Sugar Ray Norcia has spent most of his adult life leading a band of various and sundry Bluetones. Although recorded evidence was sporadic in the late 1970s and throughout the '80s, and although he joined one-time Bluetone Ronnie Earl in Roomful of Blues for most of the 1990s, Sugar Ray has been one of the most important of the first generation of white blues revivalists. The five albums he’s released in the last ten years showcase a singer and blues harpist of dexterity and diversity.
The band as presently constituted is essentially a co-production of Norcia as leader and “Monster” Mike Welch on guitar. Welch has maintained something of a low profile career on his own after making a strong name for himself with three releases in the 1990s as a wunderkind. Rounding out the Bluetones is an impressive veteran rhythm section with Neil Gouvin on drums, Michael “Mudcat” Ward on bass, and Anthony Geraci on piano and keyboards.
Sugar Ray and the Bluetones' Evening
The new album, Evening, is a solid run through various blues styles. If there is no new ground being broken, and even if there are dozens of competing bands in the country who can pull off this sort of bar-band approach, there is something to be said for the comfort and the precision of a band this locked into the music. Sugar Ray and the Bluetones deliver what they promise, and what they promise is to share what they learned at the feet of the blues veterans they loved.
Norcia writes most of the songs himself, although Welch and Ward each contribute a notable original to the cause, and there are three covers from the blues repertoire. Johnny Young’s “I’m Having A Ball” is a proper album opener, showcasing Norcia, Welch, and Geraci, and proving that the full band can blast off into the south side of Chicago in the fifties. For even more impressive chops, turn to the Willie Dixon-penned, Otis Rush-associated “You Know My Love,” on which Norcia croons sweet and low down over a wide open spaces backing in which Welch proves his love of Rush and his ability to subtly and convincingly back up a vocalist through constant shifts in rhythm, dynamics, and feel. Norcia also delivers and insinuating, supple croon for the title track, the jazzy T-Bone Walker classic “Evening,” which also features his deep, moody harp setting the tone for the song.
Hard To Get Along With
Welch’s “Hard to Get Along With” is a delight, a slow, deep, and powerful tribute to the classic Muddy Waters sound. His lyrics are a cut above the standard, too, revealing a sense of limitations and self-knowledge rare in the blues world. Best of all, Welch’s guitar solo on this cut is a carefully developed, perfectly controlled upper register small masterpiece. Ward’s “(That’s Not Yet) One of My Blues” would be a perfect candidate for the songbook of Bobby “Blue” Bland, if that giant were still in his prime. It’s a great lyrical idea about not worrying about the problems which haven’t reached fruition yet, and the vocal hook is unforgettable.
That leaves seven Norcia originals, all of which are good, if less original than the other songs. Norcia’s material won’t end up in the classic blues repertoire, but he has a fine handle on the styles which have influenced him, and they provide good skeletons for his strong singing and the electrifying playing of the band.
Too Many Rules
The most notable of Norcia’s numbers is “Too Many Rules and Regulations,” a slow piano-bar blues with Norcia rambling off in a rhythmic but unsung vocal a laundry list of annoyances in the modern world. The guitar plays slick and jazzy, the piano tinkles, the harp is undistorted, and the bass and drums ramble along in a nicely plodding manner.
Norcia’s concerns are mainly about dietary warnings: “You notice everybody saying don’t do this and don’t do that / You eat too many calories, boy, it’s going to make you fat / They say don’t put no sugar in your coffee / And make sure it’s extra milky / That way you can have 3 cups of joe and not feel so guilty / Too many rules and regulations, man, that’s gonna deaden me.” Ultimately, he decides after reading about the evils of hard drinking that he must give up reading.
Otherwise, Norcia offers some Chicago shuffles, a bit of Slim Harpo-styled country R&B, a little T-Bone Walker sophistication, a jump blues approach, and a somewhat problematic pastiche of Native American references, to varying degrees of success. His vocals are best served in the slower numbers, where he can stretch out the notes and syllables to greater effect, but he’s never uncomfortable singing on this record. His harp playing is uniformly excellent, ranging from a hot, amplified, dirty approach to a soft and gentle country sound.
Steve's Bottom Line
Sugar Ray and the Bluetones will not disappoint blues lovers who are looking for a solid and entertaining hour of recorded music to accompany them on their next road trip, or while hanging out at home before going to catch some live band. Evening is a good record by a good band, and there’s nothing wrong with having more of those in our lives. (Severn Records, released October 18, 2011)
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