The music business loves to categorize. Roy Rogers plays slide guitar and worked for a number of years with John Lee Hooker. So his recordings are generally filed in the blues section. But while blues grooves help provide a strong rhythmic core for the project, there’s much more here than formulaic twelve-bar workouts.
Rogers ranged far and wide to recruit help for his first outing with The Rhythm Kings, his working band, in seven years. On hand are flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert and Philip Aaberg, whose keyboard work has graced outings by artists as diverse as Elvin Bishop and Peter Gabriel. From much closer to home comes son Sam Rogers, who contributes vocal bass, berimbau, and percussion.
Rogers, who produced four of the late blues giant’s last recording projects, set out to craft an eclectic collection here, and while there’s a wide variety in structure and tempo, there’s a cohesive quality thanks to consistently strong songwriting. Rogers wrote or co-wrote everything, ably moving from the almost ethereal delicacy of “Your Sweet Embrace” to the bone-crunching fury of “Bitter Rain” (though the latter is lyrically unimpressive – Rogers fares best when he sticks to simpler subjects).
Opener “Calm Before The Storm” is anything but calm – with Rogers’ nasty slide raging beneath its thick jungle beat, the song drips with brooding menace. “Patron Saint Of Pain” is a fairly straightforward blues workout, but to the song’s advantage Rogers isn’t called upon for more than a cursory vocal; he’s not the strongest singer, but has learned to use his somewhat thin voice wisely and for the most part quite well. There’s straightforward rock ‘n’ roll with “Little Queen Bee” and “River Of Tears,” and slippery, burbling funk on “Rite Of Passage,” featuring great sax work by guest George Brooks (Etta James).
Rogers is a master slide guitarist, but he exhibits exemplary moderation throughout, putting the song before pyrotechnics and letting the composition dictate the texture of his own contributions. His subtly shimmering work on the heartfelt soul ballad, “I Would Undo Anything,” is an object lesson in tasteful restraint, but he’s delightfully dirty on “Walkin’ The Levee,” a crunchy instrumental that closes the disc.
An intelligent and well-crafted collection, there’s much to like on Split Decision. His vocals remain serviceable but Rogers is a superior instrumentalist who knows his way around a studio. Slide guitar fans should definitely give this one a listen.