In the wake of the tsunami that was Stevie Ray Vaughan, Canadian bluesman Jeff Healey was swept into the major leagues. Healey's debut album, 1988's See The Light, yielded a hit in the John Hiatt song "Angel Eyes," and the guitarist's appearance in the Patrick Swayze film Road House further increased Healey's presence on the blues performance circuit. Through the years, however, the unique guitarist - because of his almost lifelong blindness, Healey played with the guitar placed in his lap - moved away from his trademark blues-rock sound to experiment with jazz and 1920s-era big band sounds.
Best Damn Bar Band In Canada
Audiences have clamored for a Healey blues-rock album for some time now, and the artist has been listening. The result is Mess Of Blues, a collection of fan favorites chosen by Healey from audience response through the years. Mess Of Blues is a 60% - 40% proposition: six of the songs here were laid down in the studio, and four tracks were caught live onstage. Two of the live tracks come from a performance in London, England; the other pair from the band's home turf, Jeff Healey's Roadhouse in Toronto, Ontario Canada.
Healey is backed on all these songs by the club's house band - which the guitarist calls the "best damned bar band in Canada" - which includes rhythm guitarist Dan Noordermeer, bassist Alec Fraser, keyboardist Dave Murphy, and drummer Al Webster, fine talents all.
Mess O' Blues
Appropriately, Mess Of Blues kicks off with a pair of live tracks, including a scorching reading of Sonny Thompson's "I'm Torn Down," replete with Healey's trademark fretbending and gruff, smoky vocals. Throw in some tasty honky-tonk piano-bashing by Murphy, and a swinging soundtrack, and you have a fine example of rockin' roadhouse blues. The classic "How Blue Can You Get" follows, slowing down things a bit, showcasing Healey's fluid, jazz-influenced licks wrapped around a swaggering rhythm and Murphy's soulful keyboard leads.
"Sugar Sweet" is another rollicking blues-rock number, choogling along on a steady rhythm guitar riff, sureshot drumbeats, and Murphy's deft keyboard work, on top of which Healey lays down a couple of explosive leads. Bassist Fraser takes the microphone for a spirited romp through the Hank classic "Jambalaya," the festive arrangement hammered home by some fast-paced piano. Following with the equally rootsy "The Weight," Healey and crew pay homage to the Band with a reverent performance that perfectly captures the song's reckless country soul.
The Doc Pomus gem "Mess O' Blues" is provided an appropriately up-tempo, New Orleans-flavored 1950s-rock reading, Healey's vocals swaying back-and-forth to Murphy's rhythmic lead. Murphy steps up to the mic to belt out his own "It's Only Money," a rompin', stompin' manic workout that channels Jerry Lee and James Burton, with the band delivering backing vocal harmonies.
A live cover of Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane" is an unexpected choice here, and a real pleasure, with Healey delivering a magnificently grungy performance. The band provides a fat, heavy sound behind Healey's transcendent vocals, which portray the song's bittersweet aching perfectly. Healey's fretwork soars throughout the song, short shocks of emotion subtly accented by Murphy's nuanced keyboard hum and Noordermeer's rhythmic drone.
Another live performance, of the blues treasure "Sittin' On Top Of The World," is a handsome mix of smooth, classic, Chicago-style blues and raucous, Brit-styled blues-rock. A potent, distorted riff supports the chorus, Al Webster lays down some fine drum fills, and Murphy's boogie-woogie-flavored keyboard-dancing runs off the tracks somewhere behind the twin guitar strum. Mess Of Blues closes out with a high-octane performance of "Shake, Rattle And Roll," with a little rough-around-the-edges slash-and-burn six-string thrown into the mix to lively things up a bit.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Sadly, Jeff Healey died shortly before the release of Mess Of Blues, his first blues-rock oriented recording in eight years. The rare form of cancer that robbed Healey of his eyesight at the age of one finally caught up with him and took his life. Mess Of Blues shows that the singer, guitarist, and bandleader was still having a lot of fun knocking out the blues, and the proof is in the grooves. The album's blend of guitar-driven blues and roots-rock is exactly what fans requested, and provides a perfect coda for the talented Healey's career. (Ruf Records)