I like blues music, always have and always will. Yet I'm not blind to the fact that it's probably one of the most abused genres of popular music out there. Almost any idiot who picks up a guitar can play the twelve bars that form the basis for nearly every blues tune and blues-based rock song ever written. The problem is that most of them don't seem to know what to do beyond that. It's depressing the number of blues releases I listen to that I don't review simply because they sound just like twenty-five or thirty other discs that I've heard in the last year.
You can usually divide the guitar players into two different categories — the screamers and the plodders. The screamers are the guys who rip off guitar solos at every opportunity and play down at the high end of the fret board making lots of high-pitched noise that they think passes for music while the plodders plod through the music because they equate slow with sincerity. Sometimes if you're really unlucky you'll get somebody who combines the two and plods around making noise every so often.
After a steady diet of this you actually start to dread the arrival of blues discs by performers you've never heard of signed to labels that you didn't even know existed. Fortunately there are still some labels out there that you can usually count on, and even if you haven't heard of the band or individual on the disc, it will be at least worth a listen. Earwig Music out of Chicago are one of those labels and their recent release of Chris James' and Patrick Rynn's Stop And Think About It is a good example of the quality they tend to deliver.
Looking at Chris (guitar and vocals) and Patrick (bass and occasional vocal), you might not immediately think blues musicians, but once you start listening there's no denying that these guys have talent. While their band, The Blue Four, has played with quite a few more experienced blues musicians and appeared on other people's recordings, this is Chris and Patrick's first solo recording. Of course it's not just bass and guitar as they're joined by friends like Sam Lay on drums, Bob Corritore on harmonica, and Johnny Rapp taking second guitar for a few tracks.
The disc is a good mix of original material and interesting covers. Of course it doesn't hurt that they share my affection for Elmore James, and four of the tracks on the disc are covers of his material. What I like about their covers is that while they show respect for the original material they do more than simply offer imitations. Their version of Elmore James' "Hawaiian Boogie" not only captures the song's original bounce, but introduces some nice swing elements that give it an almost jazzy feel.
What I like about their own material is that while they are consummate professionals, they aren't so full of themselves that they take everything too seriously. You can't write a blues song called "Mr. Coffee" without having a pretty good sense of humour. Hey, don't get me wrong, coffee is very serious business and I'm glad to see people are finally giving it more recognition in song. Of course they could also be auditioning for a certain coffee maker commercial now that Jolting Joe has gone. What I especially appreciated about it was that unlike a lot of so called humorous songs, this one has genuine wit and intelligence behind it and isn't just some juvenile throwaway.
Musically they play a mixture of 1950s style Chicago blues and more contemporary sounds. What that does is create an overall atmosphere that is both comfortable in its familiarity and interesting because of the new touches that they've added. Both Chris and Patrick have a really good feel for the sound of that era, which explains why they do such a good job with the Elmore James songs, and such a genuine appreciation for the blues in general that you can't help but be caught up by their enthusiasm for the music.
It's one thing to be talented, which they are, but it's another thing altogether to be able to convey your love of what you're doing while playing the music. It's under those circumstances that even familiar riffs are infused with new life and no matter how many times you may have heard a song before you can't help but enjoy it like you're hearing it for the first time all over again. Stop And Think About It doesn't break any new ground when it comes to the blues, but it's one of those recordings that reminds you that something doesn't have to be brand new to be exciting.
Chris James and Patrick Rynn have made a recording that once again show us there is no music quite like the blues when it's played with love and enthusiasm. Not only do they bring both to this disc by the bucket load, but they have the skill to channel it into tight arrangements of other people's material, and create originals with their own distinct flavour. Not bad for their first disc.