Texas Cannonballs

cannonballs

Texas Cannonballs

Texas Cannonballs

Rock ’n’ Roll Saves Production, 2013

texascannonballs.blogspot.com

To order CDs, contact danherbert40@me.com

Unite Hector Watt, a veteran of Austin’s Solid Senders, the band that perhaps sounded the most like the Fabulous Thunderbirds that was not the Fabulous Thunderbirds; Chris Ruest, who has been quietly building a reputation as one of the toughest blues guitar players on either side of the Atlantic; and the truly legendary Preston Hubbard, whose résumé includes Roomful of Blues, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Nick Curran’s Nite Lifes, Los Carnales, and many other projects elevated by his low frequency work; and you have the core of Texas Cannonballs. Despite possessing the makings of a top-flight blues outfit, and although they share their name with a well-known, late-period album by Freddie King, the Cannonballs’ new project is cut from a pattern of dangerous rock ‘n’ roll.

The riddle at first seems insoluble. Why would three players of such esteem turn away from the blues? To Watt, who shares guitar and vocal duties with Ruest, the answer is a simple desire to change things up a bit. “A 100 percent blues album was out of the question. It’s been done over and over, time and time before,” he told Ellie Rumbold of forfolkssake.com. And while a blues recording from these musicians could hardly have disappointed, we can be grateful for the Cannonballs’ decision to move in another direction. Their self-titled début delivers thirteen songs that emerge hard-edged from the speakers, glinting like switchblades under streetlamps.

With the exception of the two numbers by Jerry McCain–an unhinged, Cramps-worthy take on “I Want Somebody To Love” that ups the ante on the original, and a blistering “Geronimo Rock”–that set the table for the rest of the set, Ruest and Watt split the songwriting more or less equally. The album opens with Watt’s “Fly Away,” a swampy track with a loping, soulful groove, and stinging lead guitars. His “Hard Way,” an infectious, bouncing roots-rocker co-written with Lou Ann Barton, feels rowdy as a lost McCain tune and recalls the Stones at their Chuck Berry-inspired best. Along the same lines is “Me and the Devil,” a swaggering number enhanced by Temple Ray’s backing vocals. “Texas Tumbleweed” features prominent slide guitars straight out of Mick Taylor-era Stones (“All Down The Line”), and sounds like something Doug Sahm might have cooked up with one of Alejandro Escovedo’s old bands (Rank and File or True Believers, take your pick). “King of the Jungle” rides a chunky, push-pull rhythm, very vaguely reminiscent of “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” and has a great lyric; I can’t decide whether the guitars or the vocal have more snap and snarl. Also snarling is the ominous “King of the Blues,” an oily, garage blues worthy of Iggy and the Stooges. The prisoner’s lament “Dreaming” closes out the program with a quiet, acoustic arrangement that blends Stones-y country elements with notes of Johnny Thunders’s occasional ballads.

Ruest proves to be no slouch in the Stones department, with his amazing “One Slip” showing off some of the chunkiest Keith-inspired riffs on record. He also contributes “Blew My Head,” a slinky, riff-based rocker à la the T-Birds’ “Powerful Stuff,” but with a distinctly darker mood. Just as complex is “Nobody Cares About Me,” a chugging, R&B-inflected rocker, downshifts into a minor key, complete with spooky, raked chords, for the choruses. His “I Was Wrong,” another minor number, is the closest thing to a pure blues among the original compositions. Its feel shifts dramatically from stop-time verses to a shuffle feel during the choruses and the dynamic solo break. Neither of these songs would sound out of place on a record by the mighty Paladins.

I have dropped a lot of names during the course of this recap, solely in the interest of providing some kind of frame of reference–signposts marking the general territories in which Texas Cannonballs work. The Cannonballs have in fact made something quite original of familiar materials. Think of the Flamin’ Groovies jamming with Omar and the Howlers, and you might come close to the soundscape they have created. It is raw yet sleek, with an underlying sense of menace and drive rarely heard since Exile On Main Street, and unrelentingly cool.

TOM HYSLOP

The CD for this review was kindly provided by the band’s management.

(Note: Jim Starboard drummed on the CD; the band’s Facebook page indicates Hugo Devier is the regular drummer. Also, the printed CD cover lists the first four tracks incorrectly. #4 and #1 are reversed, as are #2 and #3.)

The Chris Ruest Band – Live at Shakespeare’s

flyerShakespeare

Chris Ruest Band

Live at The Shakespeare Pub • Houston, Texas

2013

http://www.chrisruest.com/

If you haven’t been paying attention to his career, this is the short version of what you need to know: Chris Ruest is the real thing. The New Englander has been a resident of Texas for well over a decade. Already a serious student and lover of traditional blues and blues-oriented jazz artists, the singer-guitarist came up through Brian “Hash Brown” Calway’s band (justly regarded as the finishing school of choice for aspiring Dallas blues musicians), and has worked with many of the Lone Star State’s most important talents, including the great Ray Sharpe (“Linda Lu”). Ruest cut his third CD, Live at Shakespeare’s, in March of this year, with JD Ditullio on drums, and the great Ronnie James (Nightcats, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmie Vaughan, Nick Moss) on bass.

This brand new album revisits only a few selections from Ruest’s previous releases, 2005’s Too Many Problems and 2011’s No 2nd Chances (both excellent sets, recorded with all-star bands and loaded with well-written original tunes), but those provide an overview of his stylistic range. “Poor Lil’ Greta,” Chris’s apologetic ode to a deceased pet, spotlights slide guitar and a deep blues groove, both unmistakably cut from Muddy Waters’s slow blues template. “My Baby Loves Me,” with its swaggering shuffle and slashing slide guitar figure, is firmly in the tradition of Elmore James. And “You Suck” lulls us into thinking it is a garden-variety you’re-mistreating-me song, until Ruest sings the laugh-out-loud funny chorus. James and Ditullio lay down a quirky, throwback R&B groove a mile wide, reminiscent of “I’m Shakin’.”

The balance of the playlist expands on these elements with intelligently selected covers that give insight into, and pay tribute to, some of Ruest’s favorite artists. He dials up the reverb for a harrowing take on Magic Sam’s fabulous (and rarely covered) “Out of Bad Luck,” replete with a blistering guitar break, and ratchets up the rumba feel behind an update of Arthur Crudup’s “Mean Ole Frisco,” filtered through B.B. King’s version, with lead guitar that nails King’s ’50s style. There’s a strong take on Muddy’s “Champagne and Reefer,” a hard-shuffling adaptation of Lonesome Sundown’s swamp classic “Don’t Say A Word,” and two of Elmore’s greatest songs: a bristling romp through “Cry For Me” and a greasy reading of the stop-time Latin-influenced “Can’t Stop Loving My Baby.” I know “Bark” best from the Darrell Nulisch-era Anson Funderburgh & The Rockets; the band deftly handles this loping shuffle.

What do Elmore James and The Rockets have in common? Why, Sam Myers, of course. The harmonica great was a bluesman in the truest sense of that now-debased word, and perhaps the strongest influence felt by Ruest, who acted as the legend’s right-hand-man during the last three years of Sam’s life. Ruest pays tribute to his close friend by singing Sam’s “Sad Lonesome Day,” adorning the slow blues with elegant guitar lines à la King and Funderburgh, and his vintage gem “Sleepin’ in the Ground,” which presents Ruest’s guitar playing at its meanest, dirtiest, and most low-down.

The presence of the proto-punk nugget “Strychnine” reflects the influence of another of Ruest’s closest friends. The late, great Nick Curran was a fearless free spirit who was apt to follow a T-Bone Walker chestnut with a selection from the catalog of The Stooges, or to pair a Little Richard song with an AC/DC number. Viewed in that light, the seemingly improbable inclusion of The Sonics’ wild ’60s rocker makes perfect sense. Two excellent instrumentals, one by Albert Collins (“The Freeze”), the other from Ike Turner (“Cuban Getaway”) bracket the set. Ruest politely converts a mid-show request for something by Stevie Ray Vaughan into a teaching opportunity, instead performing yet another iconic instrumental: a stinging version of Freddie King’s “Funnybone.”

Like the rest of the program, these three songs let the band work out on touchstone tunes that still sound fresh, owing to their relative scarcity in the playlists of contemporary bands, and demonstrate Ruest’s control of the essential themes of real blues guitar. His playing, sometimes deliberate, frequently savage, is always intense, carrying the threat of violence that was imminent in the approach of Curran, or Pat Hare. Paired with this outstanding rhythm section, Ruest–one of the toughest players anywhere–is on fire. Live at Shakespeare‘s is his master class in blues history, vividly performed, and should attract a great of overdue attention.

TOM HYSLOP

The artist kindly provided the CD for this review.