Album review: NINE BELOW ZERO – 13 Shades Of Blue

NINE BELOW ZERO – 13 Shades Of Blue

Zed [Release date 30.09.16]

Nine Below Zero’s ‘13 Shades Of Blue’ explores every nuance of the band’s blues antecedents. The album takes us on an r&b journey that opens with funk and explores all the essential blues elements from soul-blues, r&b, Chicago and country blues to a Louisiana style Cajun finish.

It’s a brave project that showcases the expanded band’s versatility and natural feel for a broad based musical approach that breathes fresh life into 13 rare and retro blues related songs.

You can almost feel the weight of the task at hand on their opening cover of Charles Miller’s ‘Don’t Lay Your Funky Trip On Me’, which initially sounds too clean and trebly, before members of the horn section and harp player Mark Feltham stamp their authority on a piece notable for its typical Nine Below perfunctory finish.

Sometimes the best projects are sparked by a producer’s extra pair of ears or an unlikely well of creativity outside of the band (dare we say management?). In this case it’s the guiding hand of executive producer Johnny Chandler who came up with the idea sourcing a batch of little known blues and r&b gems, that he thought the band could do justice too.

And it turns out he’s right. ‘13 Shades Of Blue’ overcomes the inevitable doubts associated with a white boy r&b band tackling seasoned material. They pull things off with plenty to spare, because having raised the bar, they meet expectations with verve, imagination and natural ability.

The band’s durability has been in no small part due to their ability to reinvent themselves. They started out as old school R&B meets punk-blues outfit with significant Mod influences, and then morphed into a rocking blues outfit with self penned material, before rising again as an unreconstructed blues band.

‘13 Shades Of Blue’ sees them evolving into a full blown big band who tackle the kind of soulful, funky and blues related influences that have made them an enduring and cutting edge band.

That said, ‘13 Shades Of Blue’ is still a big stylistic jump for a band whose long term fans have long locked into their hi-energy r&b approach.

This album is very different from their excellent, but sadly overlooked ‘It’s Never Too Late’ album, cut some 6 years ago. Since then, a flurry of re-issues and ‘The Co-operative’  album with Glenn Tillbrook,  has plugged the gap.

Tillbrook is still very much in the frame, as he brings tonal contrast with a sitar guitar on ‘That’s What Love Will Make You Do’ and he adds percolating percussion on two other tracks.

Special guest Charlie Austen takes the lead on ‘Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)’ – a duet with Dennis – over a call and response section, blazing horns and a defining harp break.

Charles Sheffield’s Excello classic ‘It’s Your Voodoo Working’, draws a subtle contrast between Greaves’s mixed back echoey vocals and Chris Rand’s earthy baritone sax, over a rolling piano and deep toned harp phrasing which signals a sudden end to the song

Greaves attacks B.B. King’s ‘You’re Still My Woman’ with a stinging guitar tone and a restrained vocal full of poise, on a piece that features a beautifully muted trumpet solo by Jeffrey Brown.

For an album with over 20 musicians, and 13 retro covers, the band still manages to stamp it’s imprint on an album that reinvigorates and coherently  shapes a batch of diverse material.

If ‘Hercules’ doesn’t quite emulate the Aaron Neville’s cool piano-led version of the Allen Toussaint song – Greaves’s timbre doesn’t quite have the warmth to make the song his own – he’s still nicely bathed in reverb to share the vocal with Mark. The band grooves like a juggernaut, with incisive horn parts, a snappy snare and some intricate percussion from Glenn Tillbrook.

It’s a good example of the album’s organic feel, as the band leans into the arrangement to confidently nail the song.

Overall, Dennis Greaves’s vocals are arguably the best of his career, as he takes himself out of his comfort zone to push his range on some expressive phrasing that brings real feel and passion to the material and more than matches his pristine guitar parts.

Mark Feltham’s harp ranges from brief, but significant embellishments to imposing solos. He fully reveals his craft on the spine-tingling rendition of Little Walter’s 1958 classic instrumental ‘The Toddle’. The harp-led piece skips along as light as a feather, as he engages the guitar and piano in a conversational musical flow. The melodic blues outing is given the perfect brush strokes by Mikey Burkey and is glued together by Brian Bethell’s gentle pulsing bass line.

John Mayall’s ‘Crawling Up A Hill’ has a live in the studio feel that emulates the band’s early career bluster, while they add a shuffle beat and double tracked vocal to rescue Sugar Pie DeSanto’s ‘I Want To Know’ from Luther Allison’s funky clutches.

In fact, the band gets funky themselves on a ripping version of ‘My Woman Is Good To Me’, on which Dennis excels and Mark shows the dynamic value of a ‘less is more’ as his book-ended solo says more in just over 30 seconds than most songs manage as a whole.

And is that attention and real feel that gives the album its authenticity and takes Nine Below Zero up to another level.

‘13 Shades of Blue’ is shot through with through with passion, professional pride and above all feel, and they conclude a diverse r&b journey with a Cajun party ending, complete with Greaves singing Cajun French. The times are certainly a changing!  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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