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Blues Bash Music Review: Studebaker John – Between Life and Death

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When you look at the blues scene today, some of the best out there can do one or two things well. Studebaker John, however, is a quadruple threat. He can compose, sing, play guitar, and play blues harp, and do all of these things better than most. The only other bluesman I can think of with that much versatility going for him is Kenny Neal, but we'll defer Neal for another time. Today I want to tell you about how Studebaker John has put his arsenal of skills to work on one of his latest releases, Between Life and Death from 2004.

"Studebaker" John Grimaldi is a guy who, as a child, didn't have to go far to find the Blues. Growing up in Chicago, he was immersed in it and started out playing harmonica at seven years old, later picking up the guitar as a teen. But in spite of the heavy Chicago blues upbringing, Studebaker's guitar style shows the influence of early seventies blues rockers like Billy Gibbons or Rick Derringer, along with one of his old friends Chicago blues slide giant J.B. Hutto.
He doesn't have Stevie Ray Vaughan's or Melvin Taylor's dazzling style but possesses a very, very solid technique. His voice is rangy like John Hiatt's, and he knows when to use it and, just as importantly, when not to. His blues harp may not be present on every track, but he can blow it like the best of them when called for.

To my ears, what makes Between Life and Death especially appealing are two things: his songwriting has steadily improved over time to where it's now fine tuned to really accentuate his playing and singing. The other factor is the guys he brought into the studio with him.

For this outing, Studebaker utilizes just a working trio of himself, bassist Felton Crews, and drummer Earl Howell. These are not exactly guys John picked up off the street; Howell has previously played for Magic Slim and John Primer. Crews has toured with Charlie Musselwhite and Miles Davis (note: it seems as though I have a Miles reference in every other review I write, but I swear I didn't make the connection beforehand this time around!). These guys get in the studio and cut the record mostly "live," with minimal dubs apparent.

That live feeling really permeates the record, and begins right away on the first track "Between Life And Death," with John's power chord progression amply supported by Crews' solid bass work, and Howell's purposeful drum work. "I Deceive Myself" is another hard rocking composition and has the same energy as that lead off track. "This Road" harkens all the way back to the country blues as Studebaker John's shimmering tremolo guitar sets a haunting mood.

"If I Had A Nickel" is a showcase for Studebaker's other skills. His vocals alone start the tune and he's joined a little later by Howell's calypso beat, Crews' bass, and some soulful amped up harmonica work by the leader. "Can't Forget About You" is another harmonica dominated number set to a jump blues similar to what Kim Wilson likes to include in his own records and John shows he can do it right like Wilson.

The eight and a half minute long "Cold Chills" closes the proceedings with more displays of John's guitar technique set to a jazzy bass walk; John's slide work here is top notch.

A friend of mine who operates a bar once hired Studebaker John to play at his joint and he's told me John was a very friendly and flexible person to work with professionally. I haven't the occasion to see him live yet, but based on the second hand information, that would make it at least five good attributes of Mr. Grimaldi. He's one of the good guys who makes good music and Between Life and Death is chock full of the good stuff.

Listen: Studebaker John "Between Life & Death"

Listen: Studebaker John "I Deceive Myself."

Listen: Studebaker John "This Road"

Listen: Studebaker John "If I Had A Nickel"

Listen: Studebaker John "Can't Forget About You"

Listen: Studebaker John "Cold Chills"

Note: MP3's are ripped at a low bit rate and available for only about a week.

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