By Dave Resto
Blues and roots rockers The 44s are out with a great new CD, Twist the Knife. Their third effort with Rip Cat Records was released on May 17, 2019 and it’s blues-fired rocket fuel that draws from past greats while keeping a firm eye on the future.
Based in Los Angeles, The 44s have been tearing up the blues club and blues festival circuit for almost twenty years. Since its inception, guitarist and vocalist Johnny Main has been at the forefront of this band, while a talented roster of musicians have rotated in and out along the way. For Twist the Knife, Main assembled a new line up which includes Eric Von Herzen (harmonica), Mike Hightower (bass), Gary Ferguson (drums) and Junior Watson (guitar). With the exception of the opening track, “Cuttin’ Deep,” written by Main, the album pays homage to several blues legends, covering music which has contributed to the robust American roots rock canon.
With “Cuttin’ Deep,” The 44s establish their tone and intent for this musical journey. Watson, Von Herzen, Hightower and Ferguson work together to lay down the slippery groove which serves as the foundation of this instrumental. Over that groove, Main takes his time to thoughtfully deliver round after round of tasty licks. The song gave me the sensation of standing in a crowded bar, surrounded by beer and tattoos.
“Sugar You” is a cover of the lost classic honky-tonk serenade by Richard Berry and the Pharaohs. It proves a good showcase for the smoother side of Main’s singing, and it provides a rare opportunity to take your sweetheart out onto the floor for a sexy, old school stroll dance.
Things get down and dirty with the tune “Howlin’” by Howlin’ Wolf, where Main’s vocals eerily recall the spirit of the late Dr. John. On “Champagne and Reefer” by Muddy Waters, he sings it soulfully, until the last verses, where his voice sounds as if it has succumbed to the ravages of both indulgences. Equally down and dirty are the virtuoso harmonica performances by Von Herzen on these tracks, where he walks the line between power and subtlety.
Lowell Fulsom’s “Too Many Drivers” is a bar chord-driven, double entendre rocker, where Main laments the fact that the woman he’s interested in may have too many suitors – “I say, one driver in the morning, one driver at night; too many drivers girl, you’re car won’t drive right.” Here again, Von Herzen delivers a dynamic performance, whether it’s his muscular intro and solo or his subtle comping during the verses.
“Rosie”, written by Doyle Bramall II, is a slow, bluesy Zen meditation. Main introduces the song with a hypnotic tremolo riff. Then the bass, drums and rhythm guitar build and hold the steady momentum with primal, tribal nuance. Main’s guttural, blues-rock phrasings evoke the guitar stylings of Mato Nanji of Indigenous and Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna. Once again, Von Herzen proves to be a highly effective and valuable secondary lead instrumentalist, as he conjures some downright evil sounds from his overdriven harmonica. The sections of this song where Main sings the breakdowns sounds like classic Jim Morrison with the Doors.
For all that’s been said about Von Herzen’s playing, his true shining moment is on “Helsinki Blues,” written by Alabama’s blues harmonica legend James Harman. His control and grasp of melody are truly admirable. Main’s tasteful blues licks contain a lovely jazz flavor, which are perfect in this slow blues context.
Featuring only eight songs and clocking in at thirty-three minutes, Twist the Knife is a quick ride; however, I’m sure its one you’ll find yourself enjoying repeatedly, all summer long.
For more information about Twist The Knife by The 44s: