Duke Robillard Band,
Low Down & Tore Up
(Stony Plain, 2011)

Sugar Ray & the Bluetones,
(Severn, 2011)

After all these years, electric guitarist Duke Robillard, who began recording more than three decades ago with Roomful of Blues, remains intoxicated with blues in all its forms. CDs under his name appear with disconcerting regularity, and when he's not heading a band and exploring one station or other on the blue railroad line, he's producing other blues artists. He's won just about every blues award it's possible to receive. In short, the man has energy, brains, imagination and taste in something akin to intimidating quantity, and he shows no sign of wearing himself out.

Low Down & Tore Up (his 18th album for Stony Plain alone) conjures up gut-bucket blues with an appropriately wild, gritty, raunchy sound.

On his previous two releases, Jump! The Blues Tonight (2009) and Passport to the Blues (2010) -- I reviewed them here on 4 July 2009 and 11 December 2010, respectively -- Robillard revisited horn-soaked jump blues in one and in the other featured his stripped-down, Chicago-inflected originals. The small-band Low Down & Tore Up conjures up mid-century urban juke joints and ghetto clubs, albeit with a crisp sound the recording technology of the period couldn't match.

Low Down is dancin'-and-drinkin' music, never slower than mid-tempo (and not often that), punctuated with crusty guitar rhythms, pulsing keyboards, honkytonk horns and shuffles to propel the feet. Robillard's band covers the likes of Tampa Red, Elmore James, Peewee Crayton, Guitar Slim, Jimmy McCracklin and more.

On Sugar Boy Crawford's "Overboard" everything feels as if it is happening so fast that drummer/vocalist Mark Teixeira is struggling to keep up. He isn't. He and all the guys, rhythm and blues racing through every vein, are right there and never not. Low Down is as fun a blues record as I've heard in a while.

Though a less visible presence than the Duke Robillard Band, Sugar Ray Norcia & the Bluetones also traffic in what Norcia calls the "die-hard, real-deal blues." The band, formed in 1979, has survived to the present with assorted personnel. Norcia, a harmonica player influenced by Big Walter Horton, is the one constant. He is also an appealingly laid-back, jazz-educated vocalist who sounds something like singers you may recognize, but not quite like them either -- a creative classicist, in short.

Evening is blues in pure form, played with both passion and restraint, focusing on the basics and eschewing rock flourishes. It's a contemporary take on the big-city blues of the 1950s and '60s in the hands of guys so immersed in the stuff that they're now a part of the tradition. Lead guitarist "Monster" Mike Welch is good enough that he doesn't have to show off to point it out to you. Norcia also gets unswerving support from piano player Anthony Geraci, bassist Mudcat Ward and drummer Neil Gouvin, each performing with affecting understatement.

The dozen songs and tunes range from originals, among them the entertaining talking blues "Too Many Rules & Regulations," to pieces written by or associated with Johnny Young, Otis Rush and T-Bone Walker (the title tune). If more quietly than Duke Robillard's latest, Sugar Ray & the Bluetones' Evening finds its own blues voice. Nobody who loves the blues will find anything to complain about in either man's approach.

music review by
Jerome Clark

2 June 2012

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