10 tracks / 57:20
In any business it is hard to try to live up to the success of one’s father or mother, but in the music business there is the added challenge of trying to meet the expectations their fans and trying to make new ones. Bernard Allison has been walking this tightrope for his entire career, and has done an admirable job of living both in his father’s world and in the one he has created for himself.
Bernard Allison is a supremely talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who also happen to be the son of the late Luther Allison, the Chicago bluesman who was renowned for his red-hot live shows. Bernard got an early start on his career, joining his dad on stage at the age of 13 and moving on to play lead guitar for Koko Taylor’s Blues Machine a week after graduating from high school. He has been recording solo projects for the past 25 years, and has since made his home in Europe where they appreciate his music too!
In the Mix is Bernard’s 17th solo album (if I counted right), but it is his first release in almost six years and it is a bit of a departure from what he has done before. He is a killer guitarist, and with friends and tutors like Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan, that is not too surprising. But this time around, he has put aside the usual heady guitar work and focused more on the vocals and arrangements, making this a rock solid disc in all dimensions. Allison was the producer, vocalist and guitarist, and he was joined in the Minneapolis, Minnesota studio by the core band of George Moye on bass, Mark “Muggie” Leach on the keys, and Mario Dawson on the skins.
Bernard wrote five new songs for this project and the other five tracks are well chosen and rearranged covers, including two written by his father. Given his recording hiatus, it is cool that Allison starts this set with “Five Long Years,” and surprisingly this is the Colin James version, not the oft-covered Eddie Boyd hit. Here we get to hear contributions from two guest artists: Bruce McCabe on piano and Jose Ned James on the sax. There are a few stout lead guitar licks, but this song remains accessible to a large audience with its conventional rock approach.
This is followed up with a “Call Me Momma” tune that Bernard co-wrote with his mother, Fannie Mae Allison. In this funky and soulful piece, Jose’s sax takes an early lead over Leach’s B-3 and Bernard uses his solid tenor voice as he sets the example of asking a sage woman for advice, even as a grown man. It is apparent that his mother brought him up right, and that he wisely continues to learn from her experience.
There are a few well-chosen covers on this disc, including Tyrone Davis’ “I Had It All the Time” and a funky take on Freddie King’s “I’d Rather Be Blind,” but there is also more great original work to be found here: Bernard is a mature songwriter who know what he is doing. One of these is “Lust for You,” a collaboration with another master, Ronnie Baker Brooks. This could have been a blues or rock song, but the instrumentation makes it come off almost like a country tune. It is not what would be expected from either of these gentlemen, but its complex structure and different sound work out really well with the other songs on the albums.
There is plenty of other great original music, too. After slowing things down with the rhythm and blues of “Tell Me Who” Bernard cranks out some righteous straightforward blues with “Something’s Wrong.” The band really shines here with the tight backline of Moye and Dawson keeping the beat under the dueling keyboards of Leach and McCabe. Allison does not disappoint his old fans here, as he takes the opportunity to show off a bit on the guitar with an awesome solo towards the end.
It would be a shame not to mention the two songs that were written by Luther Allison, as there is nobody more qualified to cover them than his own son. “Move From the Hood” is one of the strongest tracks on In the Mix, with a bouncy 12-bar blues shuffle feel, fun doubled sax and organ lines, and a couple of killer guitar breaks. The other tune is the closer, “Moving on Up” which delivers the message that there can be hope, despite whatever the present circumstances are. Leach’s Hammond carries most of the melodic weight in the song, including a trick solo midway through.
Bernard Allison is his own man, but he is not hiding from his heritage either and In the Mix is his most thoughtful and well-planned album to date. This mix of blues and soul is powerful and should bring his music to a wider range of fans that expect more than guitar pyrotechnics. Keep an eye on his website for tour updates, and hopefully he will be coming to this side of the Atlantic so we can see him again soon!