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Phantom Blues Band – Inside Out

Vizztone Label Group

13 tracks; 51.14 minutes

“Inside Out” is the third album produced by the Phantom Blues Band and it is perhaps the best yet. On the earlier discs, the band stuck mainly to covers, but here there are six originals and, as ever, plenty of variety, stellar playing and singing. The band started out as a studio band to back Taj Mahal, but the combination worked so well that they have continued to tour with Taj as well as all being regular session musicians of the highest calibre. The acts they have played with is a veritable who’s who of blues and rock, names such as Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, Little Feat, Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The band consists of Tony Branaugel on drums, Larry Fulcher on bass, Mike Finnigan on keyboards, Johnny Lee Schell on guitar and the horn pairing of Darrell Leonard on trumpet and Joe Sublett on sax, a.k.a. ‘The Texacali Horns’. Ace percussionist Lenny Castro helps out and jazz pianist Joe Sample plays keyboards on one track. Vocals are shared out between Finnigan, Fulcher and Schell.

Taking the originals first I particularly enjoyed “Boogah Man” with its surging rhythm, great harmonies and organ solo. In contrast “So Far From Heaven” is a jazzy tune with Joe Sample’s keys prominent and an outstanding solo from co-author (with Larry Fulcher) Joe Sublett. The horn arrangement here is superb and the whole piece has the feel of Steely Dan at their peak. “Having A Good Time With The Blues” is a good rolling blues, a collaboration between Schell, Charlie Musselwhite and Barry Goldberg, with strong guitar playing throughout.

Schell also contributes “It’s All Right” with its strong chorus and horn charts. Darrell Leonard provides “Where Did My Monkey Go”, the only instrumental here. As you would expect the horns are strongly featured, but the whole band moves this one along with some latin percussion and hot guitar. “Change” is one written by the whole band, more great horns on a song with something of a political message: “Running the world is a mighty big job, but it seems we’re running on fear. Times are hard, jobs are scarce but the stock market’s doing real well”.

The covers come from a wide variety of sources. Doc Pomus’ “Boogie-Woogie Country Girl is great fun, piano to the fore but the horns also rocking hard. Son House’s “Death Letter” is obviously at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum and has been covered many times. The Phantoms slow it right down, making the tragic lyrics even more harrowing. Schell’s slide guitar adds to the oppressive atmosphere, the horns punctuating the song with well-timed blasts. The vocal here is particularly effective but I was not sure who sings which song and the sleeve notes do not help there!

Charlie Rich was best known for his C&W songs and so seems an odd choice for the Phantoms but “Feel Like Goin’ Home” works well, Finnigan’s keyboards underpinning the sad lyrics of the slowest song of the set. Dave Bartholomew is a more obvious choice and his “Little Fernandez” is a delight, the tale of a small guy with a bigger woman. The latin feel gives an opportunity for Leonard to display his Mexican style on trumpet. Jimmy McCracklin is another guy who is frequently covered and here “Shame, Shame” gives the band the chance to play some soulful music. That leaves the opening and closing cuts – opener is Smokey McAllister’s “I Can’t Stand It” which provides an excellent upbeat statement of intent from the band. The call and response vocals on the chorus add a definite touch of classic soul to the song. Closing the CD is “Stone Survivor” by David Egan, best known for his contributions to Cajun music and to the Lil’ Band Of Gold in particular. Finnigan’s piano is at the heart of this one but, once again, it ends up as a whole band piece with the horns and guitar taking a bow too.

This is a great CD by a band that cannot be dismissed as ‘just Taj’s backing band’. No, they are far more than that and this CD deserves to do really well. Highly recommended.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music and enjoyed the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in April.

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