Laura Rain and the Caesars • Closer

LRC CLOSER

Laura Rain and the Caesars

Closer

LRC, 2014

Available from cdbaby.com and amazon.com

laurarain.net

 

Detroit’s Laura Rain and the Caesars seem to have internalized everything good about blues, R&B, funk, and soul, and in the process created something smart and soulful of their own: a retro modern vision of soul and blues music, immediately familiar yet completely fresh. This set expands on last year’s debut Electrified with more great songs, killer arrangements, a broader range of styles, and a deeper blues feeling that permeates every track.

The core group of Caesars remains the same: Ron Pangborn (drums and percussion), Phil Hale (keyboards, including left-hand “bass”), and George Friend (guitar, co-writer, recording and mixing engineer). For Closer, Rain and bandleader Friend had very definite notions about how the completed songs ought to sound, and to that end brought in ringers in some cases to achieve specific goals. The album credits list drummers Terry Thunder, Todd Glass, and Rick Beamon, with Sheila Hale on tambourine; Leon Powell and Jim Simonson (electric bass); Duncan McMillan (organ); and Johnny Evans (saxophones) and John Douglas (trumpet). This Detroit All-Star team has laid down a record that sounds full when it needs to and spare elsewhere. Uptown and lowdown, hungry, vivid, and confident, Closer is just plain badass.

In the album opener, “Seasons,” the Caesars build a funky brick house on a bone-crunching, AC/DC-worthy riff. Rain’s impassioned call-and-response vocal sanctifies the grounds. “Super Duper Love” (not the Sugar Billy song covered by Joss Stone) is a knowing, instant-classic 21st Century soul blues hit that grafts a gritty guitar break and an indelible vocal hook onto a syncopated, bass-and-organ figure that could have come straight from an early-‘80s side by Prince or Rick James. Another unforgettably catchy melody tops “Dirty Man,” an ultra-funky slice of modern-leaning, mid-tempo R&B. Slightly more classical in form, “Meet Me in the Middle” is an irresistible dance number, filled with swirling organ, hard-hitting horn blasts, and a slamming rhythm section. Rain’s phrasing and timbre are ideally matched to the song, and absolutely delicious. Her sass and enthusiasm are reminiscent of another great Detroit singer, a legend whose initials are A.F. An infectious, straight ahead blues, “Squawkin’” updates Little Milton’s immortal “That’s What Love Will Do” with an especially hip bass line, ferocious drumming, and the stinging guitar of Caesar-in-chief Friend. Rain’s on-the-money wails are heart-stoppingly effective.

The Caesars visit the deep South on several numbers. Soulful backing voices and an insistent rhythmic pulse give “He Is” a distinctly gospel-inflected, Muscle Shoals sound that would make Mavis Staples envious. Friend’s terse lead guitar neatly cuts through an atmosphere thick with electric piano and clavinet. “Awful Sin” comes straight from the swamp. A dark, brooding tonality puts the song in a class with Tony Joe White’s “Did Somebody Make A Fool Out Of You,” but Friend’s slinky guitar lines, wobbly with tremolo, and a greasy, ominous groove stamp it with that difficult-to-capture Staple Singers feeling. “All Of Me” could be a lost O.V. Wright or Ann Peebles record. Its bluesy groove, something like “Breaking Up Somebody’s Home,” sets a rock-solid rhythmic hook that frees Rain to do her thing; a sophisticated middle section moves the song to another, transcendent level. Finally, still in the Royal Studio mode, “Closer” has all the hallmarks of a creamy Willie Mitchell production for Al Green. From the drumming (and the drum sounds) up through the deep-grooving electric bass, horns, Hammond organ, and spare, precise guitar, the silky feel sets the mood for Rain’s simply beautiful melody line. Lovers of Memphis soul will recognize this affectionate tribute as a great song.

Rain excels at the slowest tempos, too. With swelling horns in the deep soul tradition, tough guitar, and a stirring vocal that moves with ease from subdued to flamboyant, “Your Love Is Not Broken” evokes the depth and searing intensity of James Brown’s devastating Live at the Apollo ballads. When she hears this song, Bettye LaVette will wish she had it first. The disc ends with “My Heart is Open,” a soul ballad with all the stunning sweep and scope of a Hollywood epic and none of the schmaltz. A Marvin Gaye vibe comes across in the song’s elegant chords as outlined by Phil Hale’s piano and strings, and in its sonics, an impossible combination of intimacy and spaciousness. Much of its success rests on Laura’s amazing performance: a masterpiece of dynamics, pure, unaffected, and deeply emotional.

