Album review: DUKE ROBILLARD & FRIENDS – Blues Bash

Pete Feenstra interviewed Duke Robillard for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio.  First broadcast 13 December 2020.

Duke Robillard - Blues Bash

Stony Plain Records [Release date 20.11.20]

You don’t need to have paid your blues dues for 50 years or more to be able to make a great big band blues party album, but it helps.

For example, you need a working knowledge of the material, or the “good stuff” that can fill the dance floor, as well as the calibre of musicians to bring it all too life.

Duke Robillard is perfectly placed then, as the leading guitarist of his age who effortlessly straddles big band blues, jazz and swing to bring his experience to bear on the aptly titled ‘Blues Bash’.

The album is the result of his deeply felt and enfettered enthusiasm for the music he loves, as he and his ‘Friends’ lean into a succession of swing inflected West coast and Chicago blues tempered by old school r&b and jump blues.

Robillard’s passion for the days of jump and swing 78’s is well represented on a ‘live in the studio’ album featuring the 3-pronged former Roomful Of Blues horn section of Rich Lataille, Greg Piccolo and Doug James, plus well-chosen guests.

It’s an album that was made in a rush to beat the on-coming COVID-19 crisis, but that is arguably the reason for its sharp focus and energy.

The other reason of course is the swing and big band musical genre itself, which was never more than a few steps away from a dance floor.

From the hard driven opener ‘Do You Mean It’ and the instrumental bluster of ‘Rock Alley’ though to the lilting shuffle of ‘Give Me All The Love You Got’, you know you are in for a roller coaster ride.

Guest vocalist Chris Cote attacks the song with gusto, while Robillard’s stinging lines provide the perfect foil either side of some honking horns and delightful big band interplay.

They blow away any cobwebs to find the kind of intensity that they revisit on Roy Milton’s jumping ‘What Can I Do’.

There’s nothing like a combination of self-confidence and boundless enthusiasm to bring fresh vigour to an extant classic, and Robillard and his band do the song proud.

The combination of thumping bass, staccato horns and boogie-woogie piano swings with abandon, before Duke’s defining guitar solo.

There’s also a rocking version of Dave Bartholomew’s ‘Ain’t Gonna Do It’ – essentially a Mark Braun led boogie-woogie – that features Duke on his best of 4 vocal contributions.

As with all good parties it’s all about the pacing. And it’s the essential flow of this party-oriented album that is the key to its success.

Duke draws on the West coast harp playing skills of Mark Hummel, as he takes a lead rough-edged vocal on a stop-time Chicago blues with a sludgy feel, while the slow blues of ‘Everybody Ain’t Your Friend’ features another one of his coarse gritty vocals. A combination of rolling piano and horn stabs builds up a subtle tension that Robillard resolves with some stinging lines.

A well-chosen playlist is brought to life with real vim and vigour. And if there’s a warm familiarity about the proceedings from the choice of material to the players themselves, then it only serves to illustrate their unfettered enthusiasm on display here.

They are in their element on the instrumental ‘Rock Alley’, as Robillard’s incisive guitar playing could be Jimmy Vaughan. His clean and crisp guitar lines weave in and out of the fabric of the song leaving room for an earthy sax solo and sweet toned guitar, as the band slip into the groove.

The band’s interplay illustrates the shared passion that burns at the heart of a record that transforms the old school vinyl excitement into the modern digital age.

The crystal guitar tone and contrasting dirt sounding saxes might be from a bygone age, but the frisson can still be felt 41 years on from Lefty Bates original.

Michelle ‘Evil Gal’ Wilson provides further contrast, as she revels in the ’40’s style double entendre of ‘You Played On My Piano’, either side of some earthy baritone and sprightly piano. There’s still room for Robillard to slip into his alter ego of T-Bone Walker, as vocalist Chris Cote returns on the very short ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’.

And just when you think the band is winding things down from fever pitch to a more relaxed vibe on an infectious shuffle, Robillard leads the ensemble into a delightfully languid, cool after hours finish, complete with a walking bass intro, sultry sax, crisp percussion and Hammond that suggest that having blown the roof off the place they can now content themselves with a jammed-out jazzy finale.

As with everything touched by Robillard the emphasis is on taste, tone and feel as he occupies the pivotal position as a blues catalyst and effective conduit.

‘Blues Bash’ is a reminder of the delights of old school blues and the immaculate musicians that continue to champion an enduring genre. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

The latest Josh Taerk live session was streamed on Sunday 26 September. This marked the start of a new monthly series. Josh’s next session is Sunday 31 October.

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 26 September 2021 and includes the Top 10 albums at for that week.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 28 September 2021.

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