Album review: SUPERSONIC BLUES MACHINE – Road Chronicles: Live!

Supersonic Blues Machine - Road Chronicles: Live!

Provogue [Release date 12.07.19]

Supersonic Blues Machine ‘Road Chronicles: Live!’, is snapshot of an evolving band on one night at the end of a 10 date European run of dates, rather than the culmination of a lengthy tour as in the days of old.

We live in an age where you basically have to cut a new album to tour and the band’s first live album finds them working in new front man Kris Barras who fills in for Lance Lopez. They also welcome on board special guest the ZZ Top legend Billy F. Gibbons, albeit the latter has been part of the band’s writing and recording project since the outset.

Lance Lopez remains a significant absentee, for while Barras brings his own fiery intensity and vocal husk to the band, they do miss the former’s gravelly voice, steely riffs and a southern rock feel.

The result is a mixed bag in which the best songs triumph with plenty to spare, but the whole set is mixed too far back to capture any real spark, suggesting a germ of introspection.

The audience also sounds miles away rather than being an integral part of a live album that captures a wild night in the North East of Italy at the end of the tour.

No matter, there’s still plenty of energy,  as the band is powered relentlessly by bassist Fabrizio Grossi and drummer Kenny Aronoff, while guitarist/songwriter Serge Simic impresses with some intricate solos alongside Kris Barras’s piercing licks.

If all feels like a project being rebuilt from the ground up, in as much as the core trio plus Barras, are the vehicle for sundry possibilities, which tonight includes the legendary Billy F. Gibbons, he of the weathered voice and relentless boogie.

The album opens with ‘I Am Done Missing You’, a railroad style work song punctuated by Aronoff’s drum break. The band slips into a 2 tone rhythm, but rather than the expected opening track bluster, what we get is a combination of mixed back, distant sounding slide guitar, blues harp and bv’s with the overall emphasis on polished flow rather than spark.

On the upside, Kris Barras is a good choice to front the band. He may not quite have lived-in soulful vocal of Lopez, but he’s got his own road tested phrasing that fills the stomping ‘I Ain’t Fallin’ with plenty of edgy grist.

The band is at its best when searching out the melodic depth of ‘Remedy’ which moves imperiously towards a choral laden hook. A sudden uplifting guitar solo gives the song an extra push, while the harmony guitar break evokes the kind of southern rock feel that Lopez originally brought to the band.

‘Let It Be’ is equally impressive, as Barras steps up to the plate with some emotive phrasing on a song that was originally given its imprint by Lopez’s earthy timbre. A buzz tone guitar refreshingly cuts a swathe through a sultry groove and slips into an intricately woven solo. It’s worthy of a bigger audience response than we can hear on this album.

There’s plenty of energy, commitment and soul on this track, what’s missing is the crowd’s cathartic release.

The band leans into the Grossi/Simic penned ‘Can’t Take It No More’, on a duet that doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of the studio version. However, the descending guitar lines lever us into a roller coaster rock-blues journey full of Simic’s guitar work and Aronoff’s thunderous drums, leading to a climatic finale that again isn’t duly reflected by a mixed back audience response.

It’s a point worth emphasizing, for it isn’t until Billy Gibbons connects with the crowd with a few trademark phrases, such as: “Do that thing” – referring to the template juggernaut boogie of ‘La Grange’ – that the crowd really stirs.

Gibbons 6 track contribution is best represented by the heavy duty groove and feverish bv’s of ‘Broken Heart’ and ‘Running Whiskey’, notable for his enduring growl.

The other 3 covers are frankly unimaginative choices, albeit the band does rock hard on the closing ‘Going Down’, full of gnawing guitar lines, wailing harp, flighty keyboards runs and an unlikely vocoder treated vocal.

‘Road Chronicles: Live!’ almost sounds like two different, but musically related CD/EP’s fused together, reflecting the fact that the band is an open ended, potentially jam laden musical vehicle for whoever wishes to tour with it.

In truth this live album doesn’t have too much jamming on it. It’s solidly grounded by the disciplined Grossi/Aranoff rhythm section. They give Kris Barras plenty of room to add to his raft of admirers, while restating the durability of ZZ Top legend Billy F Gibbons.

It might seem strange to call ‘Live Chronicles: Live!’ a transitional album, but beyond the solid playing and celebrity guest, it adds little to the two existing studio albums. ***½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

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