My apologies to our Canadian friends reading this review; you probably don’t need us to tell you about Downchild. But for those of you living below the 46th parallel, permit us to introduce guitarist/songwriter Don Walsh and a host of bandmates over the last forty-one years. Downchild has been the most celebrated blues band in Canada for decades; in the U.S., they are more of a footnote, having provided two songs covered by the Blues Brothers on their debut album back in 1978. In Europe, of course, they are as revered as any blues outfit with a modicum of chops can be.
Downchild's I Need A Hat
Downchild actually has more than a modicum of chops. The current line-up (four out of six members have been together since 1990, with a fifth joining in 1995 and the last in 2004) happens to be a tasty little bar band with skills sublimated to the needs of each individual song. Your head might spin at a particular guitar lick, but Walsh doesn't play long, loud and flashy solos; the piano and organ parts from Michael Fonfara are especially well done, but they are almost never pushed to the forefront. Vocalist Chuck Jackson has a relaxed and natural approach that delivers the words, often clever as they are, without calling attention to the skills he so routinely uses. That leaves Pat Carey on saxophones, Gary Kendall on bass, and Mike Fitzpatrick on drums, all the very definition of team players content to support their bandmates.
I Need a Hat is only the 7th album released by Downchild in all these years, so nobody can accuse them of over-saturating the market. At first listen, it sounds like a typical modern blues band, with a number of typical shuffles, and a basic mastery of a variety of Chicago and Memphis styles. Though the forms may be familiar, the songs are all new, with nine out of eleven written by Walsh, and two others penned by Jackson.
Down In The Delta
Jackson may be a bit more of a pastiche artist than Walsh – "Down in the Delta" and "Time To Say Goodbye," while engaging, are the types of song lyrics any blues fan of long standing could string together. Actually, "Down in the Delta" does benefit from the sense of joyous discovery embodied as a Canadian hears the blues for the first time, and it also benefits from Walsh's sparkling guitar riffs and Jackson's clear harmonica playing.
But it's Walsh who is the subtly inventive songwriter in the band. "Somebody Lied" is a tale of betrayal, the desperate search for understanding why a man who played by the rules, got a good job and family, wound up suffering in the face of the recent global recession. It also features searing lead guitar from younger Canadian blues star Colin James, and a lyrical trumpet performance from Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns. Jackson is back on "These Thoughts Keep Marching," a downright incendiary and scary blues with a litany of worries from global warming to general malaise serving as undercurrent to the one song which truly sounds unlike any formal predecessor. "I Need a Hat" is a clever look at the almost farcical requirements for stardom – talent doesn’t necessarily win out over the proper chapeau to provide a visual.
Steve's Bottom Line
Dan Akroyd, who once provided Walsh some royalties when he was a Blues Brother, shows up on "You Don’t Love Me" to play his own brand of distinctive, yearning harp, while fellow Canadian Colin Linden plays a lovely guitar solo. The rest of the record is pure unadulterated Downchild – Walsh shows off his rich B.B. King-styled vocals on "Some More of That," and the album ends with a catchy r'n'b-styled instrumental, "“El Stew." "This Must Be Love" and "Rendezvous" round out the album, which is a diverse and entirely pleasurable set from a band that, depending on your native country, may or may not be stars. (Linus Entertainment, released April 6, 2010)
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