Sugar Ray & the Bluetones,
Seeing is Believing
(Severn, 2016)

Hard to believe, but Sugar Ray & the Bluetones have been a band for 35 years, with remarkably little turn-around in personnel. The youngest member, guitarist Monster Mike Welch, has been at his post for 16 years. The band's love of the blues, especially in its mid-century iteration (really, urban blues' apotheosis), shines forth in both soulfulness of feeling and command of technique.

These are, I suppose it must be noted, white guys, as are most blues performers these days, but Sugar Ray and associates (five in all) render that mere detail, as many of their compatriots -- who seem to regard blues only as a species of roots-rock, to be honored more on the right side of the hyphen than on the left -- do not. No rock album, Seeing is Believing takes the listener into the sort of gritty musicscape that made blues so thrilling to those of us who were introduced to it via the classic recordings out of Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, the Gulf Coast and elsewhere. To a Midwestern white kid back then, the blues was really something not like anything else. It didn't need to be joined to other genres to touch the heart and yield a sense of wonder.

Only B.B. King's "You Know I Love You" was not written within the band, manifestly blessed with gifted in-the-tradition composers. Of the 11 originals, all supple cuts, bassist Michael Mudcat Ward's "Two Hundred Dollars Too Long" thrills me most, possibly because it's so clearly inspired by Muddy Waters at his peak. (It also bears a passing melodic resemblance to Muddy's 1963 recording "Twenty Four Hours.") But that's not it entirely, since Muddy was as much synthesizer as creator; Son House, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, Sleepy John Estes, Tommy McClennan and others from an earlier generation of downhome bluesmen are in evidence all over his music.

With the capable support of Sugar Ray Norcia's vocal and harmonica, Welch's guitar, Neil Gouvin's drums and Anthony Geraci's keyboard, Ward calls up the dark atmospherics of the most compelling blues fables, the ones that evoke the harrowing consequences of drinkin', gamblin' and good times that prove ephemeral and expensive. Just about every genre features songs on that theme; yet somehow nobody ever told the story better than the Chicago masters, no doubt because they'd been there more than once and were too hard-bitten to wax sentimental or moralistic about it.

Not that Sugar Ray & the Bluetones are merely recreating the foundational sound, which is easily accessible in countless reissues. For one thing, they're filtering their performances through their own particular life experiences and playing it at their own volume and intensity level, with some idiosyncratic elements. As Norcia has remarked in interviews, the silence of unplayed notes is central to their approach. Where lesser artists would go for the bombast, these guys go for the nuance.

The band understands that blues is an actual thing, that if you want to play blues it is not as a simple point of departure; do more than that, and it's not blues anymore. For all its emotional toughness blues is also fragile in its way. You can bend it, which is okay, but you can also break it, which isn't. Respect it, and you're entering a world with its own rules which, followed wisely, open up quotidian reality to expose the terrors and truths that lie beneath it.

If you can do that, you're a bluesman (or -woman). Sugar Ray and the gang, who can do that, restore the spirit not only to blues but to listeners willing to let it fill or move or shake them. You don't hear this sort of stuff much anymore, and our lives are poorer and bleaker for its absence.

music review by
Jerome Clark

31 December 2016

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