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THE BLUES BAND
The Blues Band were formed originally for fun in 1978 by former Manfred Mann vocalist and harmonica player Paul Jones and guitarist Dave Kelly, plus guitarist Tom McGuinness (also ex-Manfred Mann, and McGuinness Flint), bassist Gary Fletcher, and drummer Hughie Flint (ex-McGuinness Flint), later replaced by ex-Family drummer Rob Townsend. They disbanded briefly in 1982 but soon reformed. Still working to this day, although they are all of bus pass age, they have lasted far longer than their other bands ever did.
And as Fletcher says on their website, 'The music industry doesn't bother us and we don't bother them'.
This CD was originally released by Essential Records, part of Castle Communications, in 1993.
Although their repertoire has generally consisted of original material alongside old standards, 'Homage', as the title suggests, is a tribute to some of the blues legends of years past which originally inspired them in the early days. The quintet is augmented by various backing vocalists including Paul's wife Fiona on one track, plus Mike Paice on saxophone and a succession of keyboard players, including Jona Lewie (of 'Stop The Cavalry' fame) and Jools 'Later' Holland. And the results are little short of masterful.
'Let The Good Times Roll', originally made famous by Louis Jordan in 1946, certainly lives up to its title. 'Hey everybody, let's have some fun!' Paul roars after the intro, which kicks into an almost jazzy groove with Dave's guitar, Paul's harmonica and Jools's organ. Reminiscent of the bluesy jazz-rock fare which people like Georgie Fame and Zoot Money made very much their own in the mid-1960s. It's a boisterous rhythm maintained on the next track, James Brown's 'I Go Crazy', which they note is the first song they ever performed in public, with Dave singing as well as some choice slide guitar. By the way, Dave and Paul alternate on lead vocals on most songs in turn on this set.
Things get slinkier with a medley of Little Walter Jacobs' 'Temperature' and Little Willie John's 'Fever', probably best-known from the Peggy Lee version. Paul's vocals and harmonica, and saxophone, bring out the subtle jazziness in this to perfection. A little diversion to their Delta blues roots comes with 'Rollin' And Tumblin''. In my mind, if anybody ever improved on Muddy Waters' original, it was Canned Heat. Nevertheless many another act has done it, and as the Bluesers admit in the booklet, this one has a nod to the way Cream did it - and very well too.
A couple of slower songs then add some variety. 'C.C. Rider', has something of the Sam Cooke oldie 'Bring It On Home To Me' vibe about it, driven along in laid-back fashion by sax, piano and Fiona's unobtrusive backing vocals. That's followed by the longest track here, over six minutes' worth of the plaintive 'How Can A Poor Man 'Stand Such Times And Live'. Associated mostly with Ry Cooder, this has Kelly's mournful slide guitar at its sweetest, and the chorus is boosted in fine style by the Kokomo Singers and others into what turns in effect into a gospel tune. It is magnificent.
'Work Song' is the only one here that doesn't really do it for me. Paul's vocal and harmonica and nothing else is spirited enough, but without any other instruments, for me it just doesn't really have enough colour. It's redeemed however by the mid-tempo 'Swamp Medley', a trilogy featuring Jimmy Reed's 'Honest I Do' Little Richard's ' Send Me Some Lovin'', and Slim Harpo's 'Rainin' In My Heart' (nothing to do with the Buddy Holly number). Dave and Paul alternate on lead vocal, there's some superb harmonica to be heard, plus a little squeezebox on the last song.
'That Same Thing' is a showcase for a driving percussion track and Kelly's vocals, while 'I Ain't Got You' features a rare chance for McGuinness to take lead vocals, and 'Fine Brown Fame' finds Holland back tinkling the ivories. Led as ever by guitar and harmonica, they all follow the blues-meets-jazz feel that characterises so much of this set.
From the opening bars, 'I Can Tell' is a swamp rock sound that could almost be Creedence Clearwater revival. After the heavy use of tremolo on the guitar and harmonica, I almost expected John Fogerty to start singing.
Two songs from Willie Dixon come next. 'You Shook Me' will be familiar to many as a track on the first Led Zeppelin album. Kelly doesn't try to outdo Robert Plant on the scream vocal front, but there's some fine harmonica and keyboard to be heard as the drums bring it to a crescendo. Then a funky 'Wang Dang Doodle' speeds proceedings up by way of contrast.
To close with, one of the best tracks of all, 'Sweet Home Chicago', dips into the Robert Johnson songbook. This has been recorded so many times over the years, but with a version this good I'm happy to hear it again. I've always adored that old slide guitar intro associated with songs by Johnson and also Elmore James (think 'Dust My Broom' and so on), and there's absolutely no faulting this.
An eight-page booklet includes full personnel details for each track, plus a few thoughts on each song contributed alternately by Jones and Kelly.
When played with feeling and an affection for the music, there's always room for another good blues album like this. You can argue that it's maybe musically limited, but that can be said about almost any genre at least part of the time. In my view, blues rarely gets better than in the hands of The Blues Band. If you've ever had a sneaking admiration for or love of it, this probably needs no further recommendation - and even for somebody like me who isn't really a jazz fan, the jazz trimmings at the edges do add a certain something.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]