Album review: TORONZO CANNON – The Chicago Way

TORONZO CANNON – The Chicago Way

Alligator [Release date 26.02.16]

From the opening sustained notes of Toronzo Cannon’s ‘The Pain Around Me’, you know he’s got something to say both lyrically and musically.

In many ways he represents an updated version of a previous Alligator artist Michael Hill, who similarly combined social comment with soulful vocals and a muscular guitar style. Unlike New Yorker Hill, Toronzo Cannon comes from Chicago and as a city bus driver he’s got a real claim to a bluesman’s observatory role.

He’s also a guitarist who has paid his dues in the clubs alongside the likes of Tommy McCracken, Wayne Baker Brooks and Joanna Connor.  He cut three below the radar albums before achieving his current Alligator deal, which was celebrated with a headline appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival.

The aptly titled ‘The Chicago Way’ makes a big impact with meaningful songs drawn from real life experiences, be it the spiky ‘Bad Contract’ or the reflective ‘Strength To Survive’, on which he shares: ‘a heavy dose of what is real’.

And being real is what Cannon is all about, as he pours himself into emotive songs predicated on subtle dynamics, redolent hooks and vocal style that invite the listener to share his feelings.

Even when he resorts to the familiar stop-time format of ‘Walk It Off’ – a line from which gives the album its title – he effectively extends his lyrical vitriol with some ripping note repeats either side of some brief Buddy Guy style intimate phrasing.

The crucial thing is the way Cannon retains a consistent inner voice through all his narratives. When he steps things up on the tongue in cheek ‘Fine Seasoned Women’ – a big band, horn led shuffle – he delivers a twin barrel authoritative vocal and a perfect guitar-led resolution. The piece could easily have been stretched out, but his role as a narrator always takes precedence, while his fiery licks support the message and arrangements rather than dominate them

In Cannon’s hands the blues is a contemporary messenger for an array of universal truths that he colours with his own experience.

Sometimes his stories shift from the micro to the macro to make his point. He gets personal on the self explanatory ‘I Am’ – although he actually switches from the first person to first person plural – and he crosses over to the macro on the funky ‘Midlife Crisis’, while on the heavier guitar driven ‘Chickens Comin’ Home To Roost’ he exorcized his own guilt with some gnawing guitar lines.

He leans into the guitar-driven, booming shuffle of ‘Mrs. From Mississippi’ with a real swagger that probably most closely reflects his live style. It’s the prefect balance between his expressive vocals and conversational,  ‘call and response’ guitar style, on another song that could have been stretched out.

As it is, everything fits together like a jigsaw and where a handful of songs cross the hallowed 5 minute mark, they do so simply because Cannon’s focussed intensity simply demands it.

Toronzo Cannon is a valuable addition to the Alligator catalogue, in as much as he’s a contemporary blues man with old school values who has the ability to communicate outside of the realm of cliché. A conversation with the blues never sounded so fresh and honest.  ****½ 

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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