The Duke Robillard Band,
Independently Blue
(Stony Plain, 2013)

Duke Robillard must be the hardest-working man in the blues business. Besides producing and playing on other artists' records, touring (currently with Bob Dylan's band), writing songs and promoting the genre in every venue available, he manages to release something like an album a year under his own name on the Alberta-based roots label Stony Plain. Independently Blue, in common with most of the rest, highlights new, original songs, compositions by his friend Al Basile and whatever else suits his fancy. In this last category is a very likable trad-jazz version of Henry "Red" Allen's "Patrol Wagon Blues," first recorded in 1929.

The Duke Robillard Band plays a form of modern electric blues to which "rock" cannot be routinely appended. Rock is there, of course -- it's a nearly inevitable part of the electric-guitar vocabulary -- but pure blues, or at least its 21st-century equivalent, is at the core of the sound. When rock defines a Robillard song, it may be in a rooted, rock 'n' roll style, here the Chuck Berry-inflected "Laurene," dedicated to Robillard's wife. More often, though, in Robillard's blues, if they have a second reference, it's to jazz guitar of, broadly speaking, the Wes Montgomery school.

Besides the regular band, Robillard is joined here by fellow guitarist Monster Mike Welch, who gets sub-billing on the cover. The two shine particularly in the jazzy, mid-tempo instrumental "Strollin' with Lowell and BB" -- that's Fulson and King -- and on Welch's moodily grooved, wittily titled "This Man, This Monster," also an instrumental. Another highlight is Basile's "I'm Still Laughing," expressing a variety of rueful humor that's been intrinsic in blues since the genre's inception (whenever that was; it all depends upon whom you ask and how you define).

On the other hand, "You Won't Ever" just isn't very interesting. It's dedicated, again, to Robillard's wife, but besides hosting a listless r&b-pop melody and near-generic lyrics, it exposes the limitations of Robillard's vocals, which seem especially forced here. Nobody -- including, I'm sure, Robillard himself -- would judge him a natural singer, but the growly drawl he affects to compensate for his small range works a lot better on material on which it's the band's prowess that commands primary attention.

Independently Blue is neither Robillard's best nor his worst. It showcases both his strengths, which are most apparent in his manifest intelligence and deep grounding in the blues tradition, and the sometime shakiness of his efforts to expand into new territory. But if you know Robillard's work, you already know that. Veteran listeners who have come back for more will find neither surprises nor much to complain about.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 July 2013

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