Al Basile,
Mid-Century Modern
(Sweetspot, 2016)

Duke Robillard & His All-Star Combo,
Blues Full Circle
(Stony Plain, 2016)

The energetic, hard-working guitarist Duke Robillard, who issues about one album a year while playing on other people's records and acting as producer on some, last appeared with Acoustic Blues & Roots (reviewed here on 14 November 2015), an enjoyable excursion into vernacular songs and styles one associates with the 1920s. Robillard has kept up this remarkable pace, mostly without interruption, since he co-founded Roomful of Blues in the early 1970s.

On Blues Full Circle he returns to his base in urban electric blues. All but three of its 13 cuts are originals. Three of these were originally written for Roomful more than three decades ago. His style nods to the period in the 1960s and '70s when a new generation of bluesmen and -women were shedding the rural accents of the first plugged-in big-city performers, who had grown up on the farms or in the small towns of the Deep South before migrating to Memphis, Chicago and elsewhere. Still, Robillard is 21st-century enough not to give off a revivalist vibe. He's been at this long enough to be nobody but himself.

Let us be clear: he traffics in blues. The italics aren't tossed in there randomly; they're meant to signify that unlike many marketed as white bluesmen, he is not some species of relic 1960s guitar-rocker. His records are usually stripped-down small-band blues, occasionally augmented by horns into larger ensembles, thus calling up memories of Louis Jordan and other jump-blues figures from the 1940s (and of Roomful of Blues from later years), though again in contemporary guise. Typically, though, his recordings are scaled down in the fashion of Full Circle. It is hard to believe that anyone who is drawn to electric blues will fail to appreciate what Robillard does with it here and elsewhere.

Guest vocalist Kelley Hunt, a piano player, delivers her own "The Mood Room," a fine song finely, swingingly interpreted. Sugar Ray Norcia, a harmonica player who leads his own respected band, turns in a strong performance of Robillard's "Last Night," while the Texas guitar-slinger Jimmie Vaughan offers up a moody instrumental, "Shufflin' & Scufflin'," not the rowdy dance tune the title might suggest, with some sharp-edged baritone sax from Doug James. Robillard's "Blues for Eddie Jones" sadly recalls the hard, tragic life of Guitar Slim who died, the song says, "when the booze got the best of him ... a story that's repeated throughout the world most every day."

The title of Mid-Century Modern filches a term ordinarily applied to architecture, design and furniture. What Al Basile, himself a Roomful of Blues alumnus and longtime Robillard associate, means is that it could as easily be applied to his particular approach to music, which turns to the deep well of black popular music from a few decades ago. On some of his albums it's the vocal jazz of the era, but on this one it happens to be something related to classic soul and r&b.

Basile pulls if off with the kind of easy wit and cool I associate, in a broad sense, with another artist who fused his own unique sensibility with African-American vernacular styles, namely the curiously forgotten Mose Allison. On the other hand, I need to stress, Basile and Allison are each sui generis. They do have in common, however, a disarmingly off-center humor. In Mid-Century Basile has "Tickle My Mule," which is open to various interpretations, approximately 95 percent of them sexual. And it's not only funny; it's a winning take on a whole genre of risque blues. Actually, Bo Carter would have conjured up these lyrics, or anyway his approximation, some 80 years ago.

Basile is a multi-talented guy, not only a coronet player (there can't be many of those on the blues scene these days) -- also trumpet -- but a published writer, a poet and, I imagine, a serious reader. A smart guy all around, his consequent way with words being a big plus in his songwriting. His "Blank Dog," a modernist parody of "Hell Hound on My Trail," tells me that, unlike just about anybody else who's ever commented on that much-examined Robert Johnson number, Basile recognizes its inspiration in the worldwide lore of supernatural black dogs.

The ubiquitous Robillard produces the album and is further present as lead guitarist. Doug James shows up again with assorted horns, joined by Rich Lataille (alto, tenor sax) and Brad Hallen (bass). Basile's albums can be counted upon to exude warmth and accessibility. As much as the technical skill that goes into a recording like this, it's the sheer joy it communicates. Believe me, if you're lucky enough to be around it, it'll surround you.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 October 2016

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