Zed [Release date 05.04.15]
There’s no denying the veracity underlying Dennis Greaves and Mark Feltham’s stripped down ‘Duo’ album. It’s crafted with a genuine feel for the music, care for the arrangements and it’s sparked by some inspired interplay and solos.
Dennis Greaves is as much an accomplished songwriter as he is a charismatic front man, while Mark Feltham is surely one of the most underrated harp players in the world. One melodic flourish or extended deep tone can evoke lyrical substance in a single line. But while they both fall back on the classic Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee songbook for their inspiration, it’s not actually the old blues classics that make this album memorable, but rather their own unique musical footprint.
‘Duo’ steers a delicate course between their original blues influences and some songs that probably held sway in the 70’s and 80’s and the occasional Nine Below Zero retread.
Dennis revisits his own ‘Egg On My Face’, as his urgent vocal drives the song onwards in subtle counterpoint to Mark’s country tinged flourishes.
Better still, is the magnificent Hungarian gypsy feel of the ‘Ballad of Dombovar’, which benefits from subtle percussion and the best melody on the album.
Ian Anderson’s ‘Someday The Sun Won’t Shine For You’, is a also a real Brit blues and a Jethro Tull classic, which the duo polish up and restore to its original glory. But while the highlights suggest messieurs Greaves and Feltham have much to explore, some of the material isn’t as well suited to their abilities.
They struggle to make their mark on Bessie Smith’s ‘Backwater Blues’, though Mark’s conversational harp fills and solo is shot through with the kind of authenticity that colours the opening brace of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee songs.
The album focusses on the quality of the performance and presumably the resulting spontaneity and in that respect, the reworked instrumental ‘Cherry Pink Apple Blossom White’ is a notable highlight. Mark’s harp replaces Billy Regis and Eddie Calvert original trumpet lines to burst through the tension building moments with a harp led melodic resolution.
Similarly on Area Code 615’s (a.k.a. Charlie McCoy) ‘Stone Fox Chase’, his diatonic harp shapes the song over the key changes with subtlety and poise.
Such are the highlights, but not everything works as well, especially the obvious covers such as the early ‘80’s pub rock fare of Randy Newman’s ‘Sail Away’ and Warren’s Zevon’s ‘Carmelita’. The latter features Mark on lead vocal and he simply sounds too English for a song with an essential American noir narrative.
Bessie Smith’s ‘Backwater Blues’ was always going to be a hard song to emulate and although Dennis vocal cleverly uses what sounds like an old radio mic, he doesn’t have the range to make the necessary emotional connection.
That said, the album does draw the listener in on the back of Dennis’s rhythmic acoustic guitar and his live vocal takes, while Mark’s startling tonal variety always infuses the arrangements with new possibilities.
They are at their best on the relaxed and thematic anchor song ‘Living The Blues’, on which the acoustic and harp are perfectly synchronised as the duo lean into the song with real purpose
‘Duo’ is the de facto blues calling card of NBZ’s creative force and deserves to stand above the suspicions of the blues police and the rigid expectations of some NBZ fans.
At their best Denis and Mark sparkle with commitment and class, while only a few poor cover choices deflect the album from its true course of exploring the duo’s original blues roots. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 19:00
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