Album review: OMAR DYKES – Runnin’ With The Wolf

Provogue [Release date 09.07.13]

‘Runnin’ With The Wolf’ is pretty much in keeping with Omar Dykes’s new found role as an interpreter of the blues. It’s a role far removed from his 90’s heyday with Provogue records, the label he has once again teamed up with for this release.

Given his discography now includes a handful of cover and multi genre albums, including ‘Swingland’, ‘Big Delta’, ‘Jimmy Reed Highway’, ‘Big Town Playboy’ the live career reprise ‘Bamboozled’,  ‘Too Much Is Not Enough’, I’m Gone’ and the less than complete ‘Essential Collection’, Omar Dykes’s creative output is in danger of evaporating.

After all it was Omar & The Howlers who originally pitched up with the socio-politico ‘Hard Times In The Land Of Plenty’, the noir narratives of ‘Black Bottom’, and ‘Mystery Walk’, the autobiographical ‘Muddy Springs Road’, the hugely underrated ‘Pushin’ Fire’ and the co-penned ‘White Crosses’.  Come to that, the self penned ‘Bamboozled’ could easily have fitted into any Howlin’ Wolf project on its own merits, it’s that close to the spirit of the original music.

And it is with Omar’s stated aim of staying close to the spirit and modernizing the songs that we have to judge this album.  Aside from his stellar vocals, ‘Running With The Wolf’ strikes a perfect balance between the authentic and the contemporary. The material has an organic, live in the studio feel, with spartan arrangements that contrast his earthy growl with some spine tingling guitar lines, leaving him to add his own persona through expansive phrasing and exclamatory growls.

Omar is probably one of the few living blues artists who can bring The Wolf back to life and howling on your doorstep. More than that, his career has long lain to rest the spurious black/while divide all too often applied to the blues.  Having left behind his enduring apprenticeship with various line-ups of The Howlers (no pun intended) Omar Dykes has finally discovered his own baritone driven niche as an interpretative solo artist.

All of his qualities shine through on the self penned title track which is actually a roll call of Wolf’s greatest songs. A well timed solitary phrase here and a vocal inflection there, speaks volumes on this album, Perhaps only his deep phrasing could possibly bring substance to bear on a number full of song titles.

Surprising then, that on the moving, reflective relationship song ‘Who’s Been Talking’, his dominant voice quickly gives way to an organ fill. The perfunctory finish almost mirrors the fact that for once as the arrangement doesn’t quite capture Wolf’s essential spark. In sharp contrast there’s almost some swagger on the self affirmative, sister song ‘I’m Leaving You’, as the lyrical emphasis switches from the reflective to the assertive and the music shifts from a stuttering shuffle beat to a fine swing arrangement, featuring the redoubtable rhythm section of Ronnie James and Wes Starr

Omar has blues in his veins and the requisite ability to reinvigorate old covers like Willie Dixon’s ‘Red Rooster’ with fresh impetus. He goes for a raw arrangement with affected phrasing, evocative chicken guitar phrases, and tone bends, complete with a Beefheart snarl.

The band add an edgy distorted feel to the raucous shuffle ‘Riding In The Moonlight’ and Omar is in his element on ‘Howlin’ For My Baby’, adding some of his own ad-hoc growled vocal encouragements before he nails the perfect vocal.

He’s more innovative onDixon’s ‘Back Door Man’ which is infused with some left field pedal steel, twang guitar to offset his deliberate phrasing

Both ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ and ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ remain the barometers by which any Wolf covers project will always be judged,  and Omar’s deep throated growl casts its own spell on the former, as Ted Roddy’s busy harp and Derek O’Brien’s snappy guitar riffs hook you in. Willie Dixon’s ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ finds Kaz Kazanoff’s grainy baritone sax and some rockabilly twang paired with a wiry solo, alongside Omar’s abrasive phrasing on the perfect finish.

‘Do The Do’ is more of a band arrangement, with Omar’s clarity of diction matching his gritty phrasing over a pounding Bo Diddley back beat.  The track features some gnarled guitar from Eve Monsees and grainy sax from Kaz Kazanoff, as the band head towards the outro.

‘Tell Me What I’ve Done’ is that rare thing, a basic trio arrangement of a core blues song with plenty of space, over which Omar extends his phrasing and glues everything together.

The biggest compliment you can pay this album is that it starts as a tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, but ultimately becomes a living, breathing Omar Dykes album. You could argue for the inclusion of the self penned ‘How Many More Years’, Willie Dixon’s ‘Evil’ and ‘Built For Comfort’, but this album flows and achieves its objective of contemporising Howlin’ Wolf’s enduring blues. **** (4/5)

Review by Pete Feenstra

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