Duke Robillard: New Blues for Modern Man
by George Graham
(Shanachie 9017 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/26/99)
When the subject of blues guitarists comes up, there are a few names that are known to the general public: people like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. But ask the savvy blues fan, and name Duke Robillard is likely to be uttered -- and probably with a certain degree of reverence. The veteran fretmeister had just released New Blues for Modern Man, his thirteenth solo album; and again he shows why he has so many fans among other artists.
Duke Robillard grew up in a small town in Rhode Island, a state where he still lives. His brother's record collection with Buddy Holly and Fats Domino provided him with his first exposure to the blues, and needless to say, he was smitten. His parents were not very enthusiastic about his taking up the guitar seriously, but he managed to sneak in some practice time on his brother's instrument, and came up with a clever stratagem to get an instrument for himself: he turned it into a science project, persuading his father to help him build an electric guitar for a science fair. He won second prize, and a week later, he was playing in a band. After he graduated from high school in 1967, he immediately founded Roomful of Blues, one of the most durable blues bands of all time, a group which continues to this day with an ever-changing cast of characters, but which remains committed to performing good old-fashioned 1940s and 50s R&B influenced blues with a big horn section. After 13 years with Roomful of Blues, Robillard left to pursue his own music first with a group called the Pleasure Kings, and then with a long series of solo albums that show his versatility, alternating between jazzy or swing-influenced, horn-laden sound and more electric rock-influenced blues.
Along with way, he served as a sideman on many albums, and also for a while was a member of the Legendary Blues Band, a group formed by former members of Muddy Waters group. Then in the early 1990s, Robillard spent two years as lead guitarist in the Fabulous Thunderbirds, probably the most popular blues band of the time, which helped to fuel the current blues revival. Robillard replaced Thunderbirds founder Jimmy Vaughan who left to form a band with his younger brother Stevie Ray, shortly before the latter's tragic death in an aviation accident. Since his time with the Thunderbirds, Robillard has become much in demand as a studio musician, including playing on Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind album and many others by blues artists ranging from Ruth Brown to John Hammond.
Robillard can rightly take some credit for the current revival of swing-influenced blues, since he had been doing that from the beginning with Roomful of Blues. After a couple of swing-influenced albums, Robillard, true to his pattern of alternating styles, has gone back to a more rocky sound for his new release. New Blues for Modern Man still has a distinctly retro sound, and Robllard's band also has two horn players, including his old colleague Doug James, another Roomful of Blues co-founder. But there's not nearly as much swing influence this time: both his guitar work and vocals are noticeably more hard-edged, even on a pair of tracks with acoustic guitar.
In addition to Doug James, who plays the baritone and tenor saxes, Robillard's regular band also includes Dennis Taylor on the other sax, John Parker on acoustic bass throughout, and Marty Richards on drums. Added players include keyboard man Tom West, and another Roomful member Al Basile on trumpet, plus a couple of mandolin players for an acoustic blues track.
Robillard himself goes for a more hard-edged electric guitar sound, except for the CD's last track where his approach is more jazzy. As a vocalist, Robillard can be a crooner when he wants to be, but in keeping with this album's higher energy level, he belts out most of the songs, which by the way, are mostly original compositions. There's one old blues song, but the other cover is a Bob Dylan composition.
Robillard produced the album himself and said that most of the tracks are first or second takes, and with the exception of a few overdubs, most of the music was recorded live in the studio to keep that spontaneous blues feel.