I tried to describe the wondrous singing of Ms. Rain in my review of Electrified (see http://alturl.com/4t3vo) and will confine myself here to reiterating that very few vocalists are in her class when the discussion gets serious about technique, instrument, emotion, and absolute freedom of expression. Laura Rain is a real soul singer, period. She is recorded better this time out as well, with frankly incredible results. The arrangements are first-rate, and the songs extend the arc of blues and soul music in unexpected ways, while paying respect to their influences. Closer is a varied album of soul and blues that could have been made by Johnny “Guitar” Watson or Johnnie Taylor. Anyone serious about soul and blues music ought to hear this meticulously crafted, heartfelt record.

TOM HYSLOP

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Strong

Strong

Billy Price

Strong

DixieFrog, 2013

http://billyprice.com/

www.bluesweb.com/

Billy Price should be considered a national treasure for keeping his brand of soul music alive and relevant, far beyond his home base of Pittsburgh. He has been singing professionally since the early 1970s, first with Roy Buchanan, and later with the Rhythm Kings and the Keystone Rhythm Band. Following an excellent pair of albums in which the French guitarist Fred Chapellier shared the marquee, Price has just released a new CD with his name alone at the top of the bill, in collaboration with his longtime support unit, the Billy Price Band, with some very special guests. Strong doesn’t begin to describe it.

Chapellier co-composed three tracks. “Can’t Leave It Alone” is a hard-driving number from the intersection of blues and R&B, in the manner of early-‘60s sides by Junior Wells or Willie Cobbs. The Nighthawks’ Mark Wenner blows tough harmonica and trades phrases with guitarist Steve Delach during the middle instrumental section. “Sweet Soul Music” lives up to its name with a breezy, lilting feel closer to Tyrone Davis’s immortal Brunswick sides than to the frenetic Arthur Conley classic that shares the title. Price’s testifying rides atop a bouncing groove; perfectly charted horns and Chapellier’s melodic, yet biting, guitar solo make this a standout. “Let’s Go For A Ride,” arranged with a terrific second-line beat, a rowdy horn chart, and Professor Longhair-inspired piano from Jimmy Britton, is pure New Orleans.

Britton is Price’s writing partner on the other originals. “Gotta Be Strong,” another sweet-sounding tune, is given weight by dramatic horn swells and a lyric, firmly delivered, that insists on perseverance and optimism. The horn section opens “Diggin’ A Hole” with the sultry swagger of a ’70s Hi Records hit before the arrangement tilts toward a funky, roadhouse blend of styles. The elegant ballad “The Lucky One” is another co-write with Britton, who builds a majestic piano chord progression. Tenor saxophonist Eric DeFade adds crucial fills and a spot-on solo, and Price’s vocal is outstanding, now and again slipping into falsetto to accentuate the deep emotion. Price and the band turn on a love light with “I’ve Got Love On My Mind,” the explosive, gospel-inflected track that closes the set.

Three covers round out the album. A fine “Driving Wheel,” funkified with clavinet and organ, and beefed up with heavy-riffing horns, shows where a tight soul outfit can take the blues. Bobby Byrd’s “Never Get Enough” is an absolute, super bad blast, with Bob Matchett (trombone) stepping forward in the Fred Wesley role, and Price, urged on by the interjections of the Nighthawks’ drummer Mark Stutso–appearing here as James Brown–displaying unbridled enthusiasm. A sublime reading of Little Johnny Taylor’s immortal slow blues “Part Time Love” finds Price singing with great force and feeling. He has to, in order to stand up to the jagged, intense guitar of guest Monster Mike Welch.

The Billy Price Band today sounds better than ever, playing with soul, maturity, and taste. Gone are the rock inflections heard on previous outings: Delach here never overstates his case, not even when soloing. Economical, punchy, and present, his playing on Strong marks a modern gloss on the spirit and feel of the genre’s defining stylists–players like Cropper, Johnson, Womack, and Hinton. And Price is at his peak. Although perhaps not blessed with the incredible instrument of his avowed favorite, O.V. Wright, Price has great technique and enthusiasm, and his voice has enough of that frayed quality so essential for soul singers; unerring instincts make him a most effective communicator.  The pitch-perfect Strong ranks among Price’s finest achievements, and ought to be remembered when year-end best lists are made.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by the artist.

