Album review: ROOMFUL OF BLUES – 45 Live

Alligator [Release date 29.07.13]

If Roomful of Blues are the kind of band who are labelled as Heritage Music, then their historical take on American music is one dominated by horn led blues and swing. They consistently have one eye on the dance floor and the other on checking each other out, for those inspired moments when they can solo, improvise and let fly.

And that is exactly what they do on the celebratory ‘45 Live’,  a live album culled from a three night stand at their local blues joint The Ocean Mist in Rhode Island.

Roomful’s original big band style grew out of founder members Duke Robillard and Al Copley’s vision of a horn led blues band. The idea was taken on by sax player Rich Lataille’s love of 30’s and 40’s swing bands, while the band’s later leader and sax player Greg Piccolo delivered self penned songs such as ‘Dressed Up To Get Messed Up’ (recorded live here for the first time), to give the band credibility in the blues market.

Laitaille actually joined in 1970 and is still at the heart of the horn led engine room, while by guitarist Chris Vachon joined 20 years later and still steers the ship to this day.

As Chris recently stated: ‘There’s been 50 people in the band, so it really has a life of its own’. And if there’s the slightest whiff of a tribute to the band’s enduring brand, it’s quickly subsumed by all those consistent musical elements of swing, blues and boogie that make Roomful so endearing.

They effortlessly shift form hi-energy, participatory dance music – referencing Kansas City and Jump Blues etc – to exploring low down in the alley blues and sultry New Orleans styles that make the best possible use of the horns.

The other notable thing about this live cut is the performance of vocalist Phil Pemberton, a tenor with a strong range who makes the material his own. He adds gritty phrasing on the funky ‘It All Went Down The Drain’ and leans into Magic Sam’s Chicago style ‘Easy Baby’.

He also brings real presence to bear on the sonorous and beautifully paced, big band blues ‘I Left My Baby’, as keyboard player Rusty Scott tucks in between the contrasting horn solos with a mix of piano fills and overly deliberate expressive notes, to lever in the full power of the horn section.

On Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Somebody’s Got To Go’, Phil attacks the lines with gusto, as the horn section picks out the substance of the song. It’s often said that a slow blues is a true barometer of a band’s ability to tackle the genre and Roomful are just as good getting low down and bluesy as they are on the swing material.

But ultimately it is with jump blues and swing material that the band most effectively connects with their crowd. The horn section is imperious on the opening Chris Vachon penned ‘Just Keep On Rockin’ and on the Mark Earley dominated jump blues of ‘That’s Right!’. The band explores its jazzier side on Rich Lataille’s ‘Straight Jacquet’, which is presumably a homage to the tenor player Illinois Jacquet. It is notable for its delicate intricate interplay, stellar solos and the same sort of bounce as Illinois’s ‘Flying Home’.

Guitarist Chris Vachon is a surprisingly restrained throughout, adding a tasteful in and out, deep toned solo on ‘It All Went Down The Drain’ and a sinuous break on ‘Easy Baby’, before he shifts to a bigger tone on his own song, the surprisingly rocked out  ‘Turn It On, Turn It Up’ . He also swaps licks with the dynamic horn section on the other side of a cool organ break on the self penned fat toned, stop-time shuffle ‘Blue Blue World’.

Ultimately ‘45 Live’ flows like a live gig should, with the up tempo ‘That’s Right!’ for example, counterweighted by the undulating swing of ‘Crawdad Hole’. Similarly, the powerful ‘Blue Blue World’ is juxtaposed by the ballad ‘Somebody’s Got To Go’.  And while the recording relegates the crowd mainly to the background, this is sharply produced live album that captures the musical breadth of the band and the intensity of their solos.

45 years is a long stretch that is unlikely to be beaten, and this album is as much a celebration of the band’s enduring appeal as to the genre that they play so well. Hell, any self respecting blues band would be proud to sound as fired up and passionate as Roomful do here. ****½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

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