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Roomful of Blues: In a Roomful of Blues
by George Graham
(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/2/2020)
Some music styles don’t age particularly well, especially those that tend to be trendy in their day. And when the artists become older and try to keep playing their old hits and the same style, it can be a little embarrassing. But there are other styles that age well, such as jazz and folk music, with performers able to continue making new music that maintains its integrity. And certainly the blues is one of those genres which keeps on going, maintaining the classic ingredients and for the most part, not sounding dated as the years pass. Not surprisingly, there are performers who have maintained lengthy careers in the blues, with authority even into their eighties.
This time, we have not an individual, but a band who have been playing the blues for over 50 years, and remain at the top of their form. It’s Roomful of Blues, and their new release is called In a Roomful of Blues.
Roomful of Blues started in 1967 when some teenage musicians in Rhode Island, including guitarist Duke Robillard, launched a band dedicated to playing Chicago-style electric blues. In 1970, they added the band’s trademark horns, and in 1977 made their classic debut album co-produced by legendary songwriter Doc Pomus, that captured the sound of early 1950s era rhythm and blues groups with horns. Roomful of Blues has been evolving over the years, with none of the original members still with the group. However, longest-tenured member is saxophonist Rich Lataille, who joined fifty years ago 1970 and appeared on their first album. The group’s current leader, guitarist Chris Vachon has been with Roomful since 1990.
While the lead vocalists have changed over the years, the band’s musical formula has remained largely intact, with perhaps a little more rock influence over the last couple of decades than on their debut record. But they can still capture the big horn sound, with occasional forays into swing-era influence, with a helping of some funk, rock, soul and boogaloo. The current line-up is an octet with lead vocalist Phil Pemberton, guitarist Vachon, and saxophonist Lataille, joined by keyboard man Rusty Scott, bassist John Turner, who sticks with acoustic upright bass, drummer Chris Anzalone, trumpeter Chris Gerhard, and additional saxophonist Alek Razdan. This is at least their fourteenth album, with their last, a live album released in 2013. Their publicity notes that there are more original songs on the new album than on any of their previous releases.
On In a Roomful of Blues, the band ranges fairly widely in the styles they encompass, including swing-influenced, blues-rock, some Memphis-style soul, a couple of boogaloos and even some zydeco, and all of it with the group’s trademark big horn sound. The arrangements tend to be compact, with only two of the album’s thirteen tracks extending beyond four minutes. Still, several of the tunes allow for short solos by the players.
Opening is What Can I Do? one of the few covers on the album. The group serves it up with an energetic tight boogaloo beat, in a classic sound. <<>>
More toward the Memphis style of soul is an original song called You Move Me by guitarist Chris Vachon and vocalist Phil Pemberton. <<>>
In the over 50 years of the band’s existence, they have not, until now, incorporated the group’s inviting name into a song. The album’s title track, In a Roomful Of Blues is taken in a strong Memphis-influenced soul direction, with excellent results.
Most of the material on the album is classic in sound, and could have been written 60 or 70 years ago. But the new release contains a song with very contemporary lyrics. Phone Zombie decries how everyone seems to have their noses in their smart phones. It’s one of the album’s stronger tracks. <<>>
A good example of how the band mixes it up stylistically on this album is the original song She Quit Me Again, which could be a honky-tonk cry-in-your-beer country song. <<>>
Roomful of Blues has always been at their best doing music influenced by the swing era and the early days of rhythm and blues. A song written by keyboard man Rusty Scott, She’s Tom Much, nicely fits the bill, with a strong swing beat. It’s another definite highlight of the album. <<>>
The zydeco influence comes out on Have Your Heard, which features guest accordion player Dave Reed. It’s another of the cover songs. <<>>
The most heartfelt lyrics on the album are heard in Carcinoma Blues, written by guitarist Chris Vachon and Bob Moulton, who makes a guest appearance on guitar and backing vocals. There are not a lot of blues songs that are as specific as this one is about the cause of the sadness. <<>>
The album ends with a short Gospel-influenced song called I Can’t Wait, by saxophonist Alek Razdan, which takes things out in a strong manner. <<>>
Roomful of Blues’ new release In a Roomful of Blues, at least their 14th album in nearly 53 years as a band, is another strong effort by one of the best horn-based blues blues groups around. The band remains as tight as ever, and the abundance of strong original material, including the horn arrangements is a plus. It’s interesting that they concentrate on such short arrangements, with little time to stretch out instrumentally. But that’s the way things were back in the early days of the music when the songs had to fit onto a three-and-a-half minute side of a single.
Our grade for sound quality is a “B” with the recording overly volume-compressed to make it artificially louder, with sometimes audible distortion from overloads on the horns and the vocals.
The blues is a form that wears well over the years, and Roomful of Blues proves their durability on the new release. Although perhaps not the album with their most exciting performances, In a Roomful of Blues, with its abundance of new original material, shows that the band remains in great form after a half century.
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