Saturday, January 27, 2018

Jay Willie Blues Band's Jay Walkin'

I've been a little rough on the blues over the last few years. It's not that I don't like blues music, it's just that I think the definition of the genre is so narrow that any innovative approach places it outside of the genre into one of many sub-genres--blue rock, R&B, funk-blues, whatever you got. Once you've heard Muddy Waters' Folk Singer, the Howlin' Wolf catalog and a few titles from Chad Kassem's sessions at Blue Heaven Studio in Kansas, you have a pretty good survey of the art form. The magic, I feel, is in live performances and how the performer connects with the audience. That's something you can't get sitting alone in the dark with your hi-fi.

I've received a couple of straightforward blues albums to review--this one from Jay Willie and another from Scott Ramminger--and my first question is well, what have you got? Are you gonna show off some blistering guitar riffs? Are you gonna put a new spin on some old blues classics? How are you going to catch my attention? The Jay Willie Blues Band digs deep into history in their approach, bringing blues music primarily from the '50s and '60s into the 21st century. This band hails from the rock and roll wing of the blues, which means their approach is based on dirty, edgy guitar work and a steady beat.

While there's strong vocal work from several contributors--guitarist and frontman Jay Willie, multi-instrumentalist and recording engineer Paul Opalach, guitarist Bob Callahan and drummer Bobby T. Torello, the ace in the hole is two songs featuring Malorie Leogrande. Her voice is so immediately likeable and expressive that I find myself wishing for a "Malorie Leogrande featuring the Jay Willies Blues Band" album. One of those songs, "The Other Side," was written by Willie and Opalach and Leogrande and goes far beyond the parameters of the blues into pop-rock and is, quite frankly, a stand-out. It's not the blues, obviously, but I'd love to hear Leogrande explore this sound in a future solo release.

When it comes to the question of "what have you got?," the answer here is "all the prerequisites." Willie plays a mean, angry guitar that brings modern sensibilities into very old songs (two of the songs, Roosevelt Sykes' "44 Blues" and Blind Willie Johnson's "Soul of a Man," come from the Great Depression). Jason Ricci's harmonica is there to remind you that this is the blues, even when it's rocking mighty hard. To a hardcore lover of the blues this album may stray here and there, but it walks the tightrope when it comes to honoring old traditions and keeping it fresh and interesting.

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