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Roddy Barnes - Under the Sun

Roddy Barnes

13 tracks - Total time: 49:56

In the notes accompanying his CD, Fredericksburg, Virginia’s Roddy Barnes pays special tribute to his Fredericksburg neighbors, Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women, and all three of its members—Gaye Adegbalola, Ann Rabson, and my old friend, Indianapolis native Andra Faye—for special encouragement of him and his art over the years, an encouragement well-deserved. Here Barnes demonstrates that he is a multi-layered talent indeed, someone from whom one desires to hear more: an able songwriter whose songs are often laced with ironic wit; an expressive vocalist with a strong, clear tenor; and a masterful piano player who can romp with the boogie and play the blues. His piano style on boogie and blues, as well as his vocal phrasing, seem to owe much to the influence of Ann Rabson; if so, then she’s an able teacher indeed! The same might be said of his wit expressed through songwriting, certainly a trait of Gaye Adegbalola. But Roddy Barnes goes well beyond being an Adegbalola or Rabson imitator; he is his own man, not simply their male counterpart, although it’s obvious that the influence of Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women was a positive and invaluable influence. Twelve of the 13 tracks are Roddy Barnes originals; track 7, “Beethoven Boogie,” his short, rocking adaptation of a Beethoven motif, recalls such “demented” adaptations of classical music from the rock ‘n’ roll era as what B. Bumble and the Stingers did to Tchaikovsky in 1962 with “Nut Rocker.”

The CD divides neatly into two parts: the first ten tracks are African American-derived piano blues, boogie and spirituals, with three of these solo piano; one, track 2, “Old Evil Blues,” solo piano blues with harmonica; one, track 4, “Pillow Talk,” solo piano with upright bass and trumpet; one, track 6, “Better World,” an African American spiritual of longing for freedom that’s solo piano with vocal chorus; track 10, “Long Gone,” solo piano with trumpet solo; and three tracks, track 1, “Lucky Guy;” track 3, “Suicidal Animals;” and track 9, “Hell Fire Blues,” modern ensemble numbers with electric bass, drums, vocal chorus, and electric guitar laying the foundation for Barnes’s piano. The second part, tracks 11-13, are based on the European musical tradition: two melancholy ballads of love’s longing and disappointment, and the last track, “Nocturne for Harmonica,” a classical instrumental for piano and first-position Marine Band harmonica that’s graced by guest Allen Holmes’s excellent, proficient playing.

Roddy Barnes does well in filling the old bottles of piano blues with the new wine of appropriate lyrics on “Old Evil Blues” and “Long Gone,” new creations on the old themes of living in a world of trouble and longing for the old home of one’s youth. “Pillow Talk” is another filling of an old bottle, this time a slow blues adaptation of Faron Young’s country hit written by Willie Nelson, “Hello Walls”—the lonely man ruminating to an inanimate object his feelings of hurt and loneliness over a lover’s departure. Barnes’s songwriting wit and irony come out well on “Lucky Guy;” “Suicidal Animals;” track 8, “Little Fishes;” and “Hell Fire Blues.” “Lucky Guy” is a tale of optimistic outlook in the face of woe, where being “unencumbered” by such things a money, a home, and new clothes actually becomes a blessing; while “Hell Fire Blues” asks the question, “When the preacher’s talking about the damnation of hellfire in the hereafter, isn’t he actually talking about what we face here on earth?” “Little Fishes” is another commentary on the roughness of the human condition, this time a comparison of the human lot with that of the fishes, and the human luck in not ending up served on a dinner plate or swallowed by one’s fish mother. “Suicidal Animals” is another empathy song for animals and their lot, this time about the suicidal proclivities of those beasts who become road kill, with the added fillip of “Chipmunk” electronic vocal chorus and spoken refrain at the end. In all these songs, Roddy Barnes mixes compassion and sympathy for both humans and animals with a nicely-developed touch of ironic humor.

Two numbers borrow from the musical tradition of the African American spiritual: the above-mentioned “Better World” and track 5, “Betrayed,” a poignant ballad of love’s betrayal that, like “Better World,” imbues the spiritual with the secular, vaguely reminiscent in this approach with such songs as “Unchained Melody” and “Ebb Tide.” “Better World” is more Aesopian secular, an original song that not only reminds us of how African American “church music” was integral in expressing the secular, political aims of the civil rights movement, but one that also eloquently expresses that noble political “spirituality” in its own right.

Guest musician Jeff Covert provides electric and upright basses, drums, guitar, and guitar solos on “Suicidal Animals” and “”Hell Fire Blues,” and provides backup vocals with Gina DeLuca on “Lucky Guy,” “Better World” and “Hell Fire Blues.” Allen Holmes plays acoustic harp and provides harp solos on “Old Evil Blues” and “Hell Fire Blues,” while Ben Grondahl rocks “Suicidal Animals” with a clarinet solo. Barnes himself plays trumpet with mute on “Pillow Talk,” and does the solo on “Long Gone.” He also scats in imitation of a trumpet on “Little Fishes.”

The three European-derived tracks that end the CD are further displays of a well-rounded Roddy Barnes. I’ve already discussed “Nocturne for Harmonica.” The two vocal ballads, track 11’s “How Strange” is a ballad strange one’s surroundings become when love is gone, and in this is somewhat reminiscent of the Doors’ “People Are Strange;” while the equally melancholy track 12, “A Song for Lisa,” features complementary cello accompaniment by Rebecca Maxon. All this above recommending this as a worthy listen.

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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