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Music Review: FreeWorld – From The Bluff

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My one claim to fame as a kid in the early seventies was that my aunt's boy friend was in the band Lighthouse. As that very rarely impressed anyone my age, most kids were into the Partridge Family or at best The Beatles, the information that he played electric viola in a rock and roll band meant that sort of knowing the late Don Dinovo never really bought me that much status. It wasn't his fault, or Lighthouse's either for that matter, for although the band did enjoy moderate success with hits such as "Sunny Days", they were never that popular among the pre-pubescent crowd.

Aside from their associations with my vain attempts at reflected fame, Lighthouse will always stand out in my memories as being the first rock and roll band I knew who used instruments I had only ever associated with orchestras before. In their hey-day they not only had the standard compliment of guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards they also featured a horn and a string section. In many ways they were probably the first fusion band that I knew of, but even more importantly they broadened my perspective as to what popular music could be. It was through Lighthouse that I discovered my appreciation for funk, R&B, and soul.

Of course the first time I saw footage of James Brown, Sly And The Family Stone, George Clinton, or any of the other great soul and funk performers, I was knocked out. The energy, the power, the sex – no wonder they never played that stuff on am radio stations in Toronto The Good in the early seventies (Toronto Ontario was referred to as Toronto The Good for the longest time due to the province of Ontario's absurd liqueur licensing laws which made it almost impossible to be served alcohol on a Sunday. In fact, to this day you can still only buy alcohol in either an officially designated beer store or a wine and spirits store)  – the consequences would have been too sever to contemplate. A whole generation of White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPS) might have grown with a sense of rhythm, and that just wouldn't have done.
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Since those early funk and soul deprived days, I've spent many a fruitless hour listening to music that people were passing off as R&B, soul, or funk and being gravely disappointed with what I heard. Instead of horn sections that exploded or who could blow soft and sultry, there was a mishmash of pathetic strings that was supposed to send my heart soaring and the sound of something occasionally bleating in the back ground that could have been horns. So listening to Freeworld's, a band I've never heard of, new disc, From The Bluff, distributed by Select-O-Hits, wasn't a step I took lightly. Their promotional material promising music that combined funk, R&B, and soul with "the energy of jam band rock and the improvisational sophistication of jazz" strained at the limits of what I could believe. I've heard way to much middle of the road dreck be referred to as "soulful" for me to have much hope that this disc would be any different from countless previous letdowns.

The last thing that I expected was to be blown out of my seat from the first track on the disc. "Keep Smilin'" opens with a driving electric guitar and expands to include an incredibly exuberant horn section that proceeds to kick out the jams for the rest of the song. I was still reeling from that when "Give It Back" slunk into my headphones. You've heard of "walking bass" I suppose, while this track has a slinking bass line that sets the tone for the whole song as it shimmies and shakes through and around the rest of the instruments for the whole song.

The core group of FreeWorld is only five guys, but somehow they manage to sound a lot bigger than two saxophones, trumpet, guitar, bass and drums should. Sure on some of the songs their joined by special guests, but they are only rounding out what is all ready there. It doesn't hurt that on tenor saxophone Dr. Herman Green brings over sixty years of playing experience with him, including time with everybody from John Coletrane and Miles Davis to Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), but it takes more than one man to make a band and each of them (Richard Cushing vocals, bass, and sitar; David Skypeck drums; Brian Overstreet guitar; E.J. Dyce vocals and trumpet; and Captain Phil McGee alto and tenor saxophone) plays with enthusiasm and skill level that you don't normally find outside of jazz bands.

The other thing about these guys you have to know is that ten of the eleven songs on From The Bluff were written by the band. That isn't something I've come to expect from most R&B and funk bands today. Hell, how often do you turn over any of these recordings being churned out by the hit machine and see the majority of the music written by the person whose album it supposedly is? Never to hardly ever just about covers it.

These guys not only write the majority of their material, they seem to be able to write whatever they want. For as well as the funk and rock stuff mentioned above, the song "Down On The Bluff" is a great gospel style number in praise of the Mississippi River, (featuring a great guest vocal by Harold "Sundance" Thomas and slide guitar by Luther Dickinson of the Black Crowes). The track that follows right after it, "Samurai", features some great jazz style soloing over a long and easy funk beat, and features Art Edmaiston adding some extra depth with his tenor and baritone saxophones.

It's no wonder that these guys, FreeWorld, have shared the stage with everyone from Levon Helm to Dr. John. I don't think I've heard another group of musicians who I could honestly say sound like they'd be equally at home in either The Band, Parliament, or Weather Report. Sometimes people deride those who are multitalented with sneering comments like jack-of-all trades but master of none. Well, I don't think anyone would even dare to say something like that about FreeWorld. No matter what they set their minds to playing on From The Bluff, it sounds like they were born playing that genre.

Many years ago when I first heard the band Lighthouse, I loved the sound of horns playing with the elements you'd normally find in a rock band. Little did I know how rare it was going to be to find a popular music band that would have the same quality of sound as Lighthouse. Obviously FreeWorld don't sound the same as Lighthouse, (although if they added a string section I bet they'd do a fine job on "One Fine Morning") but what they have in common is the ability to incorporate a multitude of styles into their sound and turn it into something that's uniquely their own. Once you hear FreeWorld for the first time you'll not be able to forget them, and I bet you'll be able to recognize them the next time you hear them playing.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.