The Duke Robillard Band,
Calling All Blues
(Stony Plain, 2014)

Rob Stone,
Gotta Keep Rollin'
(VizzTone, 2014)

As guitarist, band-leader, songwriter and producer, Duke Robillard must be the most hard-working and prolific figure in contemporary blues. Albums under his own name appear once a year or so, and Calling All Blues is 2014's offering. Consisting of mostly original material, it documents Robillard's command of a broad range of blues styles. Sometimes a Robillard album will focus on one blues sub-genre only, but here the intention is to highlight both his and the music's versatility.

Though all of his work underscores the man's knowledge and professionalism, sometimes the result is music more to be respected than loved, perhaps an indication that he is stretching himself a bit thin. Happily, Calling is rarely less than accessible, and several cuts elicit particular pleasure. There's the original "Svengali," the most downhome-accented number, something like a collaboration between Howlin' Wolf and Bob Dylan. (Come to think of it, you could say the same of some of Dylan's own compositions in recent years.) Gary Nicholson and Ron Sexsmith's "Emphasis on Memphis," cheering that city's musical heritage, is a joy. Nothing disparaging is meant when I observe the obvious: this has the resonance of The Band in its very best days. You can even hear a little Grateful Dead, too, amid the exhilarating horn-driven r&b.

It's always a delight to hear Sunny Crownover, who serves as Robillard's occasional lead vocalist, on "Blues Beyond the Call of Duty" Elsewhere, she's there as a consistent background presence. Keyboardist Bruce Bears takes the other non-Robillard lead on the wry, Mose Allison-inspired "Confusion Blues." Another standout is the moody rockabilly "Motor Trouble," calling up the atmospherics, at least in my hearing, of the late Link Wray's "40 Miles of Bad Road." Robillard steps outside the blues framework on the noodling "Temptation," which (it says here) gets its particular flavor from Pink Floyd, about which band I know so little that I wisely refrain from betraying my ignorance via further comment.

"Down in Mexico" is the genuine head-scratcher, though. It could be a commercial pitched by the Mexican tourist bureau -- surely a demanding assignment given that nation's harrowing, headline-inducing problems. I have not the slightest doubt that Robillard is a fine and decent man, but he might have afforded the matter further reflection before committing this gratingly celebratory tune to disc. It treats a nation beset by rampant violence, poverty and corruption as a great place for American tourists to party. Worse, the song is given the prominence of the opening cut. Shouldn't somebody have said something?

Harmonica player/vocalist Rob Stone trafficks in mid-century Chicago blues, though not in the stale sense. On the entertaining Gotta Keep Rollin', along with some tasty originals he revives and rearranges songs by Sonny Boy Williamson I, Blind Willie McTell, Jazz Gillum and Billy Emerson, who influenced or helped shape the style that came together after World War II in the Windy City. When most of us think of a defining electric blues, that's what comes to mind, if not with entire historical accuracy; after all, Memphis, the Gulf Coast, New York City and California had something to do with that stage of blues evolution, too. What makes the Chicago blues distinct, however, is its rootedness. The Deep South origins are as much in evidence as the pulsing big-city rhythms.

Rollin' is unhyphenated blues -- no blues-rock in evidence, in other words -- meant for those who like the music undiluted. Stone's affection for it manifests on every cut. (How could you not like somebody who titles an instrumental "Strollin' with Sasquatch"?) Among the band members are Chicago veterans John Primer (guitar), Henry Gray (piano) and Eddie Shaw (sax). The music that emerges from all this talent and experience feels less traditional than eternal, the core and soul of the blues suited up for the 21st century.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 December 2014

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