If you've ever heard the lonesome harp playing that graces the Rolling Stones' "Miss You," then you've experienced the phenomenal harmonica skills of Sugar Blue. The talented instrumentalist has been performing since the age of 10 – nearly 50 years now – and contributed his blazing harp sound to such Stones albums as 1978's Some Girls, 1980's Emotional Rescue, and 1981's Tattoo You.
More importantly, for the blues music fan, Blue has played alongside such giants as Willie Dixon, Louisiana Red, Lonnie Brooks, and Son Seals, among many others. The cat is so talented that he's even backed hardcore jazz legends like Stan Getz and Paul Horn. Sadly, he has released only a handful of solo albums, Threshold being his fifth album since 1980 and his follow-up to 2007's acclaimed Code Blue. Much as he did with that previous album, Blue penned most of the songs on Threshold, and he's put together a top-notch band of seasoned pros to pursue his unique musical vision.
Sugar Blue's Threshold
It's the sound of Threshold that grabs your attention, a sort of "progressive blues" that begins with a traditional Chicago blues foundation and throws in dollops of soul, funk, reggae, and rock 'n' roll in creating a new and vital style of blues. The throwback sound of "Living Your Love," for instance, is achieved by means of a funky riff and a syncopated rhythm that evinces a certain island lilt. A recurring guitar lick underlines Blue's soulful croon, but when the singer kicks in with his trusty harmonica, it's pure blues nirvana for the Little Walter or Junior Wells fan. Blue's harp blasts are fluid, melodious, and forceful with no hesitation or doubt.
Blue takes a different tack with "Average Guy;" the song's lyrical celebration of the working-class is whip-smart, bolstered by a particularly mournful harp signature and a jazzy, shuffling rhythm that slides beneath Blue's reverent, smooth-as-silk vocals. Filigree, Spanish-inflected guitar line courtesy of Motoaki Makino adds a welcome Al DiMeola feel to the song's fading moments.
Stop The War
Blue takes the listener in yet another (adventuresome) direction with "Noel News," a tribute to the people of New Orleans that is delivered with a sly, Bourbon Street flavored soundtrack, dashes of Professor Longhair-styled pianoplay, and lots of Blue's jumpin-n-jivin' harp blowing that covers the song like a warm summer rain. With the pastoral sound of birds singing brutally interrupted by a discordant guitar chord and sounds of bombs exploding and missiles being launched, Blue and band jump headfirst into the raucous "Stop The War."
An intelligent anti-war song that includes found vocals amidst swirling sounds, Blue's vocals here are pissed off but positive, the song sounding like something more akin to Living Colour's blistering hard rock than a soul-blues number, with Blue's laser-like harp notes taking the place of Vernon Reid's explosive, angular guitarplay. With its gospel-styled harmony vocals and message of peace and brotherhood, the song is a jarring reminder of the cost of war, but also reminds of the old axiom "F@#k War, Let's Dance!"
James Cotton & Junior Wells
If "Stop The War" wasn't enough to blow your mind and convince you that Threshold is a different kind of blues album, then the unusual instrumental "Ramblin" just might...Blue matches one warbling, twangy harmonica (sounds like DeFord Bailey to me!) against what sounds like a flatulent tuba, but I assume is just a harp of another pitch. The whole thing sounds like the intro to a Tom Waits' song to me, but after repeated plays you can pick out themes of wistfulness, loneliness and, finally, freedom from the discordant notes.
Sugar Blue pays tribute on Threshold to a couple of his musical idols and influences in harp masters James Cotton and Junior Wells. With "Cotton Tree," an original that honors Cotton's life and friendship, Blue delivers a clever lyrical homage to his former mentor, the song a mid-tempo soul-blues with plenty of silky harp notes, rich vocals, and jazzy, George Benson-styled fretwork with great tone and melody that provides a feast for your ears.
Messin' With The Kid
Blue's cover of Wells' signature "Messin' With The Kid" is a free-wheeling, bluesy romp with a funky rhythm driven by some solid interplay between bass, piano, and drums. Staying true to the spirit of the original, Blue matches his wild harp blasts against a raging lead guitar like Wells leaning on Buddy Guy. The album's other cover, of Leiber and Stoller's Elvis Presley hit "Trouble," is reinvented as a brassy Chicago blues-styled rocker with swinging harp play, ruff-n-tumble juke-joint piano, crashing rhythms, and Blue's powerful voice.
A pair of romantic interludes close Threshold, the first - "Don't Call Me" - updating the old soul/blues theme with a modern technology reference, Blue's desperate vocals, a melancholy harp performance, and a subtle, lilting rhythm. "Nightmare" is a more up-tempo rocker with a 1970s-styled soul/funk undercurrent, Blue's hurried and almost shouted vocals, and some tasty Ernie Isley-styled guitar threaded between solid drumbeats. Threshold also includes a lengthy interview that offers some moments of insight, but serves as a kind of harsh bringdown after the engaging music that precedes it. The female interview's high-pitched giggle/laugh hits your ears like broken glass and kitten's cries...just one reason why artist interviews should not be included on any album.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Aside from his obvious skills as a harp player, Blue is also a powerful vocalist and intelligent songwriter, and Threshold also shows a further refinement of his wordplay that sets him among the best songwriters in the blues today. It's Blues's sense of creative adventurism that makes Threshold so entertaining, however, as he further expands not only his own personal musical barriers, but the definition of blues music in the year 2010. It's not too early to consider Sugar Blue's Threshold as one of the year's best...it's just that damn good! (Beeble Records, released January 26, 2010)