Album review: GEORGE BENSON – Walking To New Orleans

GEORGE BENSON – Walking To New Orleans

Provogue [Release date 26.04.19]

George Benson’s ‘Walking To New Orleans’ continues where his last Nat King Cole covers album left off 3 years ago.

It’s not so much a leap of faith , as simply discovering whether his timeless vocal style and warm guitar playing can re-ignite two heavyweight rhythm and blues back catalogues.

Chuck Berry and Fats Domino get the treatment, but for the most part it’s Benson the vocalist rather than the guitarist who holds centre stage.  He still has a rich timbre, though it’s a little grittier than his 70′s Stevie Wonder style. He remains a great interpreter of song and his phrasing and clarity of diction is perfectly suited to the narrative driven rhythm and blues here.

On the Chuck Berry material he is full of restraint, bringing fresh life and colour to the former’s well thumbed back catalogue. ‘Nadine (Is It You)’ sets out the template for an album that gently sways, grooves and swings, but for the most part is an exercise understated playing, focused restraint and Benson’s timeless cool.

He’s even more relaxed on the Fats Domino material, albeit the tight rhythm section helps him explore each song’s possibilities to the full.

Berry’s ‘Nadine” is given a baritone sax driven arrangement with a lived in vocal, and the band sit on a groove,but don’t really go anywhere aside from a brief flurry of Benson licks and some belated warm noodling.

The track strikes a balance between his erudite phrasing with Kevin McKendree’s piano flourishes, before a brief 2nd guitar solo almost subliminally leaves us with his signature tone calling card.

On Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ he reaches back into his early career scat singing and contrasts a gritty vocal with a clean guitar line punctuated by horn stabs, as he take his place very much as an integrated band member.

His vocal is more expansive on the undulated swing of Domino’s ‘Rocking Chair’, as he interweaves his solo into the fabric of the song, while painist Kevin McKendree subtly fills the gaps.

‘You Can’t Catch Me’ is one of the most interesting covers, being the song John Lennon used as the basis for ‘Come Together’, right down to the vocal line: “Here come old flattop he come grooving up slowly.” Benson’s vocal sticks closely to the original version with a breathless style.

And it’s about at this stage that you realise he’s gradually enveloping us with both his nuanced vocals and all too brief guitar parts.

Everything comes together unexpectedly on Berry’s ‘Havana Moon’, which taps into a Caribbean vibe with the slightest hint of tone colour, before his playing mirrors the mesmerising rhythm track.

Perhaps the hardest aspect of approaching a covers album like this is to bring your own creativity to bear on some very familiar material. And Benson does so mainly through his vocals. He gets inside the material by knowing exactly when to stress a vowel or line, though on ‘Memphis Tennessee’, it is his hot picking that brings an extra dimension to an otherwise dutiful outing that visibly runs out of puff on a perfunctory ending.

The title track is all about Kevin Shirley’s string laden arrangement and MD Greg Morrow’s punchy drum sound. The track builds a momentum over which Benson adds a suitably soulful delivery and some welcome warm toned chunky guitar notes.

And as the album gently rolls into the sax led ‘Blue Monday’ with a short gently sculptured solo, Benson seals the deal with a string laden rework of  Chuck Berry’s Chess era, ‘How You’ve Changed’, complete with startling bv’s.

Producer Kevin Shirley’s lush strings fatten out the original sparse arrangement, but he pulls it off because the song draws the listener into both Benson’s precise vocal, and a belated short and sweet trademark solo.

Ultimately Benson’s guitar makes an impact by creating a void that cries out more of a resolution than the concluding bv’s.

The astute listener might at this point be tempted to hit the repeat button and return to the energetic opener, in which case it’s job done!

‘Walking To New Orleans’ works hard for its moments of inspiration, most of which come from Benson’s vocals and scat singing on the opening tracks.

For the rest he seems overly keen on being a team player, while focusing on the song. He never overstays his welcome, when in fact what the album cries out for is just a tad more spark. ***½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 30 August 2020.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 8 September 2020.

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