The ever-prolific Duke Robillard, a guitarist with a sterling pedigree, knows his way around a blues tune. He founded Roomful Of Blues ‘way back when, worked for a while with The Fabulous Thunderbirds, and has produced discs by the likes of Rosco Gordon and late legends Jimmy Witherspoon and Jay McShann. He’s written many a song over his lengthy career, but here he tries his hand at putting together a complete collection, with only one cover among Passport To The Blues’ dozen tracks. (There’s also a bonus cut, a spontaneous live-in-the-studio jam between the two credited to Robillard and drummer Mark Teixeira). While his guitar work remains as deft and agile as ever, the songs are a bit of a mixed bag.
To his credit, Robillard doesn’t rely on tired my-baby-left-me blues clichés. He deliberately set out to address the concerns of his own demographic – middle-aged and middle class – and modern life. And so we get tunes with titles like “Text Me” and “When You’re Old You’re Cold,” the former an updated life-on-the-road-is-lonely ditty, the latter a wry and defiant refusal to succumb to the aging process. Most of the tunes were written in the two weeks preceding the sessions (“The High Cost Of Lovin’” is an earlier effort, co-written with the late, great Doc Pomus). The lone cover, a song co-written by Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan (among his many musical accomplishments, Robillard spent some time touring in Waits’ band), fits seamlessly into the playlist, which ranges from the choppy funk of “Hong Kong Suit” to the grinding “Rhode Island Rooster,” a tribute of sorts to Howlin’ Wolf.
Duke’s own compositions – he gets a helping hand from his wife on one and long-time cohort Al Basile on a couple more – are a little too topical to become instant classics. “Workin’ Hard For My Uncle,” for instance, was written in response to an audit by the IRS – Robillard’s uncle, in this case, being Uncle Sam. “Hong Kong Suit” is a wry look at mortality and the baggage we accumulate through life, while “Blues Train” is a bit of a throwaway (and the burbling clavinette is a questionable choice). The songs are strong enough on their own, but when taken as a whole, there’s a sense that Duke deliberately set out to cover all bases, with the aggregate results being a bit formulaic, as though the intent were to include a sample of every style within the blue spectrum.
Still, Robillard is a guitarist’s guitarist, and his backing band – long-time cohort Doug James on saxes (and a rare turn on harmonica), Teixeira on drums, bassist Brad Hallen, with Bruce Bears handling keys – is as good as it gets, supple and responsive yet able to absolutely nail any groove thrown at them. As producer, Robillard knows how best to arrange a song, and how to get the best out of his supporting players – both sound and performances here are absolutely top-notch throughout. And Robillard’s fretwork is utterly masterful – the man swings mightily at any tempo, and his musical imagination is seemingly limitless; his solo on “Grey Sky Blues,” an object lesson in tension and resolution, is worth the price of admission alone. Unfortunately, Robillard’s vocals, never a strong suit, here sound more mannered than ever before. Given to somewhat exaggerated delivery, he usually sounds as though he’s trying too hard, with the results sounding forced rather than natural.
So one can quibble a bit about certain aspects of Passport To The Blues, but there’s simply no denying Duke’s wizardry on guitar, and while his vocals have always been a bit of an acquired taste, he plays and sings with joyous conviction throughout. His blues may not be the soul-searing variety, but Robillard’s clearly having fun, and the mood is infectious, and one couldn’t ask for more articulate or incisive guitar work – Robillard is an out-and-out monster on the six-string, ripping out jaw-dropping solos with astonishing ease.
Passport To The Blues may not be his very best outing, but Robillard is always worth listening to, and this is a solid, well-crafted collection with moments of sheer brilliance. Recommended!