Album review: VARGAS BLUES BAND – Hard Time Blues

Vargas Blues band - Hard Time Blues

Santo Grial [Release date 15.02.16]

Its 22 years since Carlos Santana covered Javier Vargas’s song ‘Blues Latino’. And while the Spanish guitarist has built up an impressive discography in the interim, the challenge he continues to sets himself is to carve out his own Latino blues niche.

If 2014′s ‘From The Dark’ was arguably his career best album, then ‘Hard Time Blues’ initially emulates that standard.  The opening buzz tone groove of ‘Welcome To The World’ is built on a beautifully layered sound with a hip shuffling rhythms topped by Vargas’s delicate touch and tone, and a fine vocal by Gaz Pearson.  But the album loses its direction after the trio of Latino related tracks and the dual guitar driven ‘King Of The Latin Blues’, which is a blend of subtle percussion, sculpted wah-wah guitar parts and a defining line: “You know he’s paid his dues, he is the king of the Latin blues.”

It’s an impressive enough opening followed by the breathless slide guitar piece ‘Ibiza Moon’ and the dual guitar intro of ‘Fulton In The House’, complete with a repeated keyboard riff and another fine vocal from Shortino.

The booming shuffle of ‘Bottleneck Blues’ and the big chorus of ‘Down By The River’ brings an additional hard rock impact and gives the album it’s potential crossover appeal.

However, ‘Hard Time Blues’ imperceptibly loses its momentum through a mix of poor sequencing and a brace of live tracks (including the title track) that sounds like an afterthought, while the well worn theme of ‘Playing At The Crossroads’ sounds as if it’s from a different writing session.

‘Hard Time Blues’ also uses 4 different vocalists – including Quiet Riot singer Paul Shortino, who effectively acts a conduit between the blues and hard rock world. All 4 guest vocalists bring variety and spark, but the material doesn’t always gel.

And while there’s several outstanding moments including Vargas’s signature guitar parts and a polished production on the first half of the album,  the album doesn’t quite live up to its early promise.

The aptly titled ‘Burning Shuffle’ for example, is  a slow blues instrumental full of  clean toned linear guitar lines that engages us in the kind of Roy Buchanan guitar conversation, a style Javier repeats on the third instrumental of the album ‘Avenida De Mayo’. There’s no doubting Buchanan’s significance as an influence,  but Vargas  has already shared that with us via ‘Roy’s Blues’ from his previous ‘From The Dark’ album.,

The live, funky title track features guest vocalist Tim Mitchell who pushes himself to the limit with variable results, as the band and special guest Devon Allman transforms the John D. Loudermilk standard  ’Tobacco Road’ into a big groove. Both these two tracks could arguably have been included in a bonus track format, rather than book-ending the album and giving the impression that the project has ran out of material.

‘Hard Time Blues’ enjoys its best success when fusing together Latino, blues and rock influences through a combination of cool grooves, slick guitar and meaningful lyrics. At its best, the album showcases Javier’s scintillating playing with mellifluous keyboards over a seamless rhythm section, while the band pursues diverse musical avenues.

Vargas colours ‘Road To Freedom with different tones and a whammy bar attack before building his solo impressively as an essential part of the song. He’s back in Buchanan mode on ‘Space Jam’ with a curious mix of Latino and eastern guitar flavours, while ‘Bottleneck Blues’ is a regulation blues shuffle which he twist and turns with some lovely sustain, string bends and a big tone. ‘Down By The River’ is closest the band get to the kind of hard rock style that benefits Shortino’s rock phrasing.

‘Hard Time Blues’ is a fine album by a subtle guitarist searching for his own take on the blues. All that’s missing is a consistency of material to nail the musical imprint his best moments illuminate so well. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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