Thursday, May 16, 2013

Blues U Can Use Part 1: Duke Robillard Band

The Duke Robillard Band: (from left) Brad Hallen, Mark Teixeira, Duke Robillard and Bruce Bears

In 1967, while many of their friends were playing in rock bands, Rhode Island natives Duke Robillard and Al Copley formed, A Roomful of Blues. It was an 7-member ensemble that played Chicago-style blues with a heavy dose of Jump-Blues, R & B and rock ‘n roll that was entertaining and fun. But after a series of gigs in New England, the band got noticed by songwriter, Doc Pomus who helped them launch a working career in music with their first record deal in 1977 on the adventurous label, Island. Duke Robillard left the group in 1980 to pursue a solo career. Guitarist, Ronnie Earl, replaced him. Fast-forward to 2013, and the two have just released new solo records on Stony Plain, the fine Canadian label established by Holger Peterson. My next review will be Ronnie Earl’s album, but today I’d like to talk about Robillard’s latest release called, Independently Blue.

Since 1980, Duke Robillard has been one of the hardest working musicians in contemporary blues. He travels frequently with his band playing one-nighters and festivals throughout North America. I first heard him with A Roomful of Blues back in the early 80s, but as an ensemble. That band was basically led by the horns while Duke’s playing was essentially in the rhythm section, so he only had the occasional solo. But he was also interested in expanding his interest in jazz (After Hours Swing Session, 1992) and even tried an album of original rock songs (Temptation, 1994). He’s always been one to experiment and stretch out effectively becoming one of the most interesting and versatile musicians in the world. (He’s currently playing with Bob Dylan, no less)

So whenever he releases a new album, which is almost once every other year, I have to stop and check out his latest musical adventures. Independently Blue (Stony Plain) was recorded last year and it’s a wide-ranging album that shows off Robillard’s versatility as a guitarist and singer. His well-seasoned band featuring Brad Hallen, Bass, Mark Teixeira, Drums and Bruce Bears, piano and organ, support him very well. Musically it’s all over the map. Literally. “Patrol Wagon Blues,” originally played by Red Allen, features a New Orleans sound. “You Won’t Ever” is an R&B original that sounds like it’s fresh from the streets of Detroit. The band gets into a Memphis funk rhythm on “Groovin Slow” and it wouldn’t be a Duke Robillard record with a nod to Chicago: “I Wouldna Done That” and “Strollin with Lowell and BB.” The former is a killer shuffle and the latter a tribute to Lowell Fulson and B.B. King.

Robillard wrote most of the songs on the album, something he’s done since his solo debut in 1984, Duke Robillard and the Pleasure Kings (Rounder). For the most part they are well suited to Robillard’s husky voice and exceptional technique. As a guitarist, Robillard is not only a great lead player; he’s also an excellent rhythm player. His solos are notoriously long with each idea building on the next, a style that leaves you breathless when you see him in performance. But on Independently Blue, he’s remarkably economical with his solos, which are tasteful. But on the last track, “If This Is Love” he opens up and plays with the kind of gusto fans usually expect to hear.

Independently Blue captures the 64-year-old guitarist in fine form. Its musical versatility is its greatest strength, but more importantly this is an album with feel and you can’t play this kind of music without it.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Winds Orchestra.

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