7 songs – 36 minutes
It feels like former Coasters’ vocalist, Alvon Johnson, has been around now for years without ever making it to A-List status. And, while his latest release, The Blues Chose Me, may not change that, it is still a very impressive collection of well-written blues-rock songs, played with real emotional commitment and superbly recorded. With only seven songs on the album, The Blues Chose Me is either a very short longer player or a very long E.P. Either way, there is plenty of music packed into those seven songs.
Opening track, “I Love The Blues”, kicks off with some classic country blues finger-picking on a solo acoustic guitar before Johnson’s voice enters. Soon, drums, tuba, banjo, piano, electric guitar and gospel-edged backing vocals are added to the mix, morphing the track into a New Orleans-style pop song. Johnson’s voice is warm and pure, recalling the uptown blues of Charles Brown and Memphis Slim.
In addition to singing lead and backing vocals and adding some bass and keyboards, Johnson also provides all the guitar on the album and at times he puts many much better-known players to shame. His long solo on the slow soul-blues instrumental “Heaven” is simply outstanding in its dynamic range and emotional depth.
Johnson also wrote six of the seven tracks on The Blues Chose Me, in which he covers the spectrum from straight-ahead blues to soul, pop, funk and heavy rock.
The title track, for example, is a slow classic 12-bar shuffle, with smooth keys and Johnson stressing the importance of family and hard work in his warm-hearted lyrics. Once again, he pulls off a top notch guitar solo.
The sheer range of Johnson’s imagination however is perhaps most clearly realised in the pop-rock of “Frustration”, which opens with a heavily over-driven hard rock guitar solo before launching into a pop verse that cleverly builds to a classic rock chorus that even borrows the riff from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”.
The sole cover on the album is Son House’s classic “Death Letter” which, whilst played on acoustic instruments, is radically re-interpreted by Johnson, with a re-arranged chord structure and vocal melody, some lovely violin from Mads Tolling weaving in and out of Johnson’s vocal, and even fades out to some howling borrowed directly from the Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning”.
A wide range of musicians provide backing on the album, including Felton C. Pilate II, Willis Hickerson Jr. and James McKinney on keyboards, Sundra D. Manning on piano, Ron Perry on bass, Michael Peloquin, Mike Rinta and Tom Poole on horns, and Billy Moe and Derrick (D’Mar) Martin on drums.
Several of Johnson’s songs were inspired by his strong family ties and its history. Engagingly, the CD cover features one photograph of Johnson as a child and one old photograph of his great-grandparents, taken not long after they were freed from slavery. As he sings on the title track, “My music is my tribute, it comes from deep down in my Soul”.
The Blues Chose Me may not turn Alvon Johnson into a household name. It is however a hugely impressive slice of modern blues-rock with a heavy side of soul. Highly recommended.