Although virtually unknown in the United States, British bluesman Paul Lamb has long flown under the radar of U.S. blues fans, quietly forging a career of some four decades that has resulted in his induction into the British Blues Hall of Fame.
A harmonica player of some skill, Lamb learned his craft as a teenager sitting at the feet of the great Sonny Terry, and through the 1970s he would hone his sound playing with giants like Terry, Brownie McGhee, Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells. Lamb formed the King Snakes in the early 1990s, and over the past 22 years has released over a dozen albums, including this live collection, The Games People Play. The band mixes traditional blues, R&B, and roots-rock with a unique British perspective to come up with an original and invigorating sound that plays particularly well on stage.
Paul Lamb & the King Snakes' The Games People Play
The album opens with a cover of Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman," the song delivered in an undeniable country and blues style (as opposed to country-blues). The performance evinces more than a little of the dirt roads of America's South as well as the dirty water of the Mississippi River straddling, as it does, both rural backwoods and the Delta. Lamb's vocals mimic an Elvis doppelganger while his squalls of harmonica notes bring to mind Sonny Boy Williamson. The guitar twangs 'n' bangs behind Lamb as the song transforms into a spry reading of Johnny Cash's "Fulsom Prison Blues," rockabilly reverberation hanging in the mix like the dust erupting from the back end of a '55 Chevy rolling down Highway 61 before circling around for a big finish.
Lamb's "Let Me In" is a tasty blues construct with rootsy overtones, undertones, and gorgeous instrumental tones bouncing out of the singer's brassy harmonica squeals and Chad Strentz's tasteful rhythm guitar. I could easily see a traditional bluesman like, say, Big Bill Morganfield welding a Chicago blues body to this rock-solid chassis and taking the song for a joyride. Again, Lamb's vocals sound like Elvis channeling Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, an affection the singer doubles-down on here with a snarling, sneering delivery. The band takes a left turn with the boogie-blues romp "Come To The Conclusion," staking out an acre on John Lee Hooker's hallowed turf with a rip-snorting, riff 'n' rhythm heavy performance that is a sheer delight in both its audacity and its pure, unabashed houserockin' vibe.
Black Jack Game
Lamb and the King Snakes delve back into the Ray Charles' songbook for the little-remembered "Black Jack Game," re-vamping the R&B gem into a scorching blues barn-burner with Lamb's Little Walter-inspired chromatic harp runs front and center. With lead guitarist Ryan Lamb bringing an overall raucous tone to his fluid guitarplay here, Lamb shouts out the lyrics over a rudimentary beat, naught but pure blues feeling pouring from your speakers. The performance is at once both textured and blustery, creating a hypnotic vibe. A cover of the late, great Joe South's signature "Games People Play" is spiced up with some locomotive harmonica and a Southern-fried rhythm that displays just enough funk to lively up the audience, the performance not aping the original, but showing the King Snakes adding plenty of their own flavor to the song.
Although credited to Roosevelt Sykes, "Ida Mae" sounds a lot like the song by Piedmont blues legend Sonny Terry, with a few words moved around and replaced. Lamb and his gang do an admirable job on a formidable number, stripping their sound down to meet the song's spare blues roots, then slowly mixing in more ingredients until you have an impressively-orchestrated folk-blues performance with an emphasis on Lamb's raw vocals and the resonant interplay of harp and guitar. The band tackles Lee Dorsey's classic R&B hit "Ya Ya Blues" with reckless aplomb, laying down a jaunty Bo Diddley rhythm behind Lamb's jumpin', jivin' vocals, taking the song into new directions with odd musical flourishes and plenty of raging harpwork, guitarist Chad Strentz's vocal turn actually the better of the two, the entire performance a pleasure. Ditto for the band's cover of Leadbelly's immortal "Midnight Special"; bare-bones instrumentation focuses on the group vocal harmonies with scraps of harp punctuating each verse. It's a joyous recreation of one of Huddie Ledbetter's most beloved songs.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Recorded live during various King Snakes' performances in the U.K. and Switzerland, The Games People Play is a faithful document of the band's popular blues 'n' roots sound, dynamic onstage chemistry, and the overall satisfying payoff of playing the music they love. While European audiences are already familiar with the charms of Paul Lamb & the King Snakes, stateside blues-rock fans should embrace this stuff in the same way that they love the Nighthawks or the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
As "blues historian" Big Willie Jefferson writes in the album's liner notes, The Games People Play delivers "all killer no filler whoopin' and a hollerin'!!" Testify brother, testify! (Secret Records, released July 10, 2012)
Guide Disclosure: A review copy of this CD, DVD, or book was provided by the record label, publisher, or publicist. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.