When guitarist Jeff Healey passed away in March 2008, he left behind Mess of Blues, a posthumously-released album that was a love letter to his fans and to blues music. The album garnered the late talent a well-deserved truckload of awards, and served as a fitting testament to his enormous skills as a blues guitarist. It left his fans around the world wanting just a little bit more, though, a desire fulfilled by Songs From The Road.
Assembled by bassist Alec Fraser - Healey's musical foil for his blues and his jazz projects alike for over a decade - Songs From The Road offers up eleven inspired and energetic performances of vintage pop, rock, and blues music taken from three different concerts. The bulk of the set, five songs, are from Healey's August 2006 appearance at the notable Notodden Blues Festival in Norway. Four songs were taken from a May 2007 show in London, while a pair are courtesy of Jeff Healey's Roadhouse club in Toronto, circa November 2007.
Jeff Healey's Songs From The Road
The opening track on Healey's Songs From The Road, the Mark Knopfler guitar showcase "I Think I Love You Too Much" is a perfect example of the guitarist's fluid and highly flexible six-string skills. Taken from the London 2007 performance, as his road-tested band lays down a bit of a funky groove, Healey slathers on wave after wave of taut, pointed, emotional solos that hit the listener in the heart as well as the ears. His deep-register vocals evincing no little soul, Healey steals the rug out from beneath Knopfler's original version and makes the song entirely his own.
And that, of course, is the story of Songs From The Road. Given his immense talents and sharp ear for arrangement, put Healey on stage and he'll steal anybody's song for himself and, in most instances, perform it better than whoever he borrowed the tune from. Songs From The Road doesn't include a single original Jeff Healey song and yet, after hearing him pour out his heart and soul on John Hiatt's "Angel Eyes" (an important early hit for Healey), you'd swear that he wrote the song in the first place.
The Familiar and the Unexpected
Healey delivers both the familiar and the unexpected on the performances documented by Songs From The Road. For every popish song like the beautiful aforementioned "Angel Eyes," which benefits from Healey's balanced and wistful fretwork, there is a raucous romp through a blues standard, such as the band's well-timed demolishing of Willie Dixon's Chicago blues standard "I'm Ready."
Healey dips into the deep well of the Beatles catalog twice, the first being an incredible cover of the band's "Come Together." Although Dan Noordermeer's vocals fall short of the Fab Four's, the band capture the song's dark funk while Healey slaps on a fresh coat of blues guitar with a couple of short, sharp solos. George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" retains the original's melancholy vibe while adding a layer of soul-blues to the song. The Notodden audience is into both familiar covers, singing along on the choruses.
A Blues-Rock Dynamo
The crossroads where blues music and rock & roll collide is where Healey has always excelled, however, and several of the more houserockin' tunes on Songs From The Road revel in his role as a veritable blues-rock dynamo. Cream's classic "White Room," sung here by bassist Fraser, in nearly spot-on with the original, the vocals cleverly mimicking Jack Bruce's, while Healey's guitar embroiders upon Clapton's original musical blueprint.
The Allman Brothers' favorite "Whipping Post" literally explodes off the disc, sung here by keyboardist Dave Murphy with a strained, pained pulse. Murphy's keyboard riffs lead the band into a steady rhythm, but it is Healey's pyrotechnics that steal the show. Amidst the drumbeats and the key-pounding, Healey's guitar hits your ears like an epiphany.
Fellow Canadian guitarist and blues fan Randy Bachman (Bachman-Turner Overdrive, The Guess Who), drops by the Toronto performance to guest on a blistering rendition of the Willie Dixon-penned Muddy Waters' classic "Hoochie Coochie Man." The credits don't list it, but it sure sounds like somebody's blastin' a mean harp line behind Healey's ruff-n-ready vocals. This version is stretched into an energetic and electrifying blues jam, fueled by Healey and Bachman's swaggering fretwork.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Given the very nature of Songs From The Road, with eleven cuts taken from three different performances, one might accuse producer and band member Alec Fraser of cherry-picking Healey's performances for the album. That may be so, but the truth is that Healey was just so damn talented, and felt so much at home on stage, that Fraser's dilemma probably wasn't finding enough great performances to include on the album, but rather which great songs to exclude.
I don't know for certain if there's much left in the Jeff Healey vault that will result in future album releases or not. If the cupboard has, indeed, been cleaned out, then Songs From The Road will stand as a fitting swansong for the guitarist, an illustration of Healey's love of music and performing. Healey seldom disappointed, and neither will Songs From The Road. (Ruf Records, released September 8, 2009)
Jeff Healey - Songs From The Road Tracklist
1. I Think I Love You Too Much
2. I'm Ready
3. Stop Breaking Down
4. Angel Eyes
5. Come Together
6. Hoochie Coochie Man
7. White Room
8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
9. Whipping Post
10. Teach Your Children Well
11. Santa, Bring My Baby Back (To Me)