Album review: BLACK MAGIC JOHNSON – Walk With You Baby

Black Magic Johnson [Released 01.09.14]

‘Walk With You Baby’ is a refreshingly honest and delightful contemporary blues album. It’s rooted in traditional blues but is given a contemporary relevance by the shared universal truths to be found in the songs.

It’s easy to mistake Illinois’s Black Magic Johnson for the harp playing drummer and lead vocalist Reggie Britton. He’s a ubiquitous vocal presence on ‘Walk With You Baby’, a blues album rooted in everyday life that encompasses love stories, urban angst and celebratory gospel.

The band is actually the intricate sum of its parts, comprising the tasty guitar and mandolin (yes mandolin) playing of Alex Rogers, fellow guitarist Dan Grover, keyboard player and programmer Lawrence Baulden and bass player Willie Christman. Together with Reggie’s heartfelt phrasing and a handful of guests, the road tested band always supports the singer and the song, rather than trying to dominate both with their virtuosity.

If you looking for ball busting solos and stretched out jams you’ve come to the wrong place, as this is the blues as a language that speaks to you from the heart. BMJ conjure up their own brand of magic, which has been described as a mix of Southern Delta and Chicago new age blues. And while there’s Chicago blues at the heart of this project, Reggie expressive vocals and the band’s adventurous arrangements mean they also stretch out beyond straight blues to broach, funk, soul r&b and gospel.

The album reflects Reggie own views on the relevance of blues in contemporary life, which he has defined as: ‘The struggle of a people in a lifestyle that they were thrown into’. Guitarist Alex Rogers also adds: ‘The Blues is a natural fact, the raw emotion juice that flows through all American music’. And when the two of them become the driving force of BMJ, you are listening to a band that makes every word count and gives every musical phrase an impact.

As a result Black Magic’s Johnson’s blues shot is shot through with a lifetime’s experience, heartfelt honesty and real feel delivered with a natural confidence that makes tracks like ‘Who Dat’ a convincing slice of soulful r&b.

Much of the album hits a late night, back porch vein, opening with the jazzy blues of ‘The Call’ – which you could imagine the late Lou Rawls covering – as Reggie impressively narrates a long distance love story of an itinerant blues man calling back home from various locations in the US: ‘It’d be me crying on that line, there’s a pain in my heart, trouble in the air, it be you baby, resting on my mind’.

It’s a heartfelt song given an intuitive support by delicate solos from guest guitarist James Armstrong and trumpeter solo from Frank Parker.

By way of contrast, ‘Magic Man’ is a funky wah-wah inflected opening with crisp cymbal work and expressive vocals from Reggie, while guest vocalist Daryl “Dub I.Z” Virginia adds an effective rap over the cleaner funky guitar line of ‘Can’t Get Over You’. It’s a good example of the way the band and arrangement makes the space work for them, allowing Reggie to give full reign to his emotive phrasing.

The horn led ‘Happy Holiday Baby’ adds a New Orleans flavour and ‘Hooked On Something’ is a self explanatory titled urban survival blues.

Each song supports an essential narrative, whether its Reggie’s exhilarating duet with Brooke Thomas on ‘Walk With You Baby’ or the gospel feel and organ driven ‘Thank You Baby’.

The album finishes with a down-home feel on ‘Good Bye Good Morning’, which features Reggie on a duet with Tom Irwin .It’s got a Leadbelly feel, but it’s given a unique BMJ flavour by Reggie’s crystal diction and emotive phrasing on the kind of blues song that Taj Mahal would love to have written.

You want to know where the real blues is at in 2015? Look no further than this album which is shot through with fine song craft, emotive vocals, real integrity and lots of feel, in short nothing but the blues! ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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