This generous 66-minute-long CD begins with a Robillard original called Jumpin' Rockin' Rhythm, which sets the rocky pace for this CD. While the lyrics are hardly profound, celebrating the music as they do, the tune has a great Chuck Berry-influenced groove with the addition of the horns. <<>>
The following track is a considerable contrast, though the energy level is no lower. The old song Pony Blues, by Charlie Patton is from the acoustic country blues tradition. Robillard tries to imply that sound in the arrangement with its added mandolins, even though Robillard himself is very plugged in and the horn section comes on strong. <<>>
Robillard's musical heart is never very far from old-fashioned R&B, and Don't Fool with My Love carries on in that direction with a lot of class. The horn section plays some classic lines, while Robillard's guitar plays the kind of fast, stabbing notes that keeps this song from getting too mellow. <<>>
One of the stronger tracks on the album is Good Man written by sax player Doug James. The song has low-down, almost swamp-blues sound, though the horn section and West's prominent piano also gives it a vaguely jazzy touch. <<>> Robillard puts in another of his great guitar solos that is full of musical ideas. He is one of those rare guitarists who can take an extended solo and keep coming up with new and interesting variations. <<>>
The blues is one of the last bastions of unashamedly sexist lyrics. Fishnet is a new original song by Robillard, that if one ignores the words has a great funky Memphis-style groove, along with some classy playing by Robillard. <<>>
The Bob Dylan song that Robillard covers is Love Sick from the Time Out of Mind album on which Robillard played. The guitarist remarked that in playing on the Dylan album, the song really struck him. He was drawn to the dark, brooding quality of the piece, though it was not a standard blues in form. Robillard adds to the ambience in a lengthy arrangement. <<>> Toward the end, Robillard gets a chance to stretch out, with an interesting solo that is a bit out character. Even when he cranks up, Robillard tends to have smooth even lines, but his solo here has an uncommonly jagged sound that works really well for the song. <<>>
There are two tracks with Robillard on acoustic guitar. One of them, You're The Only One is also the album's biggest surprise. With its slow Tex-Mex sound, it attempts to be romantic, but ends up being a bit over the top... <<>> especially with the cornball Mariachi style trumpet at the end. <<>>
Duke Robillard is as his best, though, with straight old fashioned blues. Fortunately, there is an irresistible shuffle in the grand Roomful of Blues mold. It's an original by the guitarist called How Long Baby, not to be confused with the traditional standard How Long Blues. The song also has the album's best lyrics, combining literate metaphors with about the oldest blues song subject there is. The result is the CD's finest track. <<>>
New Blues for Modern Man concludes with its longest piece, a slow, swing-influenced instrumental called Big Bottom Blues. It again features Robillard at his best, though the track gives the saxophones some time in the spotlight. <<>> Robillard switches to his jazzier electric guitar sound and gets an extended solo which again reminds us of why Robillard commands such respect. <<>>
Duke Robillard's new 13th album New Blues for Modern Man marks yet another fine release from one of the most respected guitarists on the blues scene, and my own personal favorite living blues guitar player. Robillard continues to show his resourcefulness, moving back and forth from one album to the next between the jazzy, swingy side of the blues and the harder-edged varieties. This CD, despite a couple of more laid-back tracks, favors the latter, with a more aggressive guitar and vocal style. But there are still prominent horn arrangements that give a retro sound to the session. The musicians backing Robillard are first class, and it is good to hear a couple of veteran members of Roomful of Blues joining him on the album. The songs he comes up with are also generally quite good. Still, this is not Robillard's best solo effort. The guitarist is generally at his peak in his less energetic mode when one can hear the subtleties of his playing and his sometimes playful vocal style.
Sonically, the album rates about a B+. Perhaps because of the way much of the album was recorded with everyone together in the studio, there is not is much clarity in the mix as one would have liked. Some of Robillard's previous efforts have sounded much better in this respect. Somewhat disappointing is the anemic sound of the acoustic bass, which could have added a richness and given a more classic sound to the record. But the dynamic range is better than most such recent CDs.
Over the past 30 years, Rhode Island guitarist Duke Robillard has been attracting increasing attention as one of the finest blues players on the scene, especially among blues cognoscenti and fellow musicians. His new album should further help to cement this reputation, and perhaps because of the CD's more energetic sound, win more fans from rock audiences.
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