George Graham Reviews Roomful of Blues' "That's Right"
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(Alligator Records 4889 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/26/2003)
The blues, like jazz, is a venerable genre that has never really gone out of style, so performers in blues and jazz have had lengthy careers. In fact unlike in rock and pop, most blues and jazz musicians just improve with age. This time, we have a new release by a venerable blues band, who last year marked their 35th anniversary of formation, and who are still in top form. They are Roomful of Blues, and their new CD, their 17th, is called That's Right.
Roomful of Blues had its start in 1967 in Rhode Island when guitarist Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley got together to play Chicago style blues in some regional clubs. The duo began to explore other older blues varieties going back to the 1940s and early 1950, including the large swing-influenced groups with horns, and by 1970, they added the horn section that would become the band's trademark.
One aspect that has marked Roomful of Blues has been their ever-changing personnel. There are now no original members, and over the years, some 43 people have been part of the group, which has also worked with and supported other artists on record and in performance, including jazz and blues legends Count Basie, who called them "The hottest blues band I've ever heard," Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Big Joe Turner.
Currently led by their guitarist Chris Vachon, the group's roster stands at eight pieces, with saxophonist Rich Lataille, who has been with the group since their first album in 1977, veteran trumpet man Bob Enos, plus keyboardist Mark Stevens, saxophonist Mark Early, bassist Brad Hallen and new drummer Jason Corbiere. Their new lead vocalist and harmonica player is Mark DuFresne, who is the best singer the group has had in a long time.
With the personnel in constant flux, Roomful has been variable in sound and in quality, sometimes leaning toward the more electric Chicago-style blues, and at others serving up the more laid-back horn-dominated sound. And with a stream of different lead vocalists passing through Roomful of Blues, the approach of the band has been changeable. DuFresne and the current lineup bring the band back to its musical roots, and specialize in the good-time 1940s-influenced jump-band blues that marked their memorable first album in 1977. The material consists of mainly relatively obscure old songs from that era, music originally recorded by such artists as T-Bone Walker, Little Milton, Guitar Shorty and Big Joe Turner, which they serve up with a combination of tight musicianship, and the ability to swing that is not always present in blues bands. Most of the 14 songs have a distinctly old-fashioned feel, including the fact most time in at under four minutes, so the players have to make the biggest impact in the shortest time when instrumental solos are featured. They succeed very nicely making for a fast-paced recording that keeps your toes tapping while spaning a number of variations of classic blues, from jump-band novelty songs to New Orleans style, to electric Chicago-influenced.
Leading off is the title track, That's Right, one of the strongest and most rhythmically infectious tunes on the CD. It's a jump-band swing romp that shows the band to be in fine form, and makes you wish it were longer than its two-and-a-half minute length. <<>>
We Can't Make It, by B.B. King, is given a performance true to the spirit of its composer, with guitarist Chris Vachon evoking the sound of King's instrument Lucille. <<>>
Despite Roomful of Blues' strength on the fast, swingy tunes, they can serve up a classic style slow blues with the best of them. How Long Will It Last by Guitar Shorty, highlights great performances by both vocalist Mark DuFresne and guitarist Vachon. <<>>
In the straight swing category is You're Driving Me Crazy which based on the Count Basie classic Moten Swing. The horn section gets a good workout. <<>>
Roomful of Blues has always been at their best in 1940s-influenced rhythm and blues, and another of the highlights of this CD is the T-Bone Walker novelty song I Know Your Wig Is Gone.
In the New Orleans Fats Domino style is the Eddie Bo tune I'll Keep on Trying, and again this incarnation of the band pulls it off well. <<>>
The horn section is the center of attention on the one instrumental track, Arthur Prysock's 2 Point 8. Despite DuFresne's first-rate vocals elsewhere on the album, one is left wishing for more instrumental tunes like this smoking number. <<>>
The album ends with its most electric track, Stranger Blues, by Elmore James. Though the tune has plenty of energy, this style is not the group's greatest strength. <<>>
Thirty five years together is a notable accomplishment for any band, though in the case of Roomful of Blues, it's an evolving cast of characters, with the new people bringing their particular strengths and weaknesses. Though the group has always been good, various incarnations have been better than others. The current eight-piece lineup is probably the best since guitarist Duke Robillard was with them in the 1970s. Mark DuFresne is their strongest lead vocalist in quite a while, and the horn section is as tight as ever. They also manage to pick some great material -- lesser known songs from the group's favorite era of the late 1940s and early 1950s, that allow the band members to sink their musical teeth into the performances, and have an unquestioned good time in the process. All told, it's a first class party album.
Our sound quality grade is a "B." The recording is decent, with the horns well-captured, but as is so depressingly common, the sound was compressed too much, making everything come out at the same volume, taking away some of the dynamics of the playing by the band.
There's nothing like a good blues band with a tight horn section for naturally high energy music. For thirty five years, Roomful of Blues have been on the of the best, and with their new CD, That's Right, despite personnel changes, they get back to their musical roots and come up with their best release in over a decade.
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