When we think of France and music we don’t usually think of rock and roll or blues. Singers like Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Jacque Brel—yes, I know he’s Belgian—accompanied by accordions and violins are what usually spring to mind. However, when you consider the fact that African American jazz and blues musicians have been traveling to Paris France to ply their trade since as far back as the 1920s, it really should come as no surprise those genres are just as popular as any other type of music.
In fact, the blues is especially probably more popular in France and other parts of Europe than in its home country of America. Many North American blues musicians seeing their careers drying up on this side of the Atlantic have relocated to Europe, or at least do the bulk of their performing and recording over there.
So it was only a matter of time before France started producing its own body of blues based musicians. The most recent one I’ve come across is Bobby Dirninger who has just self-released his solo album, The Book. I first ran across Dirninger when I reviewed Zora Young’s French Connection CD a couple of years ago as he’d been her keyboard player and band leader for some time. In fact, he had assembled the musicians for the that album’s recording sessions. So it’s fair to say Dirninger knows his blues music.
However, being a band leader and keyboard player for someone else is one thing, fronting your own band and recording your own music is something else altogether. A band leader might have plenty of responsibilities but he or she isn’t the one up in the spotlight “selling” the material. It takes a special kind of person to take centre stage.
Aside from the givens of musical talent and the ability to sing, to front a band requires the indefinable quality of presence—that certain something that makes a person stand out from the rest of the band even when they aren’t doing anything. Presence doesn’t require a person to be flamboyant or even necessarily an extrovert, in fact the best ones only have to stand on stage for your eye to be immediately drawn to them. Bruce Springsteen usually dresses in jeans and a work shirt, but when he steps on stage an audience can’t help but look at him because he just seems to radiate energy.
The first thing you’ll notice about Dirninger is how relaxed he is. There’s an almost effortless grace to his singing style that’s far more reminiscent of French popular singers like Brel than what we’re used to in blues and rock singers.
Maybe because it’s not a style we’re accustomed to hearing when listening to this type of music, it takes a bit of getting used to. However, he is able to capture our attention and hold it from the opening song of the disc to the final track. For although at times he appears almost laconic, he’s so laid back, you can’t help but feel like he’s a coiled spring waiting to explode.
Every so often, he leans into a song and gives us an example of what lies behind that calm exterior and then as effortlessly as exerted energy he slides back into his easy groove. Unlike those who feel they have to be performing at a fever pitch all the time to gain our attention, Dirninger understands the importance of modulation.
The first song on the disc, “Like That Music” is a great example. The song starts off with a mid-tempo funky beat, and his vocals are a gentle accompaniment, subdued to the point he’s almost talking. Then as the music builds in intensity, so does his voice, until the chorus when he reaches the peak of his urgency and demands you listen to him.
One of the things I appreciated most about this disc, and Dirninger, is he doesn’t equate intensity of emotion with speed and volume. Too often in blues based music, singers and musicians will think they have to either make our ears or their fingers bleed to let us know they are feeling some great emotion. Just listen to Dirninger’s song “Late At Night” for an object lesson on how the combination of great arrangements and singing can achieve the same goal in far more convincing manner without damaging anyone. Not since Warren Zevon have I heard a musician able to sing a slow song that sounds just as intense as any rock roll barn burner with screamed lyrics.
There’s a rawness to Dirninger’s vocals that speaks of emotional intensity while the guitar and keyboard leads accent the lyrics without drowning them out or overselling the emotion. It’s the perfect balance between music and voice that in my mind separates the exceptional song from the ordinary run of the mill number.
Of course, Dirninger also knows the key element of good rock and roll. It should be fun to listen to. “Love Is A Feeling” and “You’ll Be On Fire” are not only great pieces of music but they are fun to hear. If it can’t pull you to your feet and get you up dancing once in a while, what’s the point of rock and roll? On these two songs specifically, and sporadically throughout the album, Dirninger and his band show they understand that music shouldn’t be just for listening to, it should also make you want to move. What makes both these songs even better is the fact they aren’t obviously dance songs. It’s not like they’ve said well we should include a couple of uptempo numbers cause people like to dance. The songs just happen to be ones you can dance to,
In fact, that’s the truly remarkable thing about this disc. No matter what style of music a song is, blues, rock, funk, R&B or soul, it’s all effortless. The band moves easily between styles whether within a number or from track to track and nothing ever feels forced or unnatural. I don’t know if any of them have played for North American musicians before, but they could match up with any blues based band I’ve heard anywhere and are a damn site more interesting than most I hear in North America.
Music needs to be constantly evolving to ensure it doesn’t stagnate. In order to evolve it needs to be exposed to different environments and receive transfusions of new blood periodically. The Book shows just how important this is as Bobby Dirninger and his band take blues based music down some familiar paths but also branch off in totally new directions, making it one of the more interesting new albums of its kind to come out in a while.
If you’ve become bored with the same old same old from blues and rock and roll, you’ll want to give this album a listen. It respects the old, but embraces something new, and the result is magnifique.