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Sugar Ray And The Bluetones – Evening

Severn Records

12 tracks; 57.55 minutes

I should probably start with an admission; Sugar Ray Norcia is one of my favourite blues artists, so it is no surprise that I like this CD a LOT! However, I’m not the only one as I see that the CD has just received a nomination for CD of the year at the 2012 Blues Music Awards. The CD reunites Sugar Ray with guitarist ‘Monster’ Mike Welch and the usual suspects in the Bluetones; Neil Gouvin on drums, Anthony Geraci on piano and Michael ‘Mudcat’ Ward on bass. Sugar Ray handles all lead vocals, harmonica and (probably a first!) Native American flute. Mike Welch adds background vocals. From the above you will see that there are no horns this time around which affords lots of space for Ray’s harp, Mike’s guitar and Anthony’s piano.

Sugar Ray Norcia has always written strong songs, going back to his time in Roomful Of Blues, and here there are seven of his compositions, Mike Welch and Michael Ward contributing one song each. The three covers offer an interesting range of sources; the almost inevitable Willie Dixon, the far less well known Johnny Young and the title track which is a classic Mitchell Parish ballad once recorded by T Bone Walker.

The CD opens with a rousing version of Johnny Young’s “I’m Having A Ball” and it certainly sounds as if they are! The track opens with a blast of Ray’s harp, Mike’s guitar weaving intricate patterns behind him. A shout of encouragement from Ray brings in a hot piano solo and a similar entreaty brings Mike forward for a solo before Ray himself solos, all supported by the rhythm section at full tilt. It’s an emphatic start to the album and is followed by Mike Welch’s “Hard To Get Along With” which opens with some strong harp work before Ray sings the lyrics which seem to offer a degree of self-awareness: “If I could be a better man than the one I am today, maybe I could treat you, baby, in a better kind of way. I know I’m hard to get along with, sorry but I’m doing the best I can.” Mike gets some excellent tone in his solo over some more good piano work.

Third track is a great reading of Willie Dixon’s “You Know My Love”, best known from Otis Rush’s version and often alternatively titled “My Love Will Never Die”. It is one of those wonderful slow blues that fans of classic blues sounds love and the Bluetones more than do justice to it. First there is Ray’s vocal, strong, yet tender, with a touch of sadness at the same time. Mike Welch excels himself with a succession of brilliant phrases on guitar and a quite superb solo which pays tribute to Otis Rush yet remains distinctive. This is the longest track on the CD at almost seven minutes, but it ends all too soon for me.

There are then four Norcia originals. “Dear John” is a nice lyrical twist on the old ‘Dear John’ letter idea, Ray being aware of his lover departing because he has already read the letter. The tune is a shuffle with more strong harp work. “I Like What You Got” is a real swinging tune, Ray singing through the harp mike, not a technique that I usually like but it works well here as his vocal is punctuated with short harp blasts. “Too Many Rules And Regulations” is an interesting piece, a lengthy slow blues with rolling piano and quiet support on guitar and harp while Ray gives us a mainly spoken lyric which lists some of the things in modern life that bug him. These include eating and cholesterol advice, flu epidemics and ‘nanny state’ advice, parking problems and ticket-happy cops! As Ray’s gravelly voice intones the many irritations of modern life it is hard to disagree that “Too many rules and regulations, gonna be the death of me”. The fourth original opens with the almost eerie sound of Ray’s Native American flute before a more familiar loping shuffle introduces the story of “Dancing Bear (Little Indian Boy)”, a song that takes us on a journey into Indian history with rituals of boys becoming men and more excellent guitar playing from Mike Welch.

The title track “Evening” is next up, originally written by Mitchell Parish and Harry White. It’s a slow ballad which opens with languid harp and piano before Ray’s vocal performance which is one of the strongest within a set of great performances. Incidentally, Mitchell Parish should ring a bell because he wrote the lyrics to classic songs like “Stars Fell On Alabama”, “Moonlight Serenade” and “Sophisticated Lady”. Another great guitar solo and rippling piano add to the drama of the song. Sugar Ray’s “I Came Down With The Blues” is one of his amusing songs: “I drove a thousand miles to see you, it was the least I could do. I came down to see you, but instead I came down with the blues”. It makes a good pairing with Mudcat Ward’s “(That’s Not Yet) One Of My Blues”, another ballad with beautiful piano and organ accompaniment. The slight shift in momentum between the verses and the chorus is particularly effective and Ray handles the lyrics very well.

“I’m Certain That I’m Hurting” returns to those swinging shuffles that Ray does so well. In fact this track could easily have been a Roomful Of Blues tune if a horn chart had been added. It really moves along and makes typing difficult when it is at full throttle! Solos here are by Ray and Anthony Geraci. The CD closer is “XO” which I assume is a reference to Ray’s favourite drink! It’s an instrumental feature for his harp work, rolling piano and gentle guitar chords underpinning his harp work.

Make no mistake, this CD is a real contender for album of the year and I can recommend it unreservedly

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years to see live blues music.

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