Manhaton Records [Release date 07.09.18]
Producer, songwriter and vocalist Mike Vernon’s award winning career has encompassed the birth of British blues including Clapton, Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac etc. He also worked with the younger David Bowie, Focus and soul singer Andrew Roachford.
After coming back from retirement he hooked up with latter day blues starlets such Oli Brown, Laurence Jones and Sari Schorr in a career spanning hundreds of albums.
Now comes his debut solo album ‘Beyond The Blue Horizon’, which rekindles his lesser known career as a vocalist with Rocky Sharpe & The Replays and The Olympic Runners.
The new album pays homage to the music of his youth, in a love letter to a time when 40’s and 50’s r&b and jump jive sounded so much more exciting and authentic than rock and roll.
And yet in trying to tap into that r&b lineage while searching for feel and authenticity, he sells himself short in terms of igniting the spark that made the music so exciting.
The focus seems to be totally on delivering tight arrangements and supporting his vocals. He’s certainly got an A-team of players including sax man Rob Tasker, guitarist Kid Carlos and keyboard player Matt Little, as well as the tight rhythm section of drummer Mike Hellier and one time Big Town Playboy Ian Jennings, but the focussed musical approach somehow fails to spark on a stop-start affair.
There’s a claustrophobic feel to the first half of the album exemplified by a circumspect opening on the very polite ‘We’re Gonna Rock The Joint’, which doesn’t quite live up to its title. Then there’s a cover of Brook Benton’s ‘Kiddio’ which brings nothing new to plenty of extant versions. What’s missing here is a lightness of touch, the subtly of brush strokes and swing.
The front cover suggest an r&b party vibe, from Mike Vernon’s finger clicking profile to the cartoon instruments depicting musical notes. And then there’s the The Mighty Combo, a band name that suggests gusto. They are musically excellent, but more reverential than inspired.
The party doesn’t really kick in until the up tempo ‘Be On That Train’ with its infectious horn stabs, a jumping call and response section and Mike’s infectious ‘ooohs’s. Tasker and Carlos explore the first of two brief solos, but the anticipated incendiary interplay never happens, even when coaxed by Jennings’s consistently thumbed double bass.
Mose Allison’s ‘You Mind Is On Vacation’ sets a new standard both in terms of the song and performance, and is everything that their version of ‘Kiddio’ isn’t.
Vernon leads with some expressive phrasing on a track that lets the music breath with plenty of space. There’s cool solos from pianist Matt Little and Tasker and a welcome fuller solo from Kid Carlos whose shrill tone cuts through a track that gathers momentum.
Vernon attacks a straight forward blues called ‘Old Man Dreams’ with some confident phasing, while the New Orleans influenced ‘Red Letter Day’ is a highlight. It has far more punch and a bigger sonic quality than anything else up to this point and features another good vocal performance.
The real problem with ‘Beyond The Blue Horizon’ is structure, in as much as it lacks a dynamic build, and in its more staid moments begs the question, where’s the beef?
‘Heart & Soul’ for example, is simply too polite, enlivened only by some intricate piano and guitar. Happily it’s counter-weighted by the jaunty sax-led call and response of ‘I Can Fix It’, which Vernon attacks with some vigour.
Yet just when you think the spark has been lit, the flame all but flickers on a poor choice of cover with Frogman Henry’s “I Dont Know Why I Love You (But I Do)’, which demands bigger horn lines and like the album as a whole, needs more bounce.
The album does finish with a flourish on the autobiographical ‘A Love Affair With The Blues’ and the swinging finale of ‘Hate To Leave (Hate To say Goodbye)’.
In sum, Mike Vernon is a decent vocalist who is wise enough not to overextend his range, while the band rigorously adheres to the r&b remits of rhythmic interplay and lilting rhythms to consistently support the song.
What’s missing is a couple of uplifting songs that would stretch both the singer and band, if only to remind the listener of the passion and excitement of the music that Vernon champions. As it is, this enjoyable retro affair tries too hard to be authentic at the expense of real spark. ***½
Review by Pete Feenstra
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