There are plenty of singers in the world with the powerhouse pipes to climb up the scales at volumes which make them seem superhuman. And there are a reasonable number of singers in the world who instead have the ability to subtly connect their voice to the lyrics, to use dynamics to reveal nuanced, personal understanding of songs. Curtis Salgado is one of those rare singers who has both tremendous chops and a refined, carefully tendered approach to using them.
Curtis Salgado's Soul Shot
Salgado’s life story is filled with the stuff of legend and myth. Raised in Eugene, Oregon (near Portland), Salgado was exposed to blues, jazz, and R&B from his music-loving father and as a teen, he led his own band that played all over the Northwest. He was credited with teaching John Belushi about the blues, with dubbing Albert Collins “the master of the Telecaster,” and he was the co-leader of Robert Cray’s band before Cray began recording. For a few years in the 1980s, Salgado sang with Roomful of Blues, before beginning his solo career in 1991. Six years ago, he underwent a liver transplant and a successful bout with lung cancer, only to return to music with even more passion than he displayed before.
After a decade recording for Shanachie Records, Curtis Salgado’s Soul Shot is his first release for the Alligator Records label. Produced by guitarist Marlon McClain and drummer Tony Braunagel, the new album is a tour de force of soulful delights, an update of many of the styles and influences Salgado has enjoyed over his long career. With the blues as his backbone and soul in his heart, Curtis Salgado tears into eleven songs, four of them originals, all of them resonant with emotional truth.
What You Gonna Do?
The band kicks off the album with a driving beat, and Salgado soars over the backing vocals on a terrific rendition of Bobby Womack’s hook-filled “What You Gonna Do?” As he tells the sad tale of a man who has fallen deeply in love with his woman just at the point that she’s given up on him, Salgado dips into his bag of vocalist tricks, crying out in pain but holding back, just in case there is a chance he could be forgiven. The band is on fire, the horns and backing vocalists are pushing, but Salgado will only reveal his pain in controlled bursts of passion.
On his original, “Love Comfort Zone,” Salgado holds nothing back. Over a sinuous, slinky groove, Salgado sells the love and satisfaction he has with the woman he loves. Inverting all the standard blues tropes of unfaithfulness and betrayal, Salgado has no patience with those who have another lover on the side. “I guess they think it’s hip,” he croons, “I’m thinkin’ ego trip.” The horn charts, done on this song by trumpeter Darrell Leonard, are particularly effective, acting as insinuating foils to Salgado’s enormous voice.
Nobody But You
Few, if any, blues vocalists have dipped into the George Clinton songbook, but Salgado continues his love fixation with a deliriously engaging cover of “Getting’ To Know You” from The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein by Parliament. As is appropriate to the source material, Salgado lays back, letting the excitement of his love build from his place in the overall space of the sound. He does practically undress his lover with his harmonica solo, however.
“Nobody But You,” an obscure Memphis soul number originally recorded by O.V. Wright, finds Salgado in front of the beat, standing on a podium and trumpeting his great love as the rhythm section propels him to deliver further satisfaction. Even more powerful, Salgado channels the essence of Otis Redding for a cover of “Love Man,” capturing the cocky strut of the original laced with hints of uncertainty that things will work out exactly right, though with that stuttering rhythmic emphasis at the key point of the song, it seems pretty certain to us that they will.
For connoisseurs of extreme passion and vocal precision, there are few examples better than Salgado’s cover of the O’Jays “Let Me Make Love To You.” Though the song seems to be set just before the first time a man connects with a partner, Salgado sings it as though he’s begging for one last chance to make things right, to prove that he’s capable of pleasing her no matter what he’s done wrong in the past. The sound of his voice here is that of a man who knows exactly what he’s asking for because he’s had it before, not because he’s imagining it. At any rate, it seems unlikely anybody could resist a plea as filled with tenderness, focus, and yearning as this one.
Salgado does a nice cover of the obscure Johnny “Guitar” Watson number “Strung Out,” and in fact conjures up Watson’s memory with two of his own originals, as well. “She Didn’t Cut Me Loose” is just the type of twist Watson might have come up with on his own, turning being dumped into being set free, while retaining a wistful sense that freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “He Played His Harmonica” is the fantasy fulfillment of any blues harpist. Set to a funky Watson-inspired groove, Salgado sings of the party which, despite microbrews and a DJ, doesn’t come to life until the harmonica man takes over the entertainment. His solo here will remind you of Stevie Wonder’s playing, as well.
Steve's Bottom Line
Soul Shot ends with a gospel-styled rave-up on the difficult choice between a woman who will lead to heartbreak or the lonely life without a partner. “It’s a no-win situation,” Salgado testifies, but listening to this record is a victory for all concerned. Curtis Salgado has achieved a soulful, bluesy triumph. (Alligator Records, released April 10, 2012)
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