It's sort of ironic that the two members of a rock and roll, or any popular music band for that matter, who are most responsible for the rhythms that make the music so distinct are usually hidden off to one side or behind the other members of the band. While the lead singer and the guitar players can usually be found as far down stage as possible basking in the glow of audiences' accolades, the bass player and drummer are sometimes lucky if the stage lighting even makes them visible to the crowd.
Of course there have been exceptions to the rule, as there always are, but the majority of drummers and bass players toil in relative obscurity compared to their band mates. As if that wasn't bad enough, in a lot of today's music drums and bass are being replaced in bands by computer and digitally generated rhythm tracks and drum machines. Talk about rubbing salt into a wound! I have to wonder how many studio musicians have seen careers dry up as they've been replaced by machines?
All things considered it's not surprising that we don't find very many rhythm sections making enough of a name for themselves that they are able to command popular attention. Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (Sly & Robbie) became internationally known for their work with reggae stars Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru in the 1980's, and parlayed that success into appearances on recordings with people as diverse as Grace Jones to Bob Dylan. Aside from them, there's only two other men that I know of that have been able to parlay initial success as a unit into a long lasting career working together.
When Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton, on bass and drums respectively, backed up the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughn they picked up the name Double Trouble. Not only has the tag stuck, but so has their career as a unit. Working behind the explosive guitar playing of Stevie Ray Vaughn for most of, if not all of, his career, and then continuing to work ever since, makes them one of the most enduring rhythm sections in popular music. Not only have they put together various bands, and played as a unit for some of the best musicians in the world of blues and rock and roll over the years, they've garnered such a reputation for excellence that they can call upon everybody from Willie Nelson to Dr. John when putting together an album.
Such was the case with the recording Been A Long Time, first released back in 2001 and now re-released on the Music Avenue label. Chris and Tommy called up a few former band mates from the Arc Angels (Charlie Sexton and Doyle Bramhall ll) and Storyville (vocalist Malford Milligan) to join them and a couple of other friends. When your friends include Jimmy Vaughn, Susan Tedeschi, Gordie Johnson, Johnny Lang, Eric Johnson, Willie Nelson, and Dr. John, you hope they're going to do a little more than just get by with a little help from their friends, and Been A Long Time doesn't disappoint.
One of the nicest surprises of this collection is how many of the songs are originals that Layton and Shannon have either written or co-written with the others appearing on the recording. Be honest, how often when you check writing credits do you expect to find the names of the drummer or the base player listed as one of the primary composers of a song? Sure in some bands they'll get a credit for their contribution to the music, but as lyricist?
Having only my memories of Stevie Ray Vaughn to go by when thinking about Double Trouble musically, I was expecting a disc of blues tinged rock and roll. So the opening track on the disc, "Cry Sky," was a pleasant surprise. It's a beautiful, gospel tinged, soul song that Layton and Shannon co-wrote with one other person that is performed wonderfully. I'd never heard of, let only heard, Malford Milligan before this recording, and his singing on this song blew me away. He's got amazing vocal control and a great voice for this type of music, making it one of the few contemporary songs that I've heard that can match up to the great soul songs of people like Al Green and Wilson Pickett.
The whole disc is full of unexpected treasures like this, including a searing rendition of the old Led Zeppelin classic "Rock And Roll" hammered out by Susan Tedeschi on vocals, Charlie Sexton and Van Wilks on guitar, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd adding a searing guitar solo. Tedeschi was great because she brought her own power to the vocal track and didn't try to imitate the original. It's always a pleasure to hear someone interpreting a song instead of just "covering" it, especially a tune as well known as this one.
The other thing that I found amazing about this disc is that not once did I notice either Layton or Shannon any more than I would be aware of any drummer or bass player on an album. There's no padding of songs with extraneous drum and bass solos just because they are names on the cover of the disc. They do their jobs like they have been doing for years; supplying rock steady rhythm for the people playing in front of them no matter what style of music is being played.
Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Bonnie Rait, Jimmy Vaughn, and of course Stevie Ray Vaughn, long ago discovered just how valuable Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon are as a rhythm section. Been A Long Time shows them doing what they do best – being the core around which great music is built.