine job of singing the Big Joe Turner soul-blues number "Plastic Man," his smoldering vocals laying smoothly atop a loping groove created by his walking bass line, Aleman's rhythmic beats, and Diaz's razor-sharp leads.
A cover of the T-Bone Walker classic "Stormy Monday Blues" is equally spot-on, Dickens' soulful vocals complimented by Whiteman's jazzy vibes and mournful sax, Aleman's shuffling drumbeats, and Diaz's elegant fretwork. Dickens' original "My Baby's Left And Gone" is a straight-arrow blues tune and fine showcase for both Rubenhold's crying harp as well as Diaz's fluid guitar lines. The Latin-tinged "Mamo Pano Shhhh" is closer in spirit to the material on the band's first disc, the song a jazzy instrumental with Aleman's timbales and Colford's Congas riding high in the mix alongside Whiteman's dancing vibraharp tones.
"You're The Only One" is a lofty R&B-styled ballad with a shuffling rhythm and slight, Latin-tinged percussion and vibes. It is easily the weakest track recorded by OBB, devoid of any real passion in Dickens' wan vocals, and only partially redeemed by the song's strong instrumental voice. On the other hand, "Deep Gully" stands as one of the band's masterworks, an instrumental jam that features one of Dickens' strongest bass performances, a mesmerizing underlying rhythm, Aleman's swaying percussive approach to the vibraharp, and Diaz's alternating sweet-and-spicy lead-and-rhythm-guitar. The song evinces a deep funky groove that seemingly rolls on forever, making it the perfect candidate for later sampling by the hip-hop legions.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
While admittedly obscure, these two Outlaw Blues Band albums – slapped on a single disc by British archival label BGO Records – are deserving of a wider listen. The band's lively and unique blend of blues, rock, jazz, and soul music was a decade or more ahead of its time, while its multi-racial make-up and deep well of influences place it on par with contemporaries like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Santana, Electric Flag, and the Allman Brothers Band. Sadly, these albums have been lost for decades, but are ripe for re-discovery by adventuresome blues and jazz fans. (BGO Records, released October 11, 2011)
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