CD Review: Duke Robillard – Duke Robillard’s Jumpin’ Blues Review (Stony Plain)

dukeAfter many years as a music journalist, not too much excites my jaded soul. I’ve heard too many lackluster albums from superstars who should’ve known better and too many great albums from young flash-in-the-pans who are unable to make lightning strike twice and spend the next 10 years playing to fewer and fewer people as the luster wears off of their talent only to find them back at their dishwashing job older, wiser and tapped out talent-wise. But, that being said, one artist continues to excite me each time I find out he has released a new album or has one on the way and that artist is master guitarist Duke Robillard, who has returned once again with a new album full of vintage blues and roots sounds which harken back to his early days when he helped form Roomful of Blues and was the hottest young guitarist on the scene. Though that was many years ago, Robillard continues to instill his music with the energy and thrilling excitement of youth and make each of his releases his best work yet, as he does with this album.

For those unaware of Robillard and his work over the years – let’s just say you have been missing out on one of the masters of modern blues guitar who has the amazing facility to not only have carved out a wondeful career on his own featuring a truly original and incendiary guitar style, but who is also able to faithfully invoke the styles of his favorite guitarists from T-Bone Walker to Pee Wee Crayton to Tiny Grimes. Robillard is so convincing at mimicking Walker’s style that Walker’s own widow was played some of Roomful of Blues’ early albums with Robillard’s guitar work and thought someone had unearthed unreleased recordings by Walker. Robillard began his music career as a teenager when he helped form Roomful of Blues back in 1969 with a focus on jump blues of the 1940’s. Though their eponymous album was hailed as a classic when released on Island Records in 1977, the world was awash in punk and disco and the album did not do much saleswise, though it certyainly impressed more than a few critics and music-heads who have made the album a cult hit ever since. After recording a couple more albums with Roomful, Robillard left to forge his own path. This time focusing on modern blues sounds, Robillard formed a rocking power trio which worked the road incessantly for close to a decade. The dawn of the ’90’s brought new solo albums, a sojourn with the Fabulous Thunderbirds replacing Jimmie Vaughan and many, many jobs as backing musician for the likes of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. The solo albums have come hoty and heavy since then, as has Robillard’s production resume and his work as a painter and photographer is not to be denied, either. Truly, Robillard is one of this century’s true Rocking Renaissance men.

On this album, Robillard has decided to revisit his early influences that served as the inspiration behind the formation of the original Roomful of Blues. So yes, folks, that means plenty of obscure-yet-glorious jump blues tunes in the styles of Robillard’s faves like Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, T-Bone Walker, Bigh Joe Turner and Charles Brown. In the liner notes Robillard lets slip his adoration of Rhythym and Blues from the 40’s to the ’50’s and one can definitely hear the influences in full effect. That does not mean Robillard does not manage to put his own stamp on this material. In fact, Robillard manages to include three songs of his own in this set and the most amazing thing about them is you really can’t tell which songs are Robillard’s and which were written near six decades ago! Robillard is his usual amazing self on guitar, while also contributing vocals to most of the cuts. Vocalist Sunny Crownover from the band Sunny and her Joyboys (which released an album this year produced by Robillard) is on hand to lend vocal assistance on about half the songs and serves as a great duet partner for Robillard and vice/versa. The mighty horn section comprised of Doug James (baritone and tenor sax), Rich Lataille (alto and tenor sax), Al Basile (cornet) and Carl Querfurth (trombone) are Robillard’s old pals from Roomful of Blues and do a fantastic job here, adding a ton of swing and plenty of spice to the songs. Bass duties are split between Jon Ross and Robillard’s longtime bassist Marty Ballou while drums are handled by Mark Teixeira and paino by Bruce Bears. Why do all of Robillard’s albums sound as if they are a tour de force? I mean, each one is better than the last and the next one I put in is always my fave. This album is simply fantastic, which Robillard and crew not only capturing the vibe of the 40’s and 50’s jump blues era but expanding on it to add their own little twists and turns. Each player is a virtuoso and can hang with anyone anywhere and I am glad they decided to hang together on this album as I am a freak for great music done well, and this is as good as it gets, folks.

You really can’t go wrong with any album with Robillard’s name on it. Not only will the guitar playing be spellbinding, but Robillard has become quite a fine vocalist and songwriter over the years. His vocals are always smooth and subtle, never reaching for a note he can’t handle while doing it in a way which masks his relatively small range and always with plenty of aplomb. In other words, he is not Frank Sinatra but who cares? Least of all Robillard himself who oozes so much personality he rivals Prima, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Chuck Berry put together. His songwriting is also wonderful, having evolved from his early work (which often resembled Walker re-writes) into some of the most shining examples of modern blues and roots music ever created where terse, memorable melodies are married to pithy, clever, and often heart-rending lyrics which are able to distill a mood and crucial plot elements within a modicum of verbiage. Whenever Robillard releases an album I rush out to get it as I am always enthralled by his work as the man is the complete package of songwriter/guitarist/singer/producer. This disc is no different. Once again, another killer album from Robillard. Pick it up.