So what does a young boy do when growing up in the small sleepy town of Stonington, Connecticut? He learns to sing and play the blues, of course.
Sugar Ray Norcia’s father was a voice teacher and his mother was a jazz singer. The apple didn’t fall very far from the tree as he quickly became an accomplished vocalist. He formed his first blues band in high school, Linseed Sam & The Oilers. Interestingly he spent time in Westerly, Rhode Island, where a decade or so before, Duke Robillard had developed his blues chops. He even served a stint as the vocalist in Robillard’s old band, Roomful Of Blues. I grew up in Rhode Island and have been to Westerly, but who knew it could provide the atmosphere to produce two of the better blues artists working today.
He formed his first version of Sugar Ray & The Bluetones in 1979 with guitarist Ronnie Earl. There have been a number of personnel changes through the years, and today the band consists of guitarist Mike Welch, drummer Neil Gouvin, bassist Michael Ward, and pianist Anthony Geraci. Sugar Ray provides his usual excellent vocals and harmonica play.
Their last release, 2007’s My Life, My Friend, My Music presented a full sound and used a horn section. Sugar Ray described it as a jump blues album. Their latest release, Evening, is a much more sparse affair as it includes only the band members.
Sugar Ray continues to write most of his own material as 9 of the 12 tracks are originals. The covers are Jimmy Young’s “I’m Having A Ball,” Otis Rush’s “You Know My Love,” and the title track which had been recorded by T-Bone Walker.
At this point in his career, Sugar Ray is not going to change musical direction or explore new styles. What he does do is cover the old ground well by producing excellent electric and smooth blues. He is one of the superior harmonica players alive today, and his solos are always creative and enhance the songs. The use of a harmonica as a lead instrument always gives the music a unique and different sound. His vocals fit the music well and his phrasing is first-rate. He is wise enough to share the stage with Welch and Geraci as their solos make the music better and certainly more textured and complex.
The music is a modern approach to the electric blues. From the opening “I’m Having A Ball” with its harmonica, piano, and guitar solos, to the slow blues of “Hard To Get Along With You,” to the relaxed “Dear John,” it is a nice ride through Sugar Ray’s upbeat musical approach.
A couple of the songs add some unique twists. “Too Many Rules and Regulations” is part talking blues which is a nice change of pace. Sugar Ray’s introductory use of a Native American flute on “Dancing Bear” was both beautiful and innovative.
Sugar Ray & The Bluetones have produced another exceptional blues album. Evening is a worthwhile way for any blues fan to spend an hour or so.