Tad Robinson: One to Infinity -- by George Graham
Record releases from the last few years have shown that there are many fine blues performers coming from locales other than the cities traditionally associated with this great American music form. We have had first-rate blues recordings from bands from Vancouver, British Columbia; Gainesville, Florida; Sacramento, California; and Syracuse, New York, to name a few. And, of course, there are some great blues bands in our own area. The blues meccas, however, continue to draw performers to their rich local music scene, and there is probably no better-known blues town than Chicago. Most blues fans know the story of how it started with African Americans from the rural South migrating north looking for factory jobs in the 1940s and 1950s, and settling into Chicago. They brought with them the blues of places like Mississippi, but once in Chicago, they plugged in their guitars and gave birth to the gritty electric blues style that has spread all over the world.
While many in the first generation of Chicago electric bluesmen are no longer with us, quite a few of the veterans like Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin continue on. Meanwhile Chicago's definitive blues scene has attracted a younger generation of performers who are now settling in. This week's album is by a immigrant to Chicago who is likely to be a new name to most blues fans, though he has been around on the scene there for about a decade. His name is Tad Robinson, and his debut recording bears the title One to Infinity.
Tad Robinson grew up in New York City in the golden age of Top 40 radio, when soul and R&B were equally at home on the AM radio with with rock and roll. Robinson's brother collected 45s from the popular soul labels, Motown and Stax & Volt. He cites the Temptations, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and songwriter Arthur Alexander as early influences.
Robinson had already chosen music as a career when he left New York in 1980 to study at Indiana University School of Music. He eventually settled into Chicago where he immersed himself in the city's legendary blues scene. He has been performing around the Windy City for about ten years now, playing harmonica in other people's bands and doing a fair amount of songwriting. He turned up not long ago on an album by bluesman Dave Spector.
On One to Infinity Robinson is joined by a band of people with whom he regularly works, including guitarist Alex Schultz, a boyhood friend from New York who now plays with Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers. On keyboards is Ken Saydak who played Lonnie Brooks and Johnny Winter with before founding the outstanding blues rock band Big Shoulders a few years ago. The rhythm section for most of the CD consists of Harlan Terson on bass and Jon Hiller on drums. Both are veterans of the Chicago blues scene having worked with names like Robert Littlejohn and Jimmy Johnson, respectively.
All but three tracks are original compositions by Robinson. The covers include two standards and an unexpected treatment of a Beatles tune. Stylistically One to Infinity ranges from hot boogie-woogie shuffles to big full-out soul production numbers complete with a substantial horn section and background singers.
Robinson himself as a vocalist is more a soul singer than a blues shouter, but he does well with both. His harmonica playing is also quite respectable, though he is careful not to hog the spotlight with it. He gives himself one instrumental to highlight his playing along with occasional solos. But most of the time, this is just a really fine soul, blues and classic R&B vocal record that will warm the hearts of those who grew up listening to Otis Redding or Ray Charles or Albert King.
The album starts with an original called Empty Apartment Blues, which in turn begins with a kind of classic Motown riff. <<>> Despite that introduction, the tune becomes a cross between Chuck Berry style rock & roll, and Sixties soul, with guitarist Schultz putting in some tasteful playing. <<>>
For me, this album's strongest tracks are the upbeat boogie-woogie shuffles on which Robinson gets to play a fair amount of his harmonica. One of the hottest is Coming Home in which the band really cooks. <<>>
Another highlight of the album is Robinson's treatment of the blues standard Trouble in Mind. It's done as a classic slow blues with his regular band, including pianist Ken Saydak who adds a lot of nice subtle touches. <<>>
One of the prototypical soul arrangements is an original called At the End of the Tunnel. The horn section makes an appearance, along with veteran bluesman Robert Ward who is featured on guitar. This is the kind of material at which Robinson succeeds best as a singer. The result is first-rate. <<>>
The other big soul production number is the title piece From One to Infinity. Not only are the horns a significant presence, but a trio of backup singers helps transform the tune into quintessential Memphis soul. <<>>
The Beatles cover is Eight Days a Week, which Robinson and band also serve up in classic Memphis R&B style. I don't think I've heard the song done this way before, but Robinson makes it seem a natural-born soul tune. <<>>
The instrumental track is a Robinson original called Little Rascal, with Dave Spector -- in whose band Robinson played -- returning the favor and appearing on guitar. In form, it's a standard Chicago blues shuffle on which Robinson puts in some nice harp work. Instead of going all out, the group gives the piece a nice, easy tempo. <<>>
One of Robinson's finest songs is another slow, soulful ballad called Raining in New York. The combination of the great playing by the band and Robinson's outstanding vocal makes this another instant soul classic. <<>>
The album's other cover is Little Milton Campbell's Lonely Man, a hot minor-key boogie which the band, including the horn section sinks their musical teeth into. The tune features guitar work from both Alex Schultz and Dave Specter. <<>>
Tad Robinson's debut album One to Infinity is an impressive recording from this Chicago-based harmonica man and singer. The range of styles represented on the album and done well is impressive, from electric Windy City blues to sweet Memphis soul. This range also represents two facets of Robinson. His harmonica playing is at its best on an energetic boogie or shuffle, while as a singer, he really shines on the soul ballads. He is backed by an outstanding band of fellow Chicagoans who remind us of the wealth of blues talent the Windy City holds.
Sonically, this album is excellent. It's a nice compromise capturing some of the gritty sound typical of the blues while maintaining good clarity and freedom from distortion and noisy guitar amplifiers which some producers these days think it's cool to include supposedly for authenticity. There's also a welcome freedom from compression, giving the soul ballads especially lots of dynamic range. Producer Steve Wagner and engineers Paul Serrano and Vincent Vargo deserve kudos.
One to Infinity from Tad Robinson is great introduction to yet another bright light on the Chicago blues scene.
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