10 songs – 41 minutes
The front cover of It Ain’t Easy features an atmospheric black and white photo of Chicago’s Sears Tower at night, together with Marty Mercereau’s “Big Dog Mercer” logo and the legend “Chicago Blues And Rock” and this an album for which the phrase “it does what it says on the tin” could have been coined. It Ain’t Easy comprises 10 great blues or blues-rock songs, played with serious attitude and no little skill and instantly transports the listener to a darkened Windy City bar. Although this is a studio album, it has enough rough edges to suggest that it could have been recorded live (albeit with some double tracking for the guitars).
Even the track listing on the album suggests a live set, opening with three classic blues tracks to entice the audience in before moving seamlessly to Mercer’s own songs. The choices also indicate a total confidence in the band’s abilities. Opening with Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues” could be seen as slightly hackneyed but Mercer’s threatening, slashing slide guitar and the irresistible groove of bassist Matt Cartwright and drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith provide an indelible flow and pulse. Likewise, the second track, Wolf’s classic “300 Lbs Of Joy”, is wholly owned by the 6′ 10”, 300+lb Mercer. The third track is Chess session ace Gene Barge’s less well known but wonderfully funky “Me & My Woman”.
Mercer is backed by two different rhythm sections on It Ain’t Easy with Cartwright and Smith on half the songs and Mike Boyle on bass and D. Bernal on drums on the other five (with Jeff “Wally” Walroth adding piano to “Blue # 44”). Both trios rock like men possessed.
Mercer plays slide guitar with a ferocious attitude. On “Revelation”, the opening lick hints of Son House before erupting into a rock chorus that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Deep Purple album. The wonderfully titled “The Truth About Your Friends… Unfortunately” sounds like an updated “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”. Indeed, the pace and intensity of the album is unrelenting, with only the country-rock-ish “One For Gabby” stepping off the metaphorical pedal. Even “Canadian Sunset” (played here as an instrumental) has a tension and vigour one would not usually find in a jazz standard.
Not unlike Eric Sardinas, Mercer successfully treads that delicate line between blues and blues-rock. “Blues # 44” sounds like a modern day Howlin’ Wolf track with its combination of electric instrumentation and a song structure that hints of both Chicago and Mississippi. The title track sits comfortably in the rock genre, but features a beautiful slide solo. “I’m Not A Good Man” has echoes of Dickie Betts-era Allman Brothers both in the chord structure and the major pentatonic guitar melody.
If you like your Chicago blues played hard and in your face (and, let’s face it, who doesn’t?), you will enjoy It Ain’t Easy. Mercer and Kenny Smith as co-producers deserve special credit for capturing such a sparkling sound on the recording. Very impressive.