By Chris Wheatley
The new album from legendary guitarist and songwriter Duke Robillard is as honest a record as you could ask for. Blues Bash With Duke Robillard And Friends (Stony Plain Records, November 20th) makes a virtue of its simplicity. Perhaps in defiance of current trends and times, this is, in Robillard’s own words, “straight-ahead ‘50s style blues and R&B…basically it’s a blues party album and that feeling is what I wanted to convey.” It’s entirely fitting, of course, for Robillard to revisit the music he fell in love with as a kid. Since 1967, with the founding of the great Roomful of Blues band, Robillard has carved out a prolific and distinguished career, releasing over thirty albums, winning multiple Blues Music Awards and Grammy nominations, and collaborating with Bob Dylan, Jimmy Witherspoon, Pinetop Perkins and others.
The ‘friends’ part of the title sees Robillard reunited with familiar faces from across the decades. Harking back to early Roomful of Blues days, we have sax-players Rich Lataille, Greg Piccolo and Doug James. Bass duties fall to esteemed veterans Jesse Williams and Marty Ballou. The wonderful Mark Teixeira takes the main role on drums, while another celebrated long-term collaborator, Bruce Bears handles keys. Other notable guests include harpist Mark Hummel, pianist Bob Welsh and vocalists Chris Cote and Michelle Willson. By any standards it’s a great line-up and, for a roots fan such as myself, the prospect of hearing them let rip on some no-nonsense electric blues is an enticing one.
A few seconds of opener “Do You Mean It” is enough to put a smile on your face. The band jumps out of the speakers with a great slice of rollicking Chicago blues. Full of boogie-woogie piano, swinging drums and smooth-gliding horns, the track fuzzes with energy and bounces with fun. Robillard’s guitar is as cutting and playful as ever, sparkling in tight, string-bending runs which skip effortlessly over the back-beat. The 50s vibe is front and centre and any of the songs here could slide organically into a compilation of classic tracks from that era. Production is a little crisper, of course, but that essential post-war warmth and vitality shines through. Then again, you get the feeling that this group could have bossed the stage in any decade.
“What Can I Do” jumps and jives, driven along by effervescent piano runs and call-and-response sax. Whenever Robillard lets loose, his spiky, flowing lines are a delight, tugging and turning and lighting up a song. He is too self-assured and generous to ever hog the show. Plenty of space is left for the assembled players to shine. Make no mistake, though, this is a musical collective in the best sense of the work. Like the great Stax/Motown cuts, the musicians combine to create a seamless wash of sound. Listening back to pick out individual contributions is a lot of fun. It takes talent to make the straight-forward sound special. “Nothing fancy, just the good old blues,” promises Robillard and these tracks deliver.
The slower-tempo “Everybody Ain’t Your Friend,” boils nicely, with shimmering keys, stirring, soulful horns and wailing guitar. “Rock Alley,” brimming with rockabilly fizz, is a cut that Ike Turner would have been proud of. It’s an irresistible, smoky stew of rhythm and blues. “Just Chillin’” is a great send-off, an end-of-the-evening/start-of-the-morning laid-back jam. Sax, bass and picked guitar weave around each other in lazy circles while the organ vamps, the drums hop and Robillard unleashes some fine melodic riffs.
Roots music has always provided a ready source of comfort during hard times. For any blues/roots fan, Blues Bash with Duke Robillard & Friends is something to treasure, a journey into another world that will carry you effortlessly across an ocean of soulful sounds.
Pre-order link for Blues Bash with Duke Robillard & Friends
Duke Robillard Online