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Independently Blue

1364-Cover

The Duke Robillard Band

with special guest Monster Mike Welch

Independently Blue

Stony Plain Records,  2013

http://dukerobillard.com/

http://www.stonyplainrecords.com/Web/artist.asp?id=418#1364

From his beginnings in Roomful of Blues through various incarnations as a bandleader­–never mind an unparalleled resume of projects as sideman or producer that would be enviable, even legendary, on its own–Duke Robillard has set and exceeded the highest standards of taste, tone, and style. It seems that Robillard has been on a hot (or, more accurately, a hotter) streak of late, with a jumping brace of blues albums in Stomp! The Blues Tonight and Low Down and Tore Up; a jazzy trio project, Wobble Walking; exciting production work for Sunny Crownover, Joe Louis Walker, and others; and an upcoming tour as part of Bob Dylan’s band.

His latest album extends that run of successes. Augmenting his rhythm section (Bruce Bears, keyboards; Brad Hallen, bass; Mark Teixeira, drums–a trio that seems as telepathically linked as it is stylistically unlimited) is guest guitarist Monster Mike Welch, a fellow New Englander who regularly gigs as one of Sugar Ray Norcia’s Bluetones–that is, when he is not recording albums as a front man (I count five or six to date). Robillard maneuvers this superb and sympathetic cast through and around a dizzying scope of blues, jazz, and roots music on Independently Blue.

The album opens with two of three compositions penned by Robillard’s former Roomful bandmate, Al Basile. “I Wouldn’t-a Done That” is a swaggering shuffle with a pair of snarling, tangled-in-barbed-wire solos. Believe it or not, the tune modulates into different keys at least twice, an exceedingly rare move in the blues that makes for a very cool and compelling structure. “Below Zero” is a bluesy, moderately paced rocker that rides out on a duel between Duke’s bright single-note lines and Monster Mike’s bassy, fuzzed-out licks.

This friendly competition continues in the next track, Welch’s hard-hitting instrumental “Stapled To The Chicken’s Back,’” a Texas-flavored shuffle that arrives loaded with impressive guitar breaks. Chicken-picked single notes and double-stops practically pop out of the speaker during Duke’s solo, which slips easily between blues, country, and jazz feels. Welch’s darker-toned choruses are slinkier and recall the no-prisoners attack and idiosyncratic phrasing of Albert Collins. Duke picks up on this biting approach and returns it during the thrilling back-and-forth exchange that follows the individual solos.

A bouncing roots-rocker, “Laurene” expresses Duke’s devotion to Mrs Robillard, and sports a pair of distinctive rhythm guitar approaches as well as two wickedly pointed, Chuck Berry-inspired solos. It sounds like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Evil” provided the inspiration for the arrangement behind Basile’s “I’m Still Laughing.” The trebly lead guitar part is laden with a menacingly heavy vibrato. Welch’s “This Man, This Monster” begins as a laid-back, jazzy after-hours stroll, which escalates as more pointed, bluesier tones and lines overshadow the mellow mood, then develops a languid, almost Hawaiian feel: What an incredible ride in five minutes’ time!

Several sides of the extended range of Robillard’s imagination are on display. “Groovin’ Slow” rides a Southern soul groove reminiscent of “Ode To Billie Joe.” The relaxed but deeply funky middle solo seems perfect for this sort of Muscle Shoals feel, as do the jazzier leads in the outro. “You Won’t Ever” is a different kind of animal, opening with a Latin-inflected trumpet line over a minor key lope before moving into something I think of as Love Boat soul: a little like an arrangement from Willie Mitchell’s Royal studio in Memphis, with pop accents in the vocal melody, and a fleet, George Benson-esque guitar ride out.

The band reaches back to the 1920s with a cover of Red Allen’s “Patrol Wagon.” Doug Woolverton’s trumpet and Billy Novick’s clarinet snake around each other, evoking the feel of vintage jazz records, while Welch waits until the song’s end to uncoil an extended solo that’s mellow but swinging, and oh-so-finely syncopated. Robillard’s bluesy yet unique “Moongate” serves as the album’s centerpiece, midway through the program. A hip arrangement and canny production ideas, like balancing one tremoloed guitar against another, far-off and heavily reverbed–and layering others atop that instrumental bed–lend an ethereal, evocative air, in keeping with its lyric about a Chinese garden, to the track, which would seem out of place either leading off or closing the album, yet is sublime where it sits.

Still, the heart of every Duke Robillard project is the blues, and here the best comes last, in “If This Is Love,” a hard-hitting number based loosely on Otis Rush’s “Right Place, Wrong Time.” Robillard’s lyric and singing are impressively strong, and Welch absolutely kills it with a stunning lead guitar part, marked by angular phrasing, cutting bends, and a disconcertingly aggressive attack. Go to the head of the class, son! It marks a fitting close to the latest Duke Robillard Band long-player. Savvy music fans have long recognized Duke Robillard as the go-to guy for inventive and pitch-perfect playing in virtually every blues-based style of American music, and Independently Blue demonstrates again his mastery as bandleader and producer, his excellence as a performer, and his stature as a visionary creator of American music.

 TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media.

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About mrtom1

More than a lifelong fan, I am a degenerate music fiend. I was a staff writer and contributing editor for the print version of Blues Revue for more than 15 years, and serve in the same capacity for the excellent new publication Blues Music Magazine (bluesmusicmagazine.com). I also contribute to the newsletters of the Golden Gate Blues Society and the Detroit Blues Society, and freelance, writing artist biographies, liner notes, and all types of promotional materials. I support the Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research (http://seancostellofund.org/) and The Blues Foundation (www.blues.org/), and encourage you to learn more about these important causes. Please support live music and buy CDs by your favorite artists! If you care to submit your CD, DVD/Blu-Ray, book, or other media for consideration and possible coverage, please contact me at tahyslop[AT]gmail.com.

One response to “Independently Blue

  1. mrtom1

    I have to add this. It occurs to me that some might find my classification of “You Won’t Ever” as “Love Boat soul” somewhat off-putting. Let me say that I do not mean the term as a pejorative at any level. It’s just a description that comes to mind for that particular type of soul that is a little sassy, but not greasy enough to qualify for Stax, or gritty enough to fall into the same bag as the hard, boogaloo-style material from the ’60s. It’s the sort of thing that’s a little sexy, along the lines of Hi Records’ output, and plenty catchy in a pop kind of way, like Motown’s countless hits. A cut arranged with just a rhythm section will almost never qualify, and one augmented with keys alone would be borderline at best. It’s usually going to have horns, or strings, or both…it’s got to have that sweet, ear candy feel, in addition to a killer melody and cool changes. Make sense? Some of Lou Pride’s Severn output comes to mind as being in this category.

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