Jay Willie Blues Band,
Hell on Wheels
(Zoho, 2016)

Any album that kicks off with Johnnie Otis's "Willie & the Hand Jive" can't be bad. And this one starts off with killer version of the song; the Bo Diddley beat is strong but a little twisted by placing Jason Ricci's harmonica out front. Sure, Jay Willie and Bob Callahan's guitars are in there working but they're supporting Ricci. The arrangement gets to take a new look at an old standard, one that you might have thought was worn out.

As a test, I put on Johnny Otis's original version, which close to 60 years after its debut still holds up. The Jay Willie Blues Band's version renews the song. If there's a weakness, it's in the vocals. Marlorie Leogrande, who can melt brass into a lava-like substance with her voice, does not sing on the track, leaving the vocals to the boys.That might not have been a good idea.

Leogrande gets her first chance to show what she can do on "You Left the Water Running," a jouncy, mid-tempo number that features the band in a fine arrangement, and on "Take Me To The River" you can forget nearly everyone else who has sung it; this version pretty much makes it her song.

The fact of the matter is that, like so many current generation blues bands, the Jay Willie outfit is stronger with covers than with original material. They choose good ones, original ones like "The Horse," a long-forgotten Cliff Nobles instrumental that did not even feature Cliff Nobles when it briefly charted as a B-side in 1968. The band discovered an even rarer version to which Nobles had added vocals, so they recorded that one also. In addition to those previously named, among the artists covered are Al Green, Barbara Lynn and Smokey Robinson.

The fine job they do with covers, though, has to be balanced against the less than stellar job the band does on some of its originals. On balance, though, the quality of the cover material wins out.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

17 September 2016

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