One of the rewards of this great undertaking of mine – examining so many songs, albums, and artists nominated for 2010 Blues Music Awards – is that it has given me just the excuse I needed to investigate the work of names I recognize whose work I did not.
Duke Robillard has been around forever. I was familiar with him by name long before I had even a passing interest in the blues, as a fan of guitar-oriented music. When I began my journey through the blues, his name would come up but I never pulled the trigger and purchased anything by him until the Stomp! The Blues Tonight album earned him a slew of BMA nominations, including Album Of The Year.
He says the title track was written to set the tone for the album and it does, establishing the swinging blues sound he's been associated with since co-founding Roomful of Blues. His blues on this record swings with sophistication, powered by a sleek rhythm section and shiny horn arrangements. These are polite, urbane blues with a big band sound preferring to jump and dance rather than wail and moan. Robillard's lead guitar work provides just the tiniest bit of grit to cut against the otherwise bright sounds from his band.
Lowell Fulson was a bit of an odd fit on Chess, being one of the few artists on that legendary roster of talents who didn't base himself out of Chicago geographically or sonically. Robillard is a fan of Fulson and he and the band give a terrific presentation of "Do Me Right." The Jumpin' Blues Revue's arrangement isn't radically different from Fulson's but the agile rhythm section slickly swings this updated version a little quicker. Robillard's guitar solo takes a little of the edge off the sound heard on other album cuts.
“Jumpin' The Bone” plays to the strengths of the Jumpin' Blues Revue. Stomp The Blues doesn't have a great deal to offer in the way of lyrics or vocals. The best moments of the record are those emphasizing the big band sound, swinging groove, and stylish lead guitar of Robillard. This song opens with some jazzy chording followed by a lead guitar line that introduces the basic melodic motif the rest of the band will explore upon their entrance. The horn section picks up this motif and then Robillard and the horns play call-and-answer. Robillard takes another solo before a sax solo. Lead guitar takes center stage one last time before guitar and band finish together.
All of that's great and makes for enjoyable listening but there is a downside on this record. I feel bad about saying this but we're talking about an Album Of The Year nominee and I've committed to reviewing all five of them. If I'm going to review it, I'm going to review it honestly.
For most of the record, Robillard's vocals are pedestrian and pleasant. The man's talents lie in his guitar work and ability to arrange for this big band. The problem lies with co-vocalist Sunny Crownover. For some reason I feel bad about ripping her. She has a pleasant voice and she's not entirely to blame for what's wrong with her tracks. The issue isn't so much the vocalist as it is the pairing of vocalist and material.I'm sure there is a music for which her voice is suited but I doubt seriously it is blues.
Take “Hands Off!,” for instance. She is singing this one straight with no grit. When she sings the line “he don't belong to you,” it sounds like it's the first time she's ever committed this grammatical faux pas. In too many of these songs, she is interpreting the role of a passionate, seductive temptress. Her polite, sterile-but-tuneful delivery may be ideal for the NPR crowd but even in this kinder, gentler swing setting she still sounds far too detached and polite. There's no heat coming from her and some of these songs demand it.
“Million Dollar Secret” is a vapid, insulting song trying to make golddigging seem respectable. I doubt I'd like it in the hands of any singer but Crownover sounds particularly silly. This one shouldn't have been attempted. If it was going to be done it needed to be done with some humor or a devilish, villainous commitment imbued with an understanding that for more than a century, a woman's only chance for a life of luxury was to lure a wealthy man. There's nothing playful or conniving in her interpretation. She sounds like a sophisticated woman playing dumb.
There are some genuinely terrific moments on Stomp! The Blues Tonight. The problem is 40 percent of the record ranges from embarrassing to fair. That's too much for the rest of the record to have to overcome and that's a shame.