On The Verge

on the verge

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

On The Verge

Severn Records, 2013

http://fabulousthunderbirds.com/

http://severnrecords.com/

As the Fabulous Thunderbirds near their 40th anniversary, the only constant in the band’s lineup is its front man, Kim Wilson. The extraordinary singer and harmonica wizard has his pick of the very best players, from among whom he chooses exceedingly wisely, and clearly exercises absolute control over the unit’s vision and sound, which has remained for the most part very consistent through years of personnel changes. Until now. On their new album, the Fabulous Thunderbirds expand the flirtation with soul music that provided a hit in the 1980s (their cover of Sam & Dave’s “Wrap It Up”) into a full-fledged courtship. The band’s once stripped-down sound is fleshed out with the addition of keyboards, backing vocals, percussion, and a four-piece horn section, and the ten new songs comprising On The Verge, most of them written by Wilson, with help from guest keyboardist Kevin Anker and Severn regulars David Earl and Steve Gomes, explore soul and R&B from a number of angles.

Wilson sings for all he is worth on the opener, “I Want To Believe,” a midtempo number with a determinedly positive message and an insistent, Stax-y push-pull feel reminiscent of the funkiest Otis Redding and Staple Singer grooves. Bassist Randy Bermudes’ terrific “Runnin’ From The Blues” gets a country soul treatment much in the vein of Joe Simon’s immortal “The Chokin’ Kind,” pulled together with twangy, deep-set guitar hooks. “Hold Me” is in the vein of artists like Clarence Carter. The interesting Kevin Anker piano figure that appears in the introduction and during the choruses lacks a dominant tonality, and is a bit unsettling in this traditional Southern soul context.

Several dark threads run through On The Verge. Over a slinky, minor key groove that tops the feel of Bobby Bland’s “I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog” with some special O.V. Wright sauce, “Too Much Water” chronicles the end of a relationship. The album’s closer, “Lonely Highway,” is an excellent slow number with moody horns, again reminiscent of O.V.’s Hi Records sides. And while many blues have dealt with poverty, few have presented the situation as starkly as “Do You Know Who I Am,” a stately soul ballad that calls for understanding and help from the vantage of the economically deprived, unemployed, and homeless.

“Got To Bring It With You” serves up dirty funk that marries wah-wah guitar to a horn chart that stepped straight out of an Al Green or O.V. session. Its simple guitar solo is more thematic than improvisational. “That’s The Way We Roll” is even more lowdown–this is heavy, trailer park funk, baby, with a slow-dragging, syncopated groove. Wilson blows minimalistic, distorted harp, and sings through the harp microphone for extra grease. At the other end of the R&B spectrum, “Lovin’ Time” has a pop-inflected melody that befits the lyric’s fond reminiscences. Smooth electric piano and organ, hand drums, and the airy, interlocking guitars form a distinctive arrangement. Gomes’s “Diamonds Won’t Kiss You Back,” with its intricate guitar and bass parts, catchy, riffing horns, and beautiful, melodic vocal line, is sweet soul directly from the Chicago school.

One observation: Although The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ last two lineups have featured some of most exciting guitar players on the planet, Wilson has seemed oddly reluctant to let them loose on record (this is emphatically not the case in concert). Nick Curran and Kirk Fletcher were largely indistinguishable from each other on Painted On, and while Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller’s guitar parts are crucial to the new CD’s sound (and often quite memorable), virtually no lead guitar can be heard, even though this style of music can certainly lends itself to instrumental breaks–just listen to Stax-era Albert King, anything Little Milton cut after the mid-1960s, or recent albums by, for instance, John Németh. Wilson himself barely cuts loose on his instrument. I’ll extend this line of thinking to include the rhythm section: Jason Moeller, one of the world’s premier shuffle drummers, doesn’t get to drive one home. While I can appreciate the focus on the songwriting and singing, it seems a shame that Wilson passed up the opportunity to record this hot lineup really showing its stuff.

That may well be a churlish attitude, as the album sounds fine the way it has been delivered. While there is the risk that On The Verge will alienate longtime fans who prefer to hear the tough, butt-rockin’ blues on which the T-Birds built their reputation, its tilt to the soulful side of the blues makes for a cohesive and successful album. Its polish, inherent tunefulness, and creamy feel should win the Fabulous Thunderbirds additional fans.

TOM HYSLOP

Review copy provided by Mark Pucci Media.