Pete Feenstra chatted to Keith Howe for his show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio. First broadcast on 21 April 2019 and featuring tracks from the album ‘That’s The Vibe’.
Self release [Release date 31.01.19]
Former Blacktop Deluxe leader Keith Howe’s decision to cut a solo album is well justified on an coherent and free flowing set of songs that mixes understated power with subtle textures.
‘That’s The Vibe’ taps into roller coaster of rock, blues, funk with plenty of deep grooves, staccato horn stabs and fluid guitar playing that glues together a big sounding, well produced album.
The 14 tracks take us on a musical journey full of diversity, shifting tempo changes and different vocal attacks.
At his rocking best he evokes ZZ Top on the optimistic call to arms of ‘Dust Off The Rust’, while the sinewy sax and funky mid tempo groove of ‘Old Crow Road’ – complete with Americana imagery – is closer to latter day Climax Blues Band.
Then there’s the subtly crafted pop of the album highlight ‘Blue Horizons’, which is a keyboard-led change of pace full of lovely harmony vocals and subtle phasing that recalls ELO.
He evokes Gary Moore on the impressive rock ballad ‘Little Miracle (Aria’s Song)’, as his close to the mic vocal and tremulous guitar forges clever contrasting elements in a song that draws the listener in.
And while all these various influences contribute to an intricately woven lattice of sounds, it’s the primacy of his songs that makes ‘That’s The Vibe’ a career highlight.
By the end of the album you can feel his own DNA stamped through the album like the colours in a stick of rock.
He strikes a consistent balance between the raucous and the restrained, opening with the powerful horn-led shuffle ‘Dice Will Roll (Blues Will Flow)’ on which his husky voice dominates, as it does throughout the album.
His economical phrasing always seeks to amplify lyrical meaning, while the album feels as if all of his musical strands have converged and naturally brought him to this point.
‘That’s The Vibe’ is framed by Gareth Young’s big production sound in which every layer reveals a new depth to the respective songs.
‘Got It And Gone’ is the perfect meeting of his intuitive musical vision and the studio environment. It’s a powerhouse track with lots of headroom, a huge drum sound, a chunky rhythm track, subtle keyboard fills and some doctored vocals, as part of a call and response section.
Significantly this track could have pushed the album in a synth laden direction, but what we get instead is an independent rock-blues artist exploring his own musical vision with short, sharp, ascending guitar lines on a track that builds up impressively.
And while the album has plenty of variety – including the funky ‘Old Crow Road’, with its sinewy sax lines and filmic imagery – and another album highlight, the de facto mission statement ‘Gig Ready’, ultimately the focus is always on the quality of the songs.
There’s enough sonic detail and a crisp mastering to suggest a lot of pre-preparation. Tracks like ‘Blue Horizons’ breaks new musical ground with some lovely harmony vocals and a catchy chorus.
The subsequent raucous shuffle ‘Put Me In My Place’ acts as a counterweight on which he rocks exuberantly alongside more horn led bluster. When you hear the two tracks back to back, they sound like the building blocks of a bona fide old school album that generates its spark from its adventurous approach on a musical journey that flows like all great albums should.
A gentle throbbing bass levers us into the harmony-led ‘Living With Fragile Things’. The tension building stop-time verses lead to a resolving expansive guitar solo that is an integral part of the song and flows back into the mellifluous hook.
He repeats the earlier elements of contrast on the closing brace of tracks. The hard rocking road tale ‘Dust Off The Rust’ also makes good use of some colourful metaphors: “Its 4 lane blacktop looking back, heading down that glory track, running the lines like a quarter back, its goodbye defence high attack.”
Being the penultimate song it cleverly provides a sharp contrast to the closing love song ‘The Patient One’.
Here he’s all restraint as he searches out a tremulous Mark Knopfler style tone, while his baritone voice has the timbre of George Fame, as he digs deep for emotion.
‘The Patient One’ acts as a journey’s end that restates the importance of well crafted songs with real feel, against a shifting backdrop of changing moods and deep grooves.
‘That’s The Vibe’ is that rare thing, a beguiling rock-blues album shot through with enough substance and flair to mark Keith Howe out as a solo artist on the rise. Check it out you won’t be disappointed. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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