There are days when I feel the avalanche of new blues releases is a stream of been there, heard that shuffles and boogies. But once every blues moon or so, I hear someone who takes all the old ingredients and revitalizes and reinvigorates standard recipes. Ironically, Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado, while sounding as deep-Delta as anyone can ask, have done just that, even though they hail from across the pond in Denmark.
Roughly speaking, the rough and raunchy voice of 42-year-old Risager is in the tradition of singers like Son House, Long John Baldry, Alexis Korner, Johnny Winter, and Taj Mahal. Appropriately, the 12 new songs on his Too Many Roads are on Rough Records, a label currently excelling with its international roster of contemporary blues artists. But lest we forget the players supporting Risager’s voice and guitar, the Black Tornado is an eight-piece band that, with only two changes, have been playing together for 10 years. They have toured extensively in 15 countries, have released eight albums to date, compose most of their own material, and produced Too Many Roads themselves. Their combined experience shows.
Recorded at the Medley Studio in Copenhagen, with Søren Andersen as engineer and Jesper Yebo Reginal in charge of mixing, Too Many Roads is full of subtle sonic touches that give the album a distinctive sound. While it’s something of a cliché’ to point out that performers who touch multiple musical bases defy easy categorization, that’s just what is happening here.
Right out of the gate, “If You Wanna Leave” announces this is a singer and a band with punch and power, with the sax section punctuating most of the tracks to follow. On a different level, Nat King Cole’s “China Gate” is given a deep-Southern setting with acoustic strumming and vocal pleading. While “Drowning” is about the feelings after being abandoned by the one you love, the groove is old-time swing with a New Orleans vibe. “Through The Tears,” a song about a middle-aged man looking back to youthful lost love, contains echoes of both ’60s sweet soul music and B.B. King guitar lines.
On the other end of the spectrum, the crunching “Backseat Driver” builds a dark atmosphere with double-tracked vocals. That’s appropriate as the tale is told via the perspectives of the bad and good angels who sit on our shoulders telling us what to do. “Long Forgotten Track” is even more haunting, an ethereal ghost story with lyrics that lead directly into “Red Hot & Blue,” which is also about another lady who can’t break through her blues.
In another mood, “Rich Man” is a playful Dixieland updating of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” at least in the litany of what the singer ain’t gonna do no more. Rounding off the collection, “High Rolling” is straight-up rock and roll that talks about the gamble of love, and the Jerry Lee Lewis brand of rockabilly has never been played at quite the breakneck speed of “Play On,” the album’s closer.
While Too Many Roads came out earlier this year, there’s no reason to fear being behind the curve on this one. After all, Too Many Roads is the first real attempt to bring Risager’s music to a non-European audience. Some reviewers thought Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado, based on name and country of origin, was likely another electronica-oriented band. Nope. The name might be difficult to pronounce or remember, but the music is well worth putting aside any preconceptions. It’s possible Too Many Roads may be near the top of many a “best of” list this year. It’s certainly an album you won’t want to play just once.