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Quinn Sullivan: Wide Awake
by George Graham
(Provogue Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/2/2021)
The history of music is full of prodigies, musicians who emerged seemingly fully formed at a sometimes impossibly early age, going back to Mozart, through artists like Stevie Wonder, and Chris Thile and even Bela Fleck in the bluegrass world, and more recently Joey Alexander in the jazz world. It’s often interesting to consider what these prodigies have become as they get older.
This week we have a new album by an artist who emerged a more than decade ago as a pre-teen blues guitar sensation, appearing on national TV shows at age 6, working with the veteran bluesman Buddy Guy, touring starting at age 11, joining B.B. King on stage at about the same age and releasing his debut album at age 12. It’s Quinn Sullivan, whose new fourth release is called Wide Awake an album which shows how he has progressed as an artist, now at a still fairly young age of 22.
Quinn Sullivan grew up in Bedford, Massachusetts and began taking guitar lessons at age three. He made rapid progress and appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres TV show at age 6. He came to the attention of Buddy Guy, who brought him on stage during a performance in Sullivan’s home town. Since then they worked together touring and Sullivan made a guest appearance on Guy’s 2008 album Skin Deep at the age of 9.
Sullivan’s debut album, Cyclone was released in 2011 when he was 12, and he followed that two years later with Getting There, and in 2017 with Midnight Highway.
Now on the new album Wide Awake Sullivan goes for less guitar flash and more soul and some pop influence in a tasteful blend, also showing off a respectable level of vocal maturity, in a musical setting that while sometimes still bluesy, is rich with the influence of Memphis soul and some Motown ambiance.
Sullivan’s main collaborator on the album is Oliver Lieber, who produced the album, co-wrote almost all the songs with Sullivan, and also plays some guitar, on this Los Angeles-made production. Other players on the album include keyboard man Mike Finnegan, who has recorded with Bonnie Raitt, Paul Peterson on bass, and various drummers, including Abe Laboriel, Jr. The result is more an intelligent pop album than a straight blues recording. Most of the tracks are love songs about various states of relationships, and generally plow familiar ground lyrically. But the words fit well with the music with its sort of classic soul influence, combined with some contemporary pop, to the point that some of the songs might be compatible with a country music playlist.
Wide Awake commences with the track chosen as the single, All Around the World, a strong Memphis-soul influenced song of optimism, tastefully served up. <<>>
More toward the pop side is She’s So Irresistible with old fashioned lyrics about physical attraction. <<>>
One of the highlights of the album is How Many Tears a kind classic soul ballad with some pop elements, showing Sullivan’s vocals at his best. <<>>
Sullivan’s blues-rock guitar is highlighted on In a World Without You in an otherwise pop-rock setting. <<>>
Another of the album’s best tracks is Real Thing a musically sophisticated pop song without much blues influence. <<>>
On the other hand, the title track Wide Awake evokes 1980s stadium rock, and doesn’t play to Sullivan’s strengths. <<>>
There is one acoustic track on the album, Jessica, a song of encouragement to someone who is down or perhaps clinically depressed. It works well, and is a nice change of pace. <<>>
The album ends with Keep Up which shows a little Gospel-soul influence with a nice arrangement. <<>> Sullivan finally get a chance to stretch out with a guitar solo toward the end. <<>>
Wide Awake the new fourth album by one-time pre-teen blues guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan is definitely a more mature work, with the emphasis less on blues guitar and more on the songs and Sullivan’s appealing soulful vocals. The compositions encompass a decent stylistic range, though I would hardly use the word eclectic in connection with the album. There’s more rock and pop influence than blues, but the album comes across as generally tasteful, with first rate playing by all involved. There are some instances that gravitate more toward mainstream pop and even songs that evoke contemporary Nashville sounds more than I might prefer, but it never really crosses the line into cliches. <<>>
Our grade for sound quality is a “B-minus” for excessive volume compression, with things cranked up to the max almost all the time robbing the recording of any dynamics, and the vocals often sound overdriven. But the mix has has everything in its proper place.
Time treats musical prodigies in different ways. Some burn out early, or slip into irrelevance after making their mark. At age 22, Quinn Sullivan has matured into a soulful blues rock artist who likely has a bright career still ahead of him.
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