Josh Hoyer & the Shadowboxers,
Living by the Minute
(Silver Street, 2014)

Big Dave McLean,
Faded But Not Gone
(Black Hen, 2014)

As the title wryly acknowledges, Big Dave McLean, a citizen of Winnipeg, has played on the Canadian roots scene for a long time. His chosen instrument is (usually) acoustic guitar and his genre choice the blues and related. Not being Canadian, I am not as familiar with him as I could be. I can report, however, that Faded But Not Gone attests to a talent greater than the usual.

McLean has the wisdom or good fortune to have Steve Dawson in the producer's chair. Besides being a notable guitarist and a deeply informed roots-music maven, Dawson knows his way around a studio. (He is also head of Black Hen, for which this is McLean's first album.) Faded boasts a tough, bright sound of a sort that entrances the ear, the arrangements working outward from McLean's guitar (sometimes National steel) to embrace a small, tight band prominently including Dawson on various guitars and Colin Linden on slide and mandolin. The arrangements eschew the cliches of modern blues production, nodding toward deeper traditions than ordinarily encountered these days while at the same time fashioning an innovative approach.

The songs, one good one after another, are a mix of McLean's impressive originals, as often blues-inflected as straight-ahead blues, and covers from the likes of Tampa Red (an inspired reworking of "Dead Cat on the Line"), Tom Waits ("Mr. Siegal"), Ray LaMontagne ("Devil's in the Jukebox") and more. Among the most moving are two from-the-heart numbers, "The Fallen" and "Shades of Grace," written with a stoic restraint that renders them even more hard-hitting. " The original "Oh Mr. Charlie Oh" has the resonance of a Lead Belly ballad, though it is not slavishly imitative of one.

Unlike too many contemporary white blues performers, McLean is singing the song, not beating it to death. Faded manages to restore the blues to something like its original color.

Living by the Minute documents an uptown horn band from Lincoln, Nebraska. The result is a recording as unlike Faded as an album could be while still bringing the genre designation "blues" into the discussion. My immediate impression was of an updated, looser Blood Sweat & Tears, but soon I learned that Josh Hoyer & the Shadowboxers are more suited to my taste. The striking musicality in evidence melds swinging soul and jazz with keyboardist/saxophonist Hoyer's original material. That material tends to the socially conscious and the extended (the average cut is in the five-minute-plus range).

Because I am no authority on the style -- my own listening leans toward downhome blues and its mid-century Chicago equivalent -- I can't swear that Ray Charles invented this approach, but most listeners will associate the sound with Charles, along with his back-up vocalists, the Raelettes. Boyer, who delivers in his own confident, unaffected tenor, doesn't try to imitate anybody else's singing, though. Call it big-band r&b, and take it for what it is, a happy example of what you can do with the right musicians to bestow renewed life and vigor to a familiar form.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 April 2015

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