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Music Review: Shirley Johnson – Blues Attack

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There’s simply nothing better than sharing the stage night after night to tighten up a band. Shirley Johnson’s been appearing weekly at Windy City landmark Blue Chicago for seventeen years, an impressive accomplishment indeed. That experience is amply evident on Blues Attack, Shirley’s second outing on the revered Delmark label.

Though a studio recording, there’s a decidedly live feel to proceedings, Johnson’s hand-picked band providing supple, responsive support rather than the perfectly measured meter of a hired studio guns. And Johnson is clearly in her glory here, bringing the fervor of the gospel music she was raised on to a generous collection that combines hard-edged soul with Chicago blues to excellent effect.

Johnson is blessed with power to spare, and her slightly gruff voice can certainly reach the rafters with ease. But she’s worked enough crowds to understand the value of restraint, and delivers her lines with that smoldering undercurrent of menace that gives the best blues such a delicious sense of danger.

Material is primarily upbeat and deals with the usual – lovin’, cheatin’, and hurtin’ abound – but doesn’t rely on cliché or lazy recycling. There are hooks aplenty, and rhythms are significantly more complex and varied than typical twelve-bar fare, keeping the playlist consistently interesting. Most tunes are originals, Shirley contributing a handful with frequent help from Maurice John Vaughn. Covers include “634-5789,” a soul chestnut from Wilson Pickett, and the classic “Unchain My Heart.” Though they’re strong songs they represent the disc’s least successful tracks, largely due to the background vocals arranged by Roberta Thomas – backing choruses come across as curiously chirpy and weaken the overall effect.

Elsewhere, though, arrangements make excellent use of a fine horn section, and instrumental performances throughout are loose and lively, with particularly stellar work from the great Roosevelt Purifoy on keys (primarily organ) and searing sax courtesy of Lawrence Fields. Newcomer Luke Pytel proves a fine guitarist, his tone stinging and his leads slippery and slithery as he weaves in and out.

There’s nothing fancy here, just solid, modern blues laced with a bit more soul and R&B than most Delmark releases. It’s unpretentious, eminently danceable, and delivered with unflagging energy and enthusiasm. Good stuff!

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