Rob Lutes,
Middle Ground
(Zeb, 2002)

Reminiscent of John Hiatt's breakthrough 1987 album Bring the Family both vocally and from a production standpoint, Rob Lutes' sophomore release, Middle Ground, is a spare, confident and thoroughly enjoyable recording. What one could not call this album is uplifting. The lyrics deal with death, unrequited love, lost opportunities and "shitty bars." It's classic blues material -- although I can't recall a classic blues lyric about golf caddies.

Middle Ground opens with "Jackson," a tribute to former PGA Tour caddies Dolphus "Golfball" Hull and Alfred "Rabbit" Dyer. It's a beautifully rendered track that features a superb guitar break, clever lyrics and a guest appearance by vocalist Nanette Workman. The album then settles into a more contemplative groove as Lutes focuses his attentions on personal experiences including the death of his father on the track "Last Chance."

On virtually all 10 tracks on Middle Ground, Lutes' vocals are restrained and late-night lazy, never quite breaking through from a whisper to a wail. And yet the moments when he allows himself to throw some weight behind his vocals provide a wonderful counterpoint to the quiet passion of his delivery on songs like "Nobody Here" and "Ruth."

I think one of the few things that could have improved this album would have been to crank things up a bit higher on the track "Uncommon Bond." It's a great blues-rock song with echoes of Eric Clapton. But Lutes needed to cut loose vocally on the back half of this one. As it is the song provides an excellent forum for his band to turn things up a notch and demonstrate their prowess.

That having been said, it's a credit to the production smarts of guitarist Rob MacDonald that the players on this album allow Lutes' voice and the lyrics to hold center stage. The songs and the singer are deservedly the stars on Middle Ground. MacDonald also manages a wonderful augmentation of Lutes' gravelly vocal style through the careful use of background vocals. Singers Linda Benoy, Sas Harris and Heather McLeod each provide a velvety smooth surface layer upon which Lutes' vocal texture stands out beautifully in relief.

As a Canadian reviewing this release I'd like to echo Rob Lutes' thanks for the support of the Canada Music Fund. This one's a keeper!

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 5 July 2003