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Rocket 88 & The Rockettes - One-Footed Cockroach Stomp

Rocket Records (Sweden)

13 tracks Total time: 49:35

Sweden’s Rocket 88 was formed in 1999, and even played at famed New Orleans blues club Tipitina’s in 2003. One Footed Cockroach Stomp is the group’s second CD, recording of which began in 2005, with the CD released in 2009. During the recording, the core comprising Rocket 88—Benny Arvesen, vocals, keyboards, viola; Jim Öman, guitar; Håkan Dahlqvist, bass; and Magnus Melin, drums—was augmented by three women singers who later became The Rockettes, the band’s choral group, and who are extensively featured on the CD. Comprising The Rockettes are Béatrice Öman, Helen Berlin, and Anna Arespång. Guest musician Bengst Ek appears on several tracks with baritone sax low-note grunts and alto sax solos, while Patrik Ömalm and Sigge Öman add slide guitar accents and accordion respectively to create an old-timey band sound on track 10, the traditional “Diggin’ My Potatoes.”

The blues approach of Rocket 88 is gritty and sophisticated, clearly patterned after late 1950s-early 1960s Chicago blues; the vocal choruses of The Rockettes add to this to give an even more polished “commercial” sound; yet the overall feel is not one of emotionless commercial adaptation, but one of emotive depth that encompasses impassioned soul as well as bluesy grit. Impassioned soul is certainly part of Benny Arvesen’s vocals, especially on track 1, “Let Me Love You;” track 2, “Shake For Me;” and track 6, “Hard But It’s Fair.” While the CD is overwhelmingly a “covers” album, with 12 of the 13 songs written by the blues songwriting masters, that seems only fitting for a band that so well re-creates the later Chicago sound. Seven of them come directly from Chicago masters: four from Willie Dixon; one from Howlin’ Wolf, “I Don’t Know,” track 7; one from J.B. Lenoir, “The Mojo,” track 4; and one from Buddy Guy, “I Found A True Love,” track 9, done here as a pouring-out-from-the-heart celebration of a good woman that’s six minutes and 35 seconds long, much in the modern soul vein of impassioned long, slow ballads. Maestro Dixon is featured here not only with “Let Me Love You,” “Hard But It’s Fair,” and “”Shake For Me,” but also with “Down In the Bottom,” track 5, thus providing two Dixon songs made notable by Howlin’ Wolf on the “rocking chair” LP. Wolf’s own “I Don’t Know” is given an unusual arrangement on the CD with Benny Arvesen playing viola on the track over an electric blues foundation of rhythm guitar, bass and drums.

Rounding out the playlist are two more city blues numbers, the Duke/Peacock “It’s My Life” and the Bobby Robinson-Champion Jack Dupree “Shim, Sham, Shimmy,” along with three more traditional numbers given a “modern” old-timey treatment, played as old-style acoustic numbers with electric adaptation: Johnny Shines’s “Please Don’t,” track 8; Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “I Mean Goodbye,” track 12, built on an electric-acoustic train-like chugging guitar riff, with Arvesen again contributing viola; and the above-mentioned “Diggin’ My Potatoes.” Rounding out the list is a modern dance tune, “Cockroach Stomp,” from Patrik Ömalm, who has become Rocket 88’s original songwriter. Here Ömalm builds dance steps around the stomping out of cockroaches with one’s feet! Indeed, three of the songs on the CD are dance numbers, songs devoted to, and expressive of, dancing and dance steps: not only “Cockroach Stomp,” but also “The Mojo,” on New Orleans terpsichorean boogie; and the self-descriptive “Shim, Sham, Shimmy.”

Quite in contrast to most contemporary blues bands, Rocket 88’s sound is not essentially lead-guitar-driven. More emphasis is placed by the group on rhythm guitar and second-voice lead guitar than on guitar solos from band member Jim Öman, who plays solos only on four tracks. Far more dominant in carrying the musical load here are Benny Arvesen’s organ and piano playing, with several solos, and Bengst Ek’s sax accents and solos. These form a sound backdrop whose foundation is rhythm guitar, keyboards and sax, with a very strong role played by organ and piano.

Rocket 88 is as versatile and adept in electric-folk adaptations of country blues as it is in re-creating the contemporary Chicago sound. Benny Arvesen’s incorporation of viola is a refreshingly original touch as well. All this makes the CD a “cover” CD that does far more than simply cover—it creates, and creates well, and does not simply mimic.

I always find it interesting to note the different timbre created by blues band vocalists whose native language is not English, and while the English enunciation here is clear and fluent throughout, it will sound clipped to English-speaking ears, and one will sense a lot more “y” and “v” sounds where the English ear would expect a ‘j” or “w” sound. But Rocket 88, The Rockettes, and One-Footed Cockroach Stomp are yet another demonstration that African American blues and soul have become an international idiom, and that blues translates into Swedish quite well indeed!

Adding visual aesthetics to the musical aesthetics here is the highly notable cartoon artwork by Dan G. Larsson on the cover, along with his appropriate photo on the CD tray.

Reviewer George "Blues Fin Tuna" Fish hails from Indianapolis, Indiana, home of blues legends Yank Rachell and Leroy Carr. He has written a regular music column for several years. He wrote the liner notes for Yank Rachell’s Delmark album, Chicago Style. He has been a blues and pop music contributor for the left-wing press as well, and has appeared in Against the Current and Socialism and Democracy.

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