There’s much to like about the Rockit 88 Band’s Sweet Sugar Cane. The band is led by pianist Bill King (who’s served as both Janis Joplin and Linda Ronstadt’s musical director) and Neil Chapman, a man able to coax virtually any aural texture from a guitar seemingly at will. The songs are (generally) first-rate, big slices of southern-fried rock with equal amounts blues and gospel in the mix – Americana ‘from the outside,’ if you will (they’re based in Toronto), the kind that made obvious influences like The Band and Van Morrison famous. And the project is clearly a labor of love, a meticulously crafted paean to the musical gumbo of the American south.
King is an exceptionally accomplished keyboard player with an extensive background in jazz as well as rock and blues, adept on both piano and organ. Chapman is a guitarist extraordinaire, a wizard on the frets with an equally impressive musical resume. They’re responsible for all the material here, cutting a broad swath through the heartland with songs that are alternately celebratory and wistful. Most work, though there are mawkish moments that seem to be trying a little too hard for resonance.
King and Chapman each sing the songs they contribute to the project, with King taking the lion’s share (he’s on eight of the collection’s twelve vocal tracks). Chapman’s voice has an almost boyish quality that works on “Slow Song,” a tune that calls for wide-eyed innocence. But it lacks the dark edge necessary to convince on “I Never Knew The Blues (Till I Lost You),” seeming somehow at odds with his snarling guitar, and he simply lacks the requisite power to pull off either “Angels Crying” or “Cricket.”
King, on the other hand, is unfailingly exuberant. He’s got more than enough power to project, but there are times when there’s too obvious a disparity between the carefully polished arrangements and his deliberately unpolished delivery. His enthusiasm carries upbeat fare like the joyously infectious “Summertime Is Here,” but his laconic phrasing on the title track borders on distracting, particularly in contrast to the sheer vocal charisma that guest Shakura S’Aida brings to the tune. The same is true of “I Feel Helpless” – the tune itself is sturdy enough, but King suffers in comparison, his delivery downright awkward next to S’Aida’s easy and natural grace.
Elsewhere there’s optimistic hope and genuine gospel fervor on “Brothers And Sisters,” while the tender pastoral waltz of “River’s Edge” sounds as honest and earthy as well-tilled soil. “I Can’t Live Without You” is fine until its rather odd ending (as though participants simply lost interest), but the well-intentioned and obviously heartfelt “Independence Day” is a maudlin exercise that borders on cringe-worthy. Atmospheric instrumental interludes (including a brief introductory passage to kick things off, billed as a solo piano piece but featuring subtle contributions from the band) help keep proceedings flowing smoothly, before the bluesy swagger of “Mississippi Grind” brings the party to a raucous end.
King and Chapman are both masters of their respective instruments, with Chapman doubling on bass for a handful. Jim Casson provides powerhouse drumming throughout, and Smilin’ Bob Adams’ harmonica on “Slow Song” is exquisitely evocative. Anne Lindsay’s violin adds a delightfully earthy texture here and there. S’Aida’s all-too-brief appearances are highlights, with Robin Banks and Jay Speziale rounding out the background chorus as and where appropriate.
Were this a less accomplished and impeccably produced recording, the rather weak vocals might not be such an issue. It’s still a generally satisfying outing, with uniformly excellent instrumental work throughout. One can’t help but long to hear someone else singing most of the songs, though …