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Mark May Band – Release My Soul
Bad Fork Records
11 tracks; 65:10 minutes
It seems the phrase “blew me away” is overused to the point of losing its clout, so I’m going to raise the stakes and say that Release My Soul, a new CD by the Mark May Band, touched my soul. From lyrics that got under my skin to solos that left me speechless, this set of 11 original songs (10 of them written or co-written by May) evoked an almost spiritual experience.
Mark May was born into a musical family, where he was exposed to a variety of musical styles. He started playing guitar at the age of 5, and was performing at local nightclubs by age15. This former guitarist and vocalist for Dickey Betts and Great Southern has opened for the Allman Brothers Band; and the influence of Betts and the Allman Brothers is obvious in May’s work. After over 20 years of performing in Houston, Texas, May has recently returned to his native Ohio, and the majority of his current tour dates are there.
This CD (May’s 5th) starts off with a fun tune that will rock your socks off, “Six Strings or Two Legs.” The cute and clever – though likely somewhat true – lyrics of this honky-tonk song basically tell you that the singer is “a woman-lovin’ blues man,” and don’t be expecting him to mow the lawn or do chores around the house. But in his defense, he says he’ll “be at bar tonight, if you want to hear some blues.”
In this song, you’ll hear some classic Hammond B3 organ, and some really nice slide guitar, as well as a duel between their harmonica and their two lead guitars, playing in harmony. I found this technique, no doubt adapted from Dickey Betts and the Allman Brothers, to be a Mark May Band trademark. This duel lead or double solo (which would seem to be oxymorons) can range from flowing, pleasant harmony to skirting a strategic clash, if the mood calls for it, as in some of the later, jazzier cuts.
The skies start to cloud up, almost immediately, in the second track, “Move On.” This one features a darker sound, with minor chords and a guitar solo with a little harder edge. Still there’s at least a hint of sun on the horizon, and the 3rd cut, “I Gotta Know,” lightens up considerably, featuring a strong horn section and bright guitar harmony provided by May and his co-lead guitarist, Paul Ramirez.
The 4th track, “Eyes Of India,” starts out sounding much like a contemporary Christian or country ballad, with lovely harmonizing vocals; but then adds some Indian musical elements - with May on electric sitar - making it one of the most beautiful songs on the disc. (You’ll hear some of this Indian influence again in cut 8, “Vindablues.”)
From here, the dark storm clouds roll back in with a vengeance, and the next three tracks, “Release My Soul,” “World of Suffering” and “Drifter,” up the emotional ante, with the mood running from sinister to plaintive to (slightly) hopeful. “Drifter” is heavy on the sax and horn section, with a scorching guitar solo. In all of these songs, there is a distinct move towards jazz, and May’s solos sometimes reminded me of (if I may invoke the “B” word) Jeff Beck.
“Devil’s Playpen” has a funky, SuperFly-style scratchy wah wah, while “She Don’t Shine” is a heart-felt ballad but includes an ominous, almost agitated riff. But then the set calms down to close with “Sweet D,” a pretty little instrumental, with a chord progression reminiscent of Eric Clapton’s “Change the World.”
Throughout this disc, May’s voice is smooth and pleasing enough for the ballads, with just the right amount of sincerity and gravel to handle the blues.
Release My Soul by the Mark May Band did touch my soul with its search for the hard truth in life and its pure, emotion-laden beauty. I’m not sure why I loved it so much. Was it the perfect storm of my favorite musical techniques and elements? Or is it that I’m a bit bewildered by life and on my own search for the hard truth? Or is that May is just that talented? Whatever the reason, I did love this CD and give it my highest recommendation.
Reviewer Sheila Skilling is a self-professed “blues fan by marriage,” who was hooked by her husband’s musical preferences, but reeled in by the live performances of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy and others. She lives in the Minneapolis area.