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(Severn 0020 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/2/2003)
The blues scene is remarkably prolific, with a surprising number of artists devoting themselves to the great American music form. For every B.B. King or Buddy Guy or Etta James, there are dozens of first-rate performers, many of them with careers measured in decades, plying their trade and making plenty of fine music night after night.
This week we have another example of a journeyman blues singer who has appeared on at least 15 albums since the early 1980s, and who has made probably his best recording yet. Times Like These is the new CD by Darrell Nulisch.
While not exactly endowed with a typical bluesman's name, nevertheless, Darrell Nulisch has impressive credentials. A native of Dallas, Texas, Nulisch established himself in the Lone Star State as a member of Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets through most of the 1980s. In 1987, he moved to New England to perform with Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, with whom he recorded two albums as lead singer for the group. He has also recorded with guitarist Hubert Sumlin and boogie-woogie piano great David Maxwell, as well as leading his own group Texas Heat. In recent times, he has come to be known among blues fans for his work with harmonica legend James Cotton. Times Like These is Nulisch's fifth recording as a leader and it puts him into a setting that's as much soul as straight blues. He is joined by a large backing group, including a prominent horn section that nicely compliments Nulisch's generally laid-back style.
Unlike many blues singers, Nulisch's trademark sound is not so much built on power -- being a screamer or shouter, as they say, but in a decidedly understated style, Nulisch delivers the songs on the CD with a good deal of class. He could be described as much as soul singer as a bluesman. And the material on the CD reflects that, with both the originals and the covers representing both facets. Times Like These is evenly divided between original compositions, most written by Nulisch with bass player Steve Gomes, and old songs originally recorded by artists ranging from Ray Charles to the Temptations.
Nulisch is joined by a tight band, with whom he regularly plays, and who also like the singer and harmonica man, are somewhat understated players. It's the kind of band whose performances add up to more than the sum of the parts. On guitar is Jon Molier, on keyboards is Benji Porecki who has worked in the jazz world, the drummer is Robb Stupka, and Nulisch's composing partner Steve Gomes is on the bass. There is a six-piece horn section heard pretty much throughout the CD, arranged by Willie Henderson, who previously worked with the late Jackie Wilson and Tyrone Davis. For the cover material, Nulisch and company generally keep the feel of the original recordings, while adding their own twist.
The CD begins with one of those remakes, a fairly obscure Little Milton Campbell song called Lonely Man. The full horn section assumes an almost-big-band dimension while Nulisch delivers the song with his combination of soulfulness and blues energy. <<>>
Nulisch's soul side takes center stage on the original song Handle It With Care, a tune that is simultaneously sunny in sound and melancholy in mood. <<>>
Pianist David Maxwell makes an appearance on one of the CD's bluesiest tracks, Something Else. The original song's lyrics are classic blues, while Maxwell's piano adds a great boogie sound. Nulisch is also featured prominently on harmonica. <<>>
From the soul repertoire comes Ashford & Simpson's Running Out, which Nulisch and company give a decidedly Memphis-inflected sound. <<>>
One of the CD highlights among the cover songs is Ray Charles' Snow Is Falling, which both captures the feel of Ray Charles, while allowing Nulisch to give his own vocal spin to the song. <<>>
While Nulisch usually covers more obscure material, he does include a familiar Temptations song that has also been recorded by Bob Marley and by the Rolling Stones. Don't Look Back maintains the soulful sound, with Nulisch putting in a really fine vocal performance on top of he big horn section. <<>>
Among the original songs, the standout is the slow, minor-key blues Good Thing. This is just the sort of material at which Nulisch's understated but plaintive vocal approach really excels. It's also a fine song to begin with. <<>>
Nulisch and company serve up an Otis Redding song, That's a Good Idea, and also put in a strong performance that sums up the CD -- Nulisch is a lot more understated than Otis Redding, while the typical Memphis rhythmic bounce is maintained. It's another strong performance by everyone involved. <<>>
Darrell Nulisch may not exactly be a household name, even among blues fans, but the veteran performer has turned in probably the best album yet in his nearly 25-year recording career. Joined by the large group with horns, the CD shows roughly equal measures of the blues and soul, all marked by his classy, understated vocal approach. It's not the kind album that will hit you over the head with wailing guitar solos or dramatic, impassioned singing, but it is music that will really stand up for the long haul -- music that will sound as good five or ten years from now as it does today.
Our sound quality grade is an "A." The mix is first-rate, with the lead vocals handled with the kind of subtlety that Nulisch puts into his performances, and the overall clarity is commendable.
Some people like their blues blistering hot, while others crave 10-minute guitar solos. That is not Darrell Nulisch's style. His new CD Times Like These delivers blues and soul that ranges from fun songs to plaintive laments, all served up with plenty of class.